Beginning the 2011 season 1-4 -- after a disastrous 4-12 season in 2010 -- had left many Broncos fans -- myself included -- wondering just what had happened to our once proud and competitive team. Were we now fated to suffer the kind of seasons faced by teams like the Arizona Cardinals (losing seasons from 1999-2006), the Detroit Lions (2001-2010), the Cleveland Browns (1995-2006) or the Buffalo Bills (2005-2011). Then came what I'm choosing to call the Miracle Against San Diego. On a Sunday afternoon in October, at Invesco Field, the Broncos decided to make a switch at quarterback. They were trailing 10-23 at the half when the coaching staff decided to make the change. After falling further behind at 10-26 in the fourth quarter, the Broncos rallied and ran off fourteen unanswered points. Only a failed 2-point conversion kept them from tying the score. Yes, this game was a loss, but in my opinion, it marked the moment when the Broncos began to believe in themselves again.
Think back to 2009: the Broncos started off the year with six straight wins, driven largely by the overwhelming strength of the defense. In that six game run, the defense surrendered an average of eleven points per game. Three games allowed one touchdown or less. A fourth game allowed less than two touchdowns. The offense responded by scoring an average of twenty-two points per game. Then came a fateful game in Baltimore. The high flying Broncos were blown apart by a score of 7-30. This served as a mighty blow to their self-confidence and the team went on to lose three more games before winning a pair. At 8-4-0, they still had a shot at the playoffs, but a loss to Indianapolis started another downward spiral and the team finished 8-8-0. Each time something went wrong, you could see the body language of the players shift from confident to "here we go again." We won't even talk about 2010 where a mentally bruised and battered Broncos team saw their problems exacerbated by a slew of injuries and a coaching scandal.
Then came that strangely magical moment against San Diego, where the Broncos almost won.
Take a jump with me.
Now the wheels could have once again come off when Denver was destroyed (there is no kinder way to put that) by Detroit 10-45. This was a game that was never close. I'm sure many of the Broncos faithful were like me after that game wondering if we were going to see a repeat of 2009's 7-30 loss to Baltimore. Were we now going to see a string of losses? Obviously not. Why? Because the Broncos believe. They have come to believe in their young quarterback. I don't think it's so much a belief that he alone can win a game for them as much as it is a belief that if the team can keep the score close enough, he will help them find a way to win. Personally, I think there is some justification for that self-confidence on the part of all of the Broncos players. Consider the following things:
1)The way the Broncos have responded to the change: First came the 18-15 overtime win over Miami. After trailing 0-15, the Broncos came back to tie, then win in overtime. We can put brackets around the Detroit loss. But it did serve as a wake up call of sorts, for the team did not drop into despair but rather banded together to bring out a win against Oakland the following week. In that game, the Broncos trailed 7-17 but came back to win 38-24. They never trailed in the next game where they beat the Chiefs 17-10. Against the Jets, Denver fell behind 3-10 and emerged with a 17-13 victory. Then came the rematch with San Diego -- the team that gave birth to the Broncos' belief in themselves. The Chargers built a 13-7 lead, only to see Denver struggle back and tie the score at the end of regulation. Who can possibly forget the way that game ended? Score tied 13-13 in overtime, San Diego has driven to the Denver 31 yard line with 2:36 left in the overtime period. San Diego lines up to kick the field goal. Just before the ball is snapped the Broncos call for a time out. The ball is snapped, one Bronco bursts through the line to block the kick. The teams reset and Novak, who hit a 53-yard field goal earlier in the game misses his second 53-yard attempt wide right. Denver drives to the San Diego 17-yard line on their next possession and with 0:33 left on the clock, Matt Prater kicks the winning field goal.
2)Two overtime wins in the same season: this one I was curious about. I could not remember the last time the Broncos won two overtime games in the same season. So I did a little looking. The last time the Broncos had two overtime wins in the same season came in 2007. They had overtime wins in Week 2 (23-20 over Oakland) and Week 17 (22-19 over Minnesota). It should also be noted, however, that in 2007, the Broncos also had two overtime losses -- one to Green Bay and one to Chicago. Before that, we would have to go back to 1999 to find two overtime wins by the Broncos in the same season (Week 11, 27-21 over Oakland; Week 15, 36-30 over Seattle).
3)Four wins in a row: this one should be a "gimme." We just have to go back to 2009, Weeks 3-6 (although technically, I suppose, we should recognize this as six wins in a row since the Broncos also won in Weeks 1 and 2). Before that, we would travel back to 2006 where the Broncos won Weeks 3-7 (Week 4 was a bye week; and again, technically, we should call that five wins in a row since Denver also won in Week 2). So, long win streaks are not terribly uncommon for the Broncos. It's just that over the last 2-3 years, win streaks have been far overshadowed by long losing streaks.
4)Winning five out of six games: Again, this should be a "gimme." We have only to look at 2009, where we started out with six straight wins then lost to the Ravens in Week 8 (Week 7 was a bye). Before that, we travel back to 2006, where the Broncos won five out of six during Weeks 1-7 (Week 4 was a bye).
5)Just one interception thrown in a six game stretch: Now this is one that I found intriguing and about which I wondered, since the common adage tends to be "every quarterback throws interceptions." In 2011, we've seen the Broncos go 5-1 behind a quarterback who has thrown only a single interception in those games. If we look back to 2009, we find that Kyle Orton only threw a single interception in his first seven games, a stretch in which the Broncos went 6-1. Rewinding a bit further, we find that Jake Plummer had a stretch of eight straight games in 2005 in which he did not throw a single interception. The Broncos went 7-1 in that stretch. All of this just highlights the rather obvious statement: ball security can help you win games.
6)Going 5-1 after a 1-4 start: Never. This has not happened before in the history of the Denver Broncos. This, perhaps, more than anything else, shows the changed attitude of the Broncos and is a tribute to the mental toughness that they're building. If this was 2010, a close win over Miami would have been followed by one or more losses. If it were 2009, the 10-45 shellacking by the Lions would have sent the Broncos into a tailspin in which they lost their next four games. Instead, the players responded to that loss with a four game winning streak that very clearly declares: "We believe."