DENVER — No words were necessary.
When Demaryius Thomas walked into a room, he announced his presence with a smile. That remains the enduring image of the former Broncos great, who died Thursday night in his Georgia home due to a medical issue. His passing shook Broncos Country to its core. Against this backdrop, the Broncos played Sunday in his honor, skunking the hapless Lions 38-10 at Empower Field at Mile High.
"It’s an emotional time," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. "And the way to truly honor ‘Bey Bey’ and his legacy was to go out there and win.”
The game began in memorable fashion.
The Broncos lined up with 10 men on their first play and took an intentional delay of game penalty, which the Lions declined. An enormous No. 88 flashed on the Jumbotron.
"We felt like he was out there with us," Bridgewater said.
Added Javonte Williams, "We felt like we were playing for something bigger than ourselves today."
The Broncos honored Thomas by scoring a touchdown on their opening possession for only the second time this season. Tim Patrick, who credits Thomas for pushing him early in his career, converted a third down, Melvin Gordon bounced for 42 yards and Williams crashed in from 5 yards out for points.
Then the Broncos did something unique. They scored on their opening two possessions. With guards Dalton Risner and Quinn Meinerz rolling up their sleeves and pushing people around, the Broncos continued smashing the Lions in the face. Detroit's 31st ranked rush defense offered little resistance as Gordon ricocheted in for a 1-yard touchdown. The Broncos have won 47 of their last 48 games when leading by 14 points after the first quarter.
The offensive lava spewing conjured images of Thomas' peak run from 2012-2015 with friend Peyton Manning.
Many players come through the league, remembered only by Google searches. Not Thomas. He was a team captain, a tireless worker, a man who loved kids, even playing the role of Santa Claus in one of his last community events with the Broncos.
During pregame warmups, Brandon McManus kicked wearing Thomas' No. 88 jersey. Manning, Brandon Marshall and Juwan Thompson were among former teammates to pay respects at the painted 88 on the home sideline.
"He was truly a unique guy. He was dependable, accountable, tough, unselfish, all the things you want in a great teammate. Off the field he was every bit as good a person. He was great to all the players and coaches and coaches families and kids," said Manning, talking to the team website, whose own children accompanied him and struggled with the gravity of the loss. "It's just been really tough."
Three hours before kickoff, Mile High Missy, a super Broncos fan, spoke about Thomas, her voice cracking as she showed me a picture with Demaryius at a stadium event on Aug. 22, his last known time at Empower Field.
"He talked with everyone, posed for pictures. He was so kind," she said.
Nearby a man wore an autographed Thomas jersey that he pulled out of its case for this game. Thousands stopped by the memorial set up outside the stadium. Many were thinking of Thomas, making it seem impossible the Broncos could lose to a team with one win in a calendar year.
Trailing 14-0, Detroit showed the fangs and fight they are known for under first year coach Dan Campbell, despite 19 percent of their roster out with injuries and COVID-19 issues. Third string running back Craig Reynolds burst 35 yards and threw missed tackles by Justin Simmons and Kenny Young. Moments later, Kalif Raymond scored on a 7-yard swing pass, shaving the deficit to 14-7.
Leading 14-10, the Broncos salted the game away on three straight possessions. They ended the first half with a 52-yard field goal by Brandon McManus, followed by a pair of touchdowns from Williams and Gordon in the third quarter.
Williams scored on a 10-yard reception, bouncing, spinning and backing into the end zone. Gordon, who started despite Williams' historic performance last Sunday, followed with another burst. The veteran refused to be Wally Pipped and scooted into the end zone from 16 yards out as the Broncos opened a 31-10 cushion with 6:34 remaining in the third quarter. Gordon eclipsed 100 yards rushing. The Broncos outscored Detroit 21-0 in the second half.
"Winning is what it's all about. The guys are happy," coach Vic Fangio said. "The 10 players who knew DT, you knew it was tough on them."
Midway through the third, the game became about inflating statistics and honoring a former fallen teammate. It felt like more than a coincidence that the Broncos delivered their highest point total of the season. When Thomas played for the Broncos, they sneezed 30 points per game. He earned five Pro Bowl berths and two All-Pro nods. But it was his impact in the community and locker room that resonated with so many.
In the fourth quarter, Justin Simmons made a diving interception then sprinted over and placed the ball on the No. 88 logo. It was a moving gesture to his former teammate.
"DT was genuine," Simmons said, fighting back tears during his press conference. "He cared. He really cared."
The Broncos' final scoring drive covered 88 yards.
"That's crazy," said Courtland Sutton.
Left tackle Garett Bolles insisted that the best way to honor Thomas was to reach the playoffs. The Broncos are 7-6, tied for the seventh spot in the AFC with four games remaining. Next week against the Bengals could serve as an elimination game in the crowded postseason race.
Regardless, Denver has given itself a chance with a month left.
But Sunday will forever be remembered not for a victory, but Thomas' lasting legacy as chants of "DT!" rang throughout the stadium late in the fourth quarter.
"He was out there today," Tim Patrick said. "He's always going to be with us."
Dre'Mont Jones continues his second half surge. The defensive end produced his fourth multi-sack game. On the Lions second drive of the second half, Jones delivered a sack, a tackle for a loss and deflected a pass on fourth down. ...
Bryce Callahan was active, but did not play. This mirrored what the Broncos did with cornerback Ronald Darby, bringing him back, but giving him an additional game to be ready. Callahan was available in an emergency. Kyle Fuller started at slot corner. ...
Game balls were presented to DT's family, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick for their friendship with DT, the two RBs ,and 'Flip,' the equipment manager, whose mother passed away last week. ...
On Sunday, Broncos' tickets distributed was 76,211 with 66,206 in attendance and 10,005 no-shows. ...
Inside linebacker Kenny Young was evaluated for a concussion. Shelby Harris hurt his right knee in the third quarter. ...
Kenny Young was evaluated for a concussion in the second half and did not return. ...
Tight end Noah Fant limped off in the second quarter with a leg injury as did Tim Patrick with a leg issue moments before halftime. However, both returned for the opening drive in the third quarter.