DENVER -- Thinking about the future can spoil the present. And to believe in Drew Lock requires ignoring the sobering reality of his sophomore season: the reckless throws, the injuries, the mask controversy.
However, the reality remains: he is talented. And when Lock plays smart, it's not unwise to think he could start next season. The Broncos needed his best game, if not his finest ending, to hold off a furious rally from the Panthers in a 32-27 road triumph.
"We were more efficient, and we had big plays," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "We kept fighting. I am proud of the guys. We don't like our record anymore than anyone else does. But we will keep battling."
With the Broncos requiring a caffeine boost with their own defense fading, Lock delivered in the clutch. With 3:54 remaining, Lock delivered a strike to rookie K.J. Hamler on a 49-yard score for his career-best fourth touchdown. It was in the playbook but there was no reason to think they would use it.
"I beat the guy, stuck my head down and ran full speed to the upright. I didn't believe it was in the air because we hadn't thrown it all week," said Hamler, who felt he lost last week's game with his fourth down drop. "I had to make a play. Drew was on point today. He was doing his thing. I am not going to lie about that."
The Broncos widened their lead to 32-20, but of course the ending came with accompanying drama. The Panthers had one last chance to throw Ragu on the Broncos' painting.
On fourth-and-8, De'Vante Bausby, cut 13 times in his career, wrapped up receiver Curtis Samuel for a 1-yard gain as the Broncos stomped off with their fifth win of the season. This one provided a flipped script. After the defense strangled the Panthers to 88 yards in the first half, they couldn't contain Teddy Bridgewater. He finished 30 for 40 for 283 yards, and connected on 21 of his final 25 attempts.
"We had trouble stopping them in the passing game," Fangio said. "But we came up with the big stop when we needed it."
Every morsel of Lock's statistics were needed for the upset. The maligned former Missouri star completed 21 of 27 passes for 280 yards and four scores to Hamler (two), Tim Patrick and Nick Vannett. He showed restraint and it paid dividends. He finally seemed to understand the value of taking layups before firing up a 3 from 35 feet away.
"I don't know about others, but that's the toughest thing for me," said Lock on not relying on the big plays. "(Coach Fangio) has talked with me doing my job and not forcing things. Those are the ones you want back. It sucks because the ones you are forcing are the ones you want so badly. It's all about being calm and focused and making the right decisions. They have been preaching that to me the past two weeks."
And Lock excelled with a reshaped offensive line. Three new starters held their own -- right tackle Elijah Wilkinson, right guard Netane Muti and left tackle Calvin Anderson -- as the Broncos finished with 23 first downs and 365 yards. They were all necessary as the Broncos held on by dental floss.
The defense, once elastic, snapped. The Broncos gave up back-to-back 75-yard scoring drives late as Bridgewater looked like Phil Simms in a Super Bowl. With Bridgewater more accurate than a DNA test, the Panthers breezed for a score in -- gulp -- 28 seconds.
Leading by five with two minutes left, the Broncos required a final punch. Dre'Mont Jones produced one of the team's four sacks, setting the tone. It left Carolina behind the sticks and clobbered by history. The Panthers boast 18 straight losses when trailing in the second half, and are 0-9 when allowing at least 22 points.
Bausby's tackle allowed Denver to exhale.
"We wanted to pick up our intensity," safety Kareem Jackson said. "We were letting them score too fast. But, we were able to do that and put the game away."
Lock showed resilience as criticism has enveloped him this season. He entered the game completing a league-worst 55 percent of his passes. At one point, he threw two touchdowns in three attempts.
On second-and-10 from the 37-yard in the third quarter, speed mattered. It matters on days ending in 'Y.' Lock found Hamler streaking down the sideline as he created separation as soon as the defensive back slipped, racing in for the easy score.
"This is the offense I know! My boys going dummy out there today!" tweeted Garett Bolles, who was forced to sit out with an illness that the team believes is tied to food poisoning.
Two things stood out about the touchdown: Hamler is a blur, and it was an audible, showing Lock's growing trust in the rookie, who finished with two catches for 86 yards.
It shoved the Broncos ahead 19-7 with 11:04 remaining in the third after Brandon McManus botched his second straight extra point.
"Brandon McManus sucked today," the Broncos kicker tweeted on his first tough game of the season.
Their offense a rumor in the first half, the Panthers responded with a 11-play march in the third, resulting in a field goal.
Suddenly more balanced than an accountant's checkbook, the Broncos offense went back to work.
Pat Shurmur, in rhythm with his personnel, used a decoy route by Jerry Jeudy to create a wide open 32-yard pass to Tim Patrick. With Carolina turning on the Bunsen burner, Shurmur dialed up a tight end screen to Troy Fumagalli for 29 yards as center Lloyd Cushenberry and Dalton Risner provided lead blocking. Lock found Patrick for a 2-yard score, inflating the cushion to 25-10 after a failed two-point conversion.
"I think Drew is evolving as a QB," said Fumagalli, who had four catches for 53 yards after Noah Fant left with food poisoning in the first quarter. "He was out there checking it down and staying on top of the chains."
The Panthers were poised to push Denver's toes to the ledge. Bridgewater started to percolate, completing 13 straight passes at one point. The Broncos held on third down -- the Panthers delay of game penalty provided a boost -- and Carolina settled for a 26-yard field goal to shave the deficit to five.
So it came down to this: Broncos white-knuckling a 25-20 lead with 5:12 remaining. In a similar spot against the Chiefs, the Broncos failed as Hamler dropped a fourth-down pass.
"I felt awful about it," Hamler said.
Redemption found him. As did Lock.
"It was a safety read, something we put in his week because their safety was super aggressive," Lock said. "He tried to cut our crosser and we hit him deep over the top."
Teams without star-spangled rosters must also win in the margins. Since Super Bowl 50, the Broncos have long sabotaged their odds on special teams. Sunday brought something different in the return game. Playing in his in his first game in two weeks after a bout with COVID-19, Diontae Spencer performed a jitterbug with his feet and raced 83 yards for a score. It represented the Broncos' first punt return for a touchdown since Omar Bolden on Nov. 8, 2015.
The Broncos entered the game ranked 20th with an 8.2 average. Spencer's previous long was 60 set last season. This burst put the Broncos ahead 7-0.
"I came into this game knowing I needed to be dynamic," Spencer said. "I knew it had been a long time since they had taken one back. To miss two weeks (with COVID-19), it was rough. I missed being out there with the guys."
Both early and late, Denver struggled to handle prosperity. The Broncos were lumbering toward a score in the first half, aiming to widen their lead on a smart drive that included punishing runs and checkdown throws. Then Lock was buried on second-and-9 from the 32-yard line, coughing up the football on the sack. Jeremy Chinn caused the fumble -- Carolina ranks first in recoveries with 13 -- and after the 54-yard return cashed in on Mike Davis' 3-yard run.
The Broncos responded with the help of a questionable call. On third-and-8, Brian Burns smashed into Lock, appearing to let up. The roughing-the-passer penalty extended the drive. Lock found Jeudy moments later for a 31-yard gain, only his fifth catch over the past four games.
After Gordon converted on third-and-6, the Broncos received a boost from the undisciplined Panthers. A taunting penalty gave the Broncos first-and-goal and Lock connected with Vannett for a 2-yard touchdown, shoving the Broncos ahead 13-7. Lock regrouped after Denver's 29th giveaway, most in the NFL, and delivered arguably his best game of the season. He snapped his seven-game interception streak.
The statistics spoke to the balance and restraint that left the Panthers vulnerable to big plays: 27 passes, 30 runs and one nervy win.
"We," Jackson said, "are a group of fighters."
A Sunday morning illness snapped Garett Bolles' streak of 60 straight starts. Calvin Anderson started in his place at left tackle. Bolles had an upset stomach, and it because it was a COVID-19 symptom, he was scratched from the game even though he has tested negative. It is believed to be traced to food poisoning. Bolles will stay over night for evaluation before returning home ...
Same goes for tight end Noah Fant exited to the locker room in the first quarter with an illness and did not return. He will join Bolles on a Monday flight home if both test negative again for COVID-19. ...
Phillip Lindsay ended his five-game streak without a reception when he caught a pass on the Broncos first drive. The Broncos running backs entered the game with the fewest receptions in the league. ...
Cornerback Duke Dawson suffered a serious right knee injury, his leg giving out as he tried to stop on a rush. Will Parks replaced him in nickel and dime coverages and registered a sack in the first half.