Despite the crystal clear blue skies, it seemed like the Denver Broncos were running around on top of a mountain with metal rods in hand during a lightning storm. With six key starters out, the Broncos were extremely vulnerable to a deadly strike by another team, yet they walked away with a 24-22 win, their first of the season, over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Here in Denver, fans love Orange Crush. Not the Orange Curse. During the game, Eddie Royal went down with a groin injury and tight end Julius Thomas went down with an ankle injury. This was perhaps an encore to a very physical Raider game that left the Broncos slim and thin on the sidelines. It was the ultimate “pass-the-test” time for players like Eric Decker, Willis McGahee, Cassius Vaughn, and Jason Hunter.
“Next-man-up” is the name of John Fox’s game, and the Broncos certainly came ready to play.
Players were forced to step into different roles, most notably Tim Tebow who played the part of wide receiver in third-and-long situations.
The game was lost and won about six times in the second half, but when the offense needed a score, they did. When the defense needed a stop, they made it happen.
After an extremely fast, but minimally scoring first half, the Broncos opened the second half with a three and out. Then they took the ball 59 yards on 5 plays capped by an Eric Decker 25-yard touchdown. Apparently, Tim Tebow wasn’t needed on that play.
After that, the Broncos let things slip a little bit. They gave up their first touchdown of the game after the Bengals went 72 yards on 6 plays. Rahim Moore and Cassius Vaughn showed their youth in the secondary, giving up big reception after big reception and missing tackles which lead to the Bengals scratching their way back into the game. Then Kyle Orton fumbled the ball on the Cincinnati 13-yard line which lead to a Mike Nugent 23-yard field goal. Just like that, the Bengals were within two points.
To open the last quarter of play, the Broncos’ 5 play, 80-yard drive was highlighted by a 52-yard Orton-to-Decker touchdown.
“It was a great throw by [QB] Kyle (Orton),” Decker said. “It was a back-shoulder adjustment throw. The guys ran into each other, thank God, and it was Scott Free to the endzone – a great feeling.”
With just two true wide receivers able to play, people thought that Shannon Shape should have taken off his Hall of Fame ring and yellow jacket to suit up in orange and blue just one more time. That was not needed either, however. Decker finished the game with 5 catches for 113 yards and 2 TDs.
Andy Dalton matched the Orton-to-Decker connection when he hit Jerome Gresham for an 84-yard pass play.Then Dalton got into the painted area on a 5-yard pass to A.J. Green. Just like that, it was 24-22 with 11 minutes left to play.
That’s when defense took over, making plays as loud as Rocky Mountain Thunder. The Broncos forced the Bengals to go 1-for-11 on third down.
“I really thought the big difference came on third down on both sides of the football,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “Our inefficiency in the first half to convert a couple of third and ones, third down there and then on defense to allow a few of them ended up being the difference in the football game.”
In Ulysses S. Grant form, Brian Dawkins took on the role of general in the Cincy War. He got this defense back on track in time to end the game with two impressive defensive stances.
Instead of going for a 52-yard field goal, the Bengals elected to go for it on 4th and 1. Just like nearly all of their third down conversions, this one failed as Robert Ayers pressured Andy Dalton.
“In that situation, they had the blocking tight end to my side, and he released so I kind of figured it was pass,” Ayers said. “That is what Coach (Wayne) Nunnely and Jay Rodgers have been telling us, and I was just there to make a play so you have to give them credit.”
On the last drive of the game starting from their own 5-yard line, the Bengals got to mid-field. Just a play or two away from Bengals’ field goal range, the Broncos stepped up on their defensive pedestal with a Lion-like roar, and made the Bengals cower. Jonathan Wilhite sacked Dalton and then Wesley Woodyard made an impressive dive to break up a pass.
“Before the play, I asked God to put me in a position where I could go out there and make a play for my teammates,” Woodyard said. “He put me there, and I made a play. A big thanks to God and my teammates for believing in me.”
The Bengals had one more chance to tooth and claw their way back, but 4th and 19 was too tall a task. As the clock wound down on the change of possession, Broncos Country celebrated their first win of the season.
All of the complaints about a certain quarterback, the rushing game, and the rush defense were thrown to the side.
Kyle Orton finished going 15-for-25 for 195 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 fumble. Willis McGahee had 28 carries for 101 yards and 1 TD. The Broncos limited Cedric Benson to 59 yards on 16 carries and the rest of the Bengals to 72 yards on 20 carries.
“This is one of the best wins that I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve been a part of a lot of them,” Orton said. “This is a great win, to handle it the way we did, to have a total team win.”
The Broncos played their hearts out, and being short players, there was no way around it.
“My philosophy is always do whatever it takes, and in this game, I think what it was going to take was to be a physical game at the line of scrimmage,” Fox said. “We were going to have to be that way on defense, and we were going to have to be that way on offense and that was the challenge. I thought that was where this game was going to be won or lost, and that proved to be true.”
What also proved to be true is that the Broncos can win when they’re down. After a home loss to the Raiders on Monday Night Football, and being short six starters, the important thing was that the Broncos didn’t focus on the missing pieces. They looked at how to put the current pieces together.
Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”
Where the Broncos go from here is up to them.