DENVER — When the Broncos dropped their eighth consecutive game and the playoffs moved far out of reach, the momentum in Denver shifted in a way few could have imagined. Their season was unofficially over. Their sixth losing season in the Pat Bowlen era was officially in the books. And 2017 was undeniably an embarrassment.
But the players -- the coaches, too -- felt they had plenty to prove in the final four games.
“We can’t put bad film on tape for nobody, because there’s going to be a change,” receiver Demaryius Thomas said last week. “We don’t know what it is going to be, but it’s going to be a change.”
On Sunday the Broncos finally put something good on tape with a 23-0 win over the New York Jets to snap their losing streak and rediscover some hope that had faded with their season. The shutout victory was Denver’s first in more than 12 years.
Perfect, it wasn’t. But it was respectable, efficient and much needed for a franchise that had lost its identity amid its slide.
“It feels great,” coach Vance Joseph said. “When you’re plus-2 (in turnover margin) and control the field position, you have a chance to win football games. And it looks really simple to do that, but it’s not. Our guys, they’ve been working hard. The effort’s been there every week. It’s just we hadn’t played clean football, and today we did. So it speaks to what we can be if we play clean football.”
The tone was set early and this time sustained, as quarterback Trevor Siemian guided the Broncos on a 12-play scoring drive on their first possession, and Denver’s defense quickly gave them another shot to extend it. Inside linebacker Brandon Marshall recorded a tackle for loss on the Jets’ first play, then soon after strip-sacked Jets quarterback Josh McCown to force a fumble. Adam Gotsis recovered, Siemian followed with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Thomas and, just like that, the Broncos had a 10-0 lead, their first double-digit lead since Oct. 1 against Oakland.
“The difference is we didn’t turn the ball over. We played complementary football today,” Joseph said. “We ran the ball. We had short third downs. When we didn’t convert, we simply punted the ball back and played good defense. We really kept those guys backed up the entire football game.”
The Broncos entered Sunday’s game reeling on offense with a resume that put them in the same company as the winless Browns. Denver’s minus-16 turnover margin was the worst in the league.
Its 4.7 yards per play ranked 29th and its paltry 17.2 points per game put it at 27th. In fact, some metrics portrayed the Broncos as the worst team in the league, quite the dropoff from Super Bowl champions just two years ago.
But against the Jets, the Broncos showed poise and control, and a score to match. They were efficient in the air and, especially in the second half, committed to the run game. The defense produced the takeaways that became their hallmark in 2015 and special teams, well, they caught the ball on returns. Jordan Taylor averaged 12.5 yards per punt return, earning a label from Siemian as one of the game’s MVPs.
Siemian was 19-of-31 passing for 200 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a 90.8 rating, his best as a starter since the Broncos’ Week 4 win over the Raiders.
C.J. Anderson led all rushers with 48 yards on 22 carries, the most work he’s seen since Week 4. Though he averaged only 2.2 yards per carry, the Broncos’ healthy lead allowed them to pound away on the ground, a luxury they haven’t had in more than two months.
But the star of the offense was Thomas, whose touchdown and 93 receiving yards moved him ahead of Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe (55 touchdowns, 8,438 yards) and into second place on the Broncos all-time list in both categories.
“People don’t see the injuries he plays through, how tough he is, how good of a player he is and how much respect I have for him,” Siemian said of Thomas. “He’s a better teammate and a better guy if you’ve gotten to know him. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Most teams would look elite in comparison to the Jets on this day, but the Broncos’ performance in all three phases was impressive.
“You look at all eight or nine or however many losses we have, you can pinpoint something that was terrible. One of the units was terrible,” cornerback Aqib Talib said. “It was a good team win.”
The defense, especially, had a day.
The Jets mustered only six first downs and 100 net yards, the fewest the Broncos have allowed in a game in 14 years and the sixth-fewest in franchise history. Veteran quarterback Josh McCown completed only 6-of-12 passes for 46 yards, an interception and 25.0 passer rating before leaving with a broken left hand late in the third quarter.
In addition to Marshall’s big plays in the first quarter, Shelby Harris had a batted pass at the line and notched a sack in the first half. Von Miller added one of his own in the third quarter to become the first player in Broncos history with six-consecutive 10-sack seasons. Cornerback Bradley Roby nearly intercepted a deep pass by Bryce Petty, who replaced McCown for the final quarter. And the Jets left Sports Authority Field with a day they’d probably like to forget: a fumble, an interception, eight punts, a drive that ended on downs and zero points.
“That defense played without (Domata) Peko, without (Derek) Wolfe, without (Jared) Crick,” Joseph said. “So it was our D-line that really stepped up as backup players played at a high level. Our secondary played really well, we had four sacks on the quarterback, no big plays (allowed). Very proud of those guys to have a shutout.”
Asked after if the Broncos’ defense and self-titled No Fly Zone secondary still has it, Talib scoffed at the notion they ever lost it.
“We gave up 41 (net passing) yards today. Zero points,” he said. “Show me another defense and secondary that’s done that.”
On special teams, kicker Brandon McManus missed a 29-yard field goal (oddly, all seven of McManus’ missed field goals this season have come in Denver), but he made up for it later with 53- and 40-yard kicks. And Taylor, taking over for Isaiah McKenzie in the return game, surprised with his 62 yards on five punt returns. No muff, no bobble, no nothing.
Quite simply, Denver performed wholly unlike the team that trotted out in Miami a week ago and took their worst loss of the season -- of many seasons. As it continued to search for answers to its myriad problems and troubling losses in the following days, general manager John Elway admitted his deepest frustration was rooted in the way his team was losing. Denver struggled to adjust and respond to early deficits and turnovers, rendering fourth quarters useless. They couldn’t make it to the third quarter, let alone keep it interesting until the final whistle.
Sunday, the Broncos let New York take on that role as they jumped to an early, produced takeaways and four sacks on defense, avoided the usual turnovers on offense -- the interceptions, the fumbled punts, the misreads, the overthrows -- and sat with a comfortable 20-0 lead in the third quarter. Midway through the quarter, fullback Andy Janovich rushed 1 yard for Denver’s second touchdown and the game’s dagger. McManus’ final field goal in the fourth only twisted the knife.
A crowd of more than 70,000 showed up to see it, extending the team’s sellout streak to 372 regular-season games.
Change may be coming in January. But for one afternoon, a Broncos team reeling from the same frustrations and losses got the one change it needed most: a win.