MEADOWLANDS, N.J. -- The moment this season became different was not a moment at all. It happened three times.
The Broncos went for it thrice on fourth down, coach Vic Fangio junking his payphone for an iPhone, eschewing a saddle for bareback, leaving the diving board with an epic splash. Nothing like three fourth-down conversions to inflate a team's confidence with helium. Nothing like Teddy Bridgewater impersonating Peyton Manning to change the narrative.
It was simple -- well nothing with the Broncos is easy -- and after 60 minutes, the Broncos ended their eight-game September losing skid with an convincing season-opening 27-13 victory at stunned Metlife Stadium.
"You guys are going to have to look for something else to write your stories," Fangio said with a slight smirk.
The Broncos scored on every possession but two entering late into the fourth quarter. They punted twice. Bridgewater finished 28-for-36 for 264 yards and two scores. He made history twice -- as the first black quarterback to start the opener for Denver, while his 77.8% completion percentage served as the highest in a debut among 53 quarterbacks to play for the franchise.
"To come out of here with this type of victory is huge for us. We learned a lot of about each other," said Bridgewater, who addressed the team before the game, helping to motivate teammates. "It means a lot to be in a new organization to have a game like this. It just means a lot to win because so many guys have sacrificed so much."
These are not your brother's Denver Broncos. Or your neighbor's. The defense held the Giants to 112 first-half yards, stiffened in the red zone, and welcomed back Von Miller with two sacks. The eye-opening performance soothed the loss of receiver Jerry Jeudy who suffered a high right ankle sprain that could sideline him for several weeks.
"I keep telling you this team is different," outside linebacker Von Miller said, who wore a suit jacket emblazoned with Never Forget on the pocket. "A week one win is significant. It gives us confidence."
If there was any doubt this season was unique, the point was driven home late in the first quarter. Facing a fourth-and-7 from the 37-yard line, Fangio had a choice. Take the paved road of ordinary or veer into the dirt with the top down. Fangio showed confidence in Bridgewater, and they let down their hair and went to the air. Bridgewater drilled Tim Patrick for a 15-yard gain (So all those who said Fangio would have never gone for on it on fourth down in a real game like he did in Seattle, consider yourself wrong).
The drive, however, fizzled when Bridgewater drilled a Giants defender in the head on a pass intended for Noah Fant as Tim Patrick sneaked into the back of the end zone wide open. The Broncos settled for a 23-yard field goal from Brandon McManus. Kicks lose road games, but the Broncos were 3-3 when scoring first last season (2-8 on the reverse), and held the ball for 8 minutes, 42 seconds over 15 plays.
The Giants, if only briefly, showed how field goals can leaving a visiting opponent vulnerable. They responded with a 75-yard march in half the time, capped by Sterling Shepard's 37-yard touchdown reception. Linebacker Alexander Johnson lacked depth in the flat, but Shepard outran rookie Patrick Surtain II, who missed a high tackle to allow the score.
Denver responded with a big third-down conversion on its next possession. Bridgewater found Jeudy on a crossing route for 11 yards. A late hit put the Broncos in a ripe position. And just like that, they found the random banana peel, slipping into frustration.
On second-and-7 from the 10 with 4:17 left in the half, Bridgewater completed a 6-yard pass to Albert Okwuegbunam. As he turned upfield, veteran Logan Ryan charged in for the tackle and knocked the ball loose. The referees ruled the safety had possession before his knee touched out of bands, using a lengthy delay that included the Broncos offense running back onto the field to confirm the call.
This type of lapse would have had the Broncos running mental laps of sorrow last season. Again, this is not 2020. Or 2019, confirmed by the "Let's Go Broncos!" Cheers from fans above their locker room entrance as they exited the field.
Things changed for good late in the first half.
On fourth-and-2 with 48 seconds left from the Giants' 49, Bridgewater rolled up his sleeves. Courtland Sutton slithered free for a 14-yard reception, his first since tearing his left ACL a year ago in Pittsburgh. Going no-huddle, Bridgewater followed with darts to Jeudy (17 yards) and Tim Patrick (16). It set up first and goal at the 2 with 13 seconds left and two timeouts.
It created flexibility that the run remained in play. As such, Bridgewater faked to Melvin Gordon with RPO action and slid along the line as Patrick came all the way from the opposite to catch a flick pass for a score, shoving the Broncos ahead 10-7.
"It's great to see something we have practiced since OTAs executed in the game. Credit to Tim for giving me some room," Bridgewater said.
Added Patrick, "That was more on Teddy making that play."
This kind of stuff did not happen a year ago. Maybe the Broncos can have nice things.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of that drive. The Broncos entered Sunday 1-15 under Fangio when trailing at halftime. Not only did Denver hold an advantage, but it was enforcing its will. The Broncos outgained the Giants 208-112 and held them to 33 yards outside of two passing plays.
After two quarters, Bridgewater was 19-for-22 for 171 yards and a touchdown. His 86.4 completion percentage represented the highest in the first half by a Denver quarterback since Manning (25 of 28, 89.3 percent in 2013), and the fourth-highest by a Bronco since 1991.
And he was even better to start the second half. He sprinkled some pixie dust on a scramble and risky throw to K.J. Hamler -- "I wouldn't tell quarterbacks to do that," he said -- for a first down, who dropped a 50-yard score moments later. Teddy found Jeudy for a 20-yard gain and hit Okwuegbunam for a 4-yard touchdown.
It kept the Broncos perfect on fourth down in three attempts and offered redemption for Okwuegbunam.
"We appreciate it as an offense that coach trusts us," said Patrick, whose team finished 10-for-18 combined on third and fourth down. "And that's Teddy today. It's nothing new to us. It was up to us to make plays. Teddy doesn't change."
The 16 play, 75-yard, 8:12 slalom course was only undercut by a gruesome injury. Jeudy suffered a right ankle injury as he was tackled, his foot smashed awkwardly by the defender. Many teammates surrounded Jeudy as he hopped onto the cart. He was ruled out almost immediately.
"I am praying for him," Bridgewater said.
McManus added a 36-yard field goal w 12:44 remaining, then Melvin Gordon delivered the haymaker with a 70-yard scoring burst in the fourth as the stadium emptied. The Broncos, at one point, entered the red zone on five straight possessions. The improvement is promising.
On the Giants first drive, quarterback Daniel Jones completed 42-yard to Darius Slayton, who beat Kyle Fuller down the right sideline. It provided short-lived hope that this would be a game. Not exactly.
On first-and-10 at the 30-yard line, Miller broke out a pen and began writing a diary of havoc. He snuffed out a short pass to Kadarius Toney, smothering him for a six-yard loss. It knocked the Giants out of the field goal range.
The Broncos defense was dominant.
Four hours before the first snap, Giants fans began arriving to tailgate. In lot M, longtime Big Blue supporters brought out a mini oven, three propane tanks, a generator, planning for lunch and dinner with accompanying wine and beer. They haven't seen New York win a season-opening home game since 2010.
They are still waiting. Waiting on a quarterback. Waiting for a victory. The Broncos have lived this. As they entered the Jets locker room, they walked pass the motto on the door that screamed: "All Gas, No Brakes." The Broncos read it, applied it and now their winless Septembers are over. They will be favored in their next two games.
Yes, this year is different. And so, too, are these Broncos.
"That losing season stuff is dead. It was boring," Patrick said. "It's over."
Forty-five minutes before kickoff Bradley Chubb bounced around in pregame, exalting his teammates. The problem was he was in shorts and a cap. Despite an aggressive push, Chubb's left ankle did not improve enough to play, leaving the Pro Bowler inactive for the openers. His long-term health outweighed the short-term benefit in a 17-game season. The other six inactives were cornerback Nate McCrary, Kary Vincent Jr., Jamar Johnson, Cam Fleming, Andrew Beck, McTelvin Agim.
Teddy Bridgewater became the first black quarterback to start the Broncos season opener. He hopes to inspire others with this achievement, but admitted his focus is on wins. "It's that simple," Bridgewater said last week. Bridgewater represents the team's 11th starting since Peyton Manning retired following Super Bowl 50. Only two have a winning record: Trevor Siemian (13-11) and Brett Rypien (1-0). ... Von Miller netted a first-quarter sack and a tackle for a loss. ... Josey Jewell forced a fumble, recovered by Malik Reed for the first takeaway of the season. ... Broncos elevated cornerback Nate Hairston and running back Damarea Crockett from the practice squad to add depth to special teams. Crockett was used on kick returner. ... Jewell on his takeaway. "I was sitting in the middle hole. Our dline funneled it. It was a good start for us as linebackers." ... The game balls were awarded to Bridgewater, Von and to George Paton, for his first win as general manager.