DENVER -- The Broncos represented the NFL's gold standard five years ago. Now, they are an afterthought, a source of angst for fans spoiled by division titles and Super Bowl rings.
Sunday provided a chance for relevancy, however fleeting. And there was one statistic working in the Broncos favor. They had never opened a season with four consecutive losses at home.
Before 5,700 fans, friends and relatives and under a bright 63-degree sun, the Broncos avoided that indignity with a breathtaking 31-30 victory. If last week was an embarrassment, Sunday was a statement by a struggling team not ready to pull the curtain on this COVID-tainted season, overcoming a 21-point deficit to pull off the fourth largest comeback in team history.
"You need to congratulate me on the big win," Fangio said as the Zoom started. "By God we got it done."
The Broncos own a 3-4 record with a road date looming in Atlanta. They might harbor delusions of adequacy, but if they go 4-4 they are in the mix. Drew Lock overcame a miserable first half for the signature comeback of his career with fourth quarter touchdowns to DaeSean Hamilton and 1-yard score to K.J. Hamler, that with the extra point, was the game winner on the last play of the game.
"This is how legends get made," Hamler said, echoing what he told his teammates in the huddle before the catch. "We never stopped fighting."
Lock finished 26 for 41 for 248 yards, three touchdowns and one pick.
"The mindset I started taking after the Chiefs game is that I need to be so good at my job that I make the people around me better. I was pissed off," Lock said. "I vocalized it to the offense in the locker room at half. And it felt good. We have a good team. Maybe people formed their opinions too soon. We hope to keep proving people wrong."
Even while acknowledging injuries, this is a modestly talented team incapable of consistently playing complementary football. But they showed heart and the iron guts that were missing last week.
After two first downs in the first half, after 62 yards in the first 30 minutes, the Broncos awoke from hibernation. Boos make a hell of a alarm clock.
"You're being nice saying 'so bad'. It was worse than that," Fangio said. "We are fighters. Drew definitely needed this. It's all gotta happen on the field, and it did for him."
The Broncos trailed 24-3 with 7:55 left in the third quarter. They needed rocket fuel to make up ground.
First, Phillip Lindsay darted 55 yards for a touchdown with 6:05 remaining in the third. Trailing 24-10, Lock, finally in rhythm after an awful first half, led his most impressive drive of the season. He steered the Broncos 80 yards in less than minutes, spearheaded by a 43-yard strike to Jerry Jeudy and a 16-yard score to Albert Okwuegbunam, his first career touchdown.
Down 24-17, the defense, which deserves better, was running on fumes. The Broncos fell behind 27-17, and offense answered. Lock hit Hamilton on a crossing route for a 40-yard score. Trailing 30-24 with two minutes left, Denver took over with one last chance. The Chargers are going to Charger, but this was an impressive march to victory, the greatest comeback Peyton Manning was under center.
Lock engineered a 14-play drive, showing the confidence that has made so many bullish on his prospects. He now has the third largest comeback in Broncos history on his resume. Fans screamed in joy as they left the stadium, not sure what they just saw.
If you had watched the first half, you would have bet your mortgage on a Broncos loss.
The second quarter provided a Sparknotes summary of the Broncos' sobering issues that left Denver needing an amazing comeback. They posted a three-and-out, and allowed a 75-yard touchdown drive. They responded with another three-and-out as Sam Martin boomed a 69-yard punt. The Chargers took over with 1:15 remaining and zoomed 80 yards for a score. The 14-3 cushion felt like an arms outstretched lead.
Why? The Broncos had 62 yards of total offense and two first downs in the first half, booed off the field. Two first downs. Think on that a minute. Peyton Manning used to burp five first downs.
"We had a two yard gain and that was a lot," Fangio said. "The whole offense was struggling."
The Broncos designed a conservative game plan to prevent quarterback Lock from making mistakes. It was even better at preventing him or anyone else from making plays.
In the first half, the only thing wider than the score was the gap between Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (20-for-27, 189 yards, two touchdowns) and Lock (9-for-15, 58 yards). It is hard to imagine the Broncos contending in the AFC West when their offense and quarterback play trail their rivals in such alarming fashion.
Lock addressed the offense at halftime.
"I told them we just need to man up and play better," Lock said. “And that’s just what we did. It was awesome to be the quarterback of this team today.”
Denver began the game with its usual sorcery -- collecting 19 yards on its first three drives with zero first downs and three points.
Safety Justin Simmons provided the maligned unit a shot of espresso with an interception on Justin Herbert's first pass attempt. Simmons cut inside Jalen Guyton on a deep route for his second interception. He refused to settle, returning it 46 yards. The Broncos took over at the 16-yard line and gained nothing as Brandon McManus trotted out for a 35-yard field goal. A lead is nothing to scoff at, but it felt empty with each hollow possession.
The Broncos posted their initial first down with a little more than 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter, an unnerving foreshadowing. It came on a slant to Jerry Jeudy. Not even Jeud could take this sad song and make it better. The Broncos emphasized Noah Fant and Jeudy, targeting them eight times in the first five possessions. But it resulted only in four catches for 43 yards as Denver spent more time going horizontally. It was like they were stalling in basketball or lacrosse, but without a lead.
The Chargers outgained Denver by 188 yards in the opening 30 minutes. When they received the opening kickoff, the season was teetering. Herbert delivered a crowbar to the Broncos' shins, executing a seamless drive. Herbert delivered an absolute dime to Mike Williams, who made a one-handed snare over A.J. Bouye for a 24-yard score. Over a span of 11 minutes, the Chargers scored 21 points with 235 yards of offense.
It was fair to wonder if Lock would get benched in the third quarter, though the porous offensive line and playcalling were equally guilty. The Broncos awoke from their hibernation with 6:05 minutes left in the third. Lindsay, the team's best offensive player the past three games, gave them hope.
"I definitely did think we were going to win. I am not going to lie to you," Lindsay said. "I told Melvin (Gordon), we just have to stay in this and we are going to win. We got those 10 points and we were in position. That's all we needed was a chance."
Lock responded with an ugly interception, trying to force a deep ball to Jeudy as safety Rayshawn Jenkins made easy read. However, Bryce Callahan gave Lock a chance for redemption. He made an incredible pick, stealing the football from Mike Williams in the end zone, setting in motion Lock's best finish of his career.
"We had six quarters were we were not competitive offensively," Fangio said. "Hopefully this will bring us to bigger and better things."
The Broncos inactives were receiver Tim Patrick (hamstring), quarterback Jeff Driskel, receiver Diontae Spencer (shoulder), guard Netane Muti, tight end Jake Butt (hamstring) and defensive tackle McTelvin Agim. Patrick, the team's best receiver the past three weeks, should return against the Falcons. ...
A.J. Bouye sustained a concussion. ...
Nick Vannett left with a foot injury.