The ominous clouds that set in over Raymond James Stadium were the perfect metaphor for yesterday’s game.
The darkness took some time to develop, but as it gained momentum, the wrath rained down everywhere:
Broncos’ offense: 3 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 0 turnovers
Broncos’ defense: 5 sacks, 3 turnovers.
And now the Broncos sit alone at the top of the AFC at 4-0.
The wrath began with Aqib Talib getting his first of two picks on the Buccaneers opening drive that led to an easy 11-yard touchdown play from Trevor Siemian to Demaryius Thomas.
The storm continued with backup Paxton Lynch finding a little rhythm and a lot of air in his NFL debut to connect with Emmanuel Sanders in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter.
And finally the hurricane blew past when Derek Wolfe found a path to Jameis Winston for a third time, providing perhaps the greatest image to date depicting the ruthless and relentless pursuit by this Broncos defense.
While Mother Nature tried her best to throw the Broncos off their game by suspending the final seven minutes of the game an hour and a half, Coach Gary Kubiak was down-to-earth as usual about the win.
"There’s so many things we can improve upon as a team, that’s what I’m excited about," the coach said, noting the injuries and the struggles early in the game. "We keep stepping to the plate, playing hard, playing well late in games, and that’s what you have to do in this league. One week at a time, but obviously we got a lot of things we need to improve upon."
Among those likely improvements needed is a tighter third-down defense, which allowed the Buccaneers to convert 3-of-4 on their first opportunities, including a seven-yard touchdown run by the super-athletic Winston (whose knee was clearly down before the ball broke the plane, but whatevs, the Broncos’ defense was getting schooled on that drive and would likely have given up the TD on the next play anyway.)
Although the defense had allowed Winston and his receivers to march down the field and score rather easily on their second drive of the game, such casualties never happened again as the Orange Crush chased, pummeled and dragged the 2015 No. 1 draft pick all over the field, holding him to just 143 net yards passing (including 36 yards taken away over five sacks).
Jameis Winston's QB rating vs. the Broncos on Sunday was 40.1 Against other foes the last 2 years, his rating is 83.5.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) October 3, 2016
When the Bucs got the ball just before the two-minute warning and were hoping to make something of the dreary game, Wolfe blew through, getting an assist from Von Miller for a third sack on Winston. Three plays later, the Bucs offense actually faced 4th-and-43.
"Derek is playing really well," Kubiak said of the lineman who shared defensive star power with Talib. "Just teasing with him in the locker room I said, ‘You waited an hour and a half to go back out there and get one more sack?’"
Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter blamed a lot of his offense’s problems on the turnovers, but he credited the Broncos D for a big part of that.
"Denver has a terrific defense. They’re one of the top defenses in the league. Hats off to them," Koetter said. "Still, we showed we could move the ball, early in the game. We can’t turn it over three times in the first half. You just can’t do that. It was a combination of both, but obviously it starts with the caliber of defense Denver has."
Winston was also the latest believer in the defense’s strength.
"The first one was just a bad throw," Winston said of his interceptions. "The second one was just a great play."
The Broncos’ running game was also suspect early on as it was anemic for a second week in a row. C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker and Kapri Bibbs all combined for less than 100 yards on the day.
But the running game improved in the second half as it more than tripled its production from 28 in the first half to 89 rushing yards overall.
"The good thing today is we struggled to run the ball but when we got the turnovers, we converted them," Kubiak said of the defense’s safety net for the offense’s early struggles. "I think we were three-for-four in the red zone, and in a game like that, who plays best in the red zone usually wins. Obviously, the turnovers helped and playing well in the red zone helped us."
Talib was the star of the No Fly Zone on Sunday, snagging two interceptions, both of which the Broncos’ offense converted into touchdowns in the first half.
Siemian, despite getting mauled in the backfield as he held onto the ball, finished with a 141.7 quarterback rating, connecting on 5-of-7 passes for 60 yards and one touchdown before going down with a shoulder injury late in the second quarter that would send him to the locker room for evaluation.
Lynch came in off the bench and put a solid NFL debut together, throwing 14/24 for 170 yards and one touchdown.
Remember -- Paxton Lynch looked most comfortable in practice during game-condition, no-huddle situations. He'll have one for real here.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) October 2, 2016
"In this league, you better plug in good players," Kubiak said about using backups due to injury. "You got to have great players in this league and get them in a position to be successful. I think the kid (Paxton Lynch) came in and handled himself really well. We did run the ball better with him in the game, which is important in the second half in trying to keep him out of some tough situations."
Lynch was by no means perfect as he overthrew his targets multiple times, but the rookie also showed flashes of future brilliance as he read the defenses, didn’t panic, used his feet and let the deep ball go.
"He’s really doing a good job," Kubiak said of Lynch, noting he said as much to John Elway earlier in the day. "I’ve been watching him practice and prepare. You never know until he gets thrown into fire."
Of all the "fires," he could get thrown into, this was as ideal as they come – Siemian had gotten the offense out to a good lead and the defense had found its footing. Kubiak noted things to improve but was overall impressed with his rookie.
"We need to get a little more tempo and we need to get out of the huddle a little better. Those are things a young kid struggles with, but I thought he handled himself well," Kubiak said. "He made some big third downs for us. He got the ball down the field, and I really liked the way he avoided some bad plays and threw the ball away. I thought that was impressive."
Kubiak said Monday that part of his game plan to have Lynch throw 24 passes was to let the young kid know he had confidence in him. But it was also to play to Lynch’s strengths.
Lynch admitted being a little nervous but thanks to good preparation since being drafted, the former University of Memphis standout settled down quickly.
"Things were moving kind of fast when I first got in there," Lynch said, adding that he could have been better getting in and out of the huddle faster. "After that first pass I kind of settled in and found my rhythm a little bit."
It took a few incompletions to Sanders before the two found their rhythm midway through the fourth quarter, but it was a pretty bootleg for an easy touchdown. Although Lynch didn’t show his childlike enthusiasm on the field, he did in the press room.
"Oh yeah, that was very exciting, especially for it to be to a guy like Emmanuel," he said. "Got me out of the pocket, moving a little bit down there in the red zone so I could have a chance to run it too. And Emmanuel just popped open and did his cartwheel."
Though fans and media will want to make a quarterback controversy out of the starting role for next week, Kubiak said Monday that Siemian will rehab his injured shoulder this week with the intent of playing Sunday.
Whether Siemian is able to start or not, both the Broncos and their fans know they have a very capable starter and backup - whichever QB plays whichever spot.
As Sanders pointed out, the conversation really shouldn’t even be about the quarterback.
It’s also about this Broncos storm that continues to destroy whoever is in its path.
It took nearly four and a half hours to put the ‘W’ in the books, but in the end, the Broncos remained the only undefeated team in the AFC.
"I’m proud of all our guys. It was a very crazy situation that we handled very well," said Kubiak about the game that saw an hour-and-a-half weather delay, a backup quarterback take the reigns and a Broncos defense continue its pounding. "We’re going home with a W. That’s all that matters."