DENVER -- If the Denver Broncos end this season with a Super Bowl victory, they will look back on this night as the pivotal moment in that quest. They have enjoyed some exciting victories thus far. They have proven their mettle in difficult situations as well. What they hadn't done before Sunday night's 30-24 overtime win over New England was compete in a way that should have the rest of the NFL concerned about how dangerous they will be come January.
This wasn't merely a huge win over a long-time rival. This was a victory over a Patriots team that had entered the game with a 10-0 record and plenty of people thinking they were the best team in the league. It was a game that saw Denver fall behind by 14 points in the fourth quarter, which usually means death for an opponent facing the time-tested tag-team of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. It was a gut check for a Denver squad that is continually redefining itself in the second half of this season.
This much we now know about these Broncos: Their defense has always been outstanding but their offense is becoming more balanced and gritty with each passing week. In other words, they are becoming scarier than they've ever been, even during a seven-game win streak to open the year.
"This game gave us the validation of what we already believed," said Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith. "We believe we are a good team. We know the games we lost came down to us not performing at our best. Lately we've been getting back to the basics of what we do and you're seeing the results of that."
This game was critical for Denver because it came at a time when the Broncos were answering some important questions about themselves. A 17-15 win over Chicago last week helped them end a two-game losing streak and also provided quarterback Brock Osweiler a chance to show what he could do as a starter. New England offered a different kind of test. Even with an injury-riddled offense, the Pats still had Brady and Belichick and a mind-blowing knack for surviving the harshest levels of adversity.
The Broncos improved to 9-2 by sticking to the basic formula that will be vital to their success moving forward. They set a season-high for rushing yards for the second consecutive week (gaining 179 on the ground). Their defense harassed the Patriots enough that third-down conversions (New England went 2 for 13 in that department) and rushing yards (they gained 61 total) were equally hard to come by. Osweiler also proved for the second straight week that he can handle this team while Peyton Manning is sidelined with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
Belichick usually demoralizes young quarterbacks who face his defense for the first time. Osweiler finished with a solid line (23 for 42 for 270 yards with one touchdown and an interception) but it was his clutch plays that made this night magical for the Broncos. With Denver trailing 21-7 early in the fourth quarter, Osweiler led his team on three consecutive scoring drives. The last one ended with his four-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell to give Denver a 24-21 lead with 1:09 left in regulation.
Brady may have ruined that grand finish -- by leading his own drive that culminated with a 47-yard game-tying field goal to force overtime -- but then Osweiler countered again. The fourth-year quarterback called an audible that led to C.J. Anderson's 48-yard game winning run.
"I remember talking to (Broncos quarterbacks) coach (Greg) Knapp last night in our meetings and he said that no matter what happens in the first three quarters, this was going to be a 60-minute game," Osweiler said. "It was that and then some but there was no panic."
There was no panic because the Broncos are finding out very quickly who they are. Before this season began, it seemed they would rely heavily on Manning and whatever he had left in his aging, battered body. It then became apparent that the defense would be the catalyst for this team's success, as their play helped secure five wins coming into this contest. Now, as the playoff race heats up, Denver is finding itself in that exciting place where everybody on the roster seems to understand what it takes for this team to keep winning.
It didn't really matter that Demaryius Thomas kept dropping passes throughout this contest (and he was targeted 13 times). The only catch he ultimately made was a huge 36-yard gain on the drive that allowed Denver to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. It also wasn't that big a deal that Anderson had gained just 102 total yards in his previous three games. He wound up with 113 yards and two touchdowns, including a 15-yard, fourth-quarter scamper that helped Denver get back into the game.
These are the types of moments that should make people take notice. They tell you that the Broncos can get a game-changing play from anybody at any time. As head coach Gary Kubiak said, "That's what becoming a team is all about. You never know who's going to make that play. Everybody stayed the course tonight and that is what is exciting about this team."
Added Smith: "We've always had the confidence and knew the team we could be. Now everybody is settling down and finding their niche. The running game is coming through. When that happens, the passing game comes through. I think everybody is fitting into their slots. Our mindset is: Know your role, execute it, do your job. That's how we're looking at it and that's what's been getting it done for us these last couple games."
The Broncos now find themselves in the comfortable position of being able to secure a fifth consecutive AFC West title with two more victories. That's very much a likelihood even though their schedule won't get much easier in the final five games, especially with matchups against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati awaiting in December. There clearly will be more tests for this team. They understand that there is far more work to be done when it comes to reaching the lofty expectations they have placed on themselves.
Still, Sunday night gave them an opportunity to celebrate an important milestone in their journey this season. They likely will see the Patriots at some point in the postseason and that game may very will be played in New England. There was a time, when Manning succumbed to injury, where it was hard to see Denver pulling out a victory in such a scenario. Today, after the way they just won, it's starting to feel like anything is possible for this steadily improving team.