Mitch Unrein (96) prepares to spike the football after a one yard touchdown catch in the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE)

Broncos Beat Buccaneers 31-23, Clinch AFC West


The Denver Broncos took a walk out onto the plank, stared into the blue waters, and shook their heads at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It wouldn’t be in week 13 that the Broncos would dive into the loss column. They beat the Bucs 31-23 and clinched the AFC West division title with their seventh consecutive win.

We could immediately talk Peyton Manning’s prolific performance, or Trindon Holliday’s faster-than-the-speed-of-sound legs in the return game, or even the defense’s effort to hold 4th ranked running back Doug Martin to 56 yards on 18 carries.

I don’t want to hit on those points yet. Let’s talk defensive tackle Mitch Unrein. Who? Huh? Yep, the 3-year veteran from Eaton, Colorado and the former Wyoming Cowboy.

After Knowshon Moreno ran for 12 yards to put the Broncos at the 1-yard line in the first quarter, Unrein lined up as an eligible receiver. Surely his 291 pounds would be needed to block, right? Wrong. Manning stepped back and found Unrein in the end zone for the first touchdown of his career. Just like that the Broncos were up on the board first.

Unrein’s day wasn’t done, however. He had work to do on the other side of the ball. After all, defensive tackles will make fun of the show-boating wide receivers who often get into the end zone and dance and spike the ball. A defensive tackle does work in the trenches. The bruising often goes unnoticed, and the rewards are as pronounced as a pat on the rear after a good play.

Then, with about four minutes left in the 3rd quarter, Unrein unleashed from the pack and hit Josh Freeman as he threw the ball. Von Miller grabbed the slow moving pass and ran it back 26 yards to put the Broncos up 28-10. Without Unrein’s pressure and performance, the pressure very well could have been on the Broncos.

Manning set yet another record, this time a franchise record for touchdown passes in a single season with 28. His first touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas got him into the great big orange and blue book, but he didn’t stop there. He found Thomas again five minutes later for his 29th touchdown pass of the season. Manning finished the day 27-for-38 for 242 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception. He can tell the crowd to quiet down as much as he wants. Thomas had 8 receptions for 99 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead the team.

On the defensive side of the ball, the play of the game came on Miller’s pick-6, but one of the ongoing highlights was the team’s ability to make the Bucs’ high-scoring offense look rather flat. Putting up 365.4 total yards per game, the Bucs ended the day with 306 yards. They also went 3-for-12 on third down. Freeman went 18-for-39 for 242 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 pick, and Martin was held to nearly 40 yards below his 95.5 yard per game average.

Much like last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos’ offense took it’s time revving its engine. The Broncos took just 7 points into the locker room at halftime and went 1-for-4 on third down. In the end, they finished with over 30 points for the 8th time this year which had only been done three times in franchise history.

Speaking of history, John Fox is now just the 10th NFL coach to win division titles in his first two years with a team since the 1970 merger.

Throughout the season, the Broncos have answered all of the questions with single game quests. They’re on the ultimate quest, however, and that’s to be playing in February. Let the sleeves roll up, and the wins pile up as we continue to witness some of the best moments in Broncos’ football history.

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