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Broncos fight fatigue to bounce back into AFC Wild Card race

With a big defensive day, Denver did what it needed to stay relevant in playoff talk.

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Denver Broncos v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

A two-hour time difference. An early game. A warm day. A LOT of time on the field.

Yet the Broncos defense did not let up.

Because after last week’s fourth-quarter letdown, no way that was happening again.

"We needed to bounce back after giving the game away last week," said Bradley Roby, who was responsible for one of the Broncos two touchdowns on the day and definitely the prettiest one. "This is a big win for us this week."

It was a big day for the defense as it won the turnover battle 3-0, scored once, held Jacksonville to just 10 points and 179 yards passing and was responsible for good field position that occasionally the offense took advantage of.

"We knew we had to first of all stop the run," said DeMarcus Ware. "They’ve been playing consistent, but just haven’t been getting the wins.  So, we knew we had to make them one-dimensional, stopping the run first and being able to get some pressure on the quarterback."

In fact, Pro Football Focus’ comment on the defense says it all about Sunday’s performance:

"You could list off 11 Broncos in the top defensive grade section and still not have a player with a game grade below 75 on said list. The Broncos’ defense was at its stifling best, led by the secondary this time, which locked down Blake Bortles and his receivers without pressure and capitalized with authority on the plays where the pressure did get to Bortles. Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Robey were targeted a combined 20 times in this game, surrendering only six catches for 57 yards while breaking up four passes and intercepting two more."

"That’s what we do, we play together and create turnovers," Roby said of the tandem work between the Orange Rush and the No Fly Zone. "It’s always huge to get points off a takeaway and a big momentum swing. It demoralizes the opponent. That’s what the defense loves to do."

Chris Harris Jr., who got the Broncos first interception of the day, pointed out that despite the fatigue, the defense played smarter football on Sunday.

"Last week we just had brain farts," Harris said via, adding they didn’t execute and had too many stupid penalties against the Chiefs. "Today we just played a lot smarter, more disciplined. Everybody executed the call."

The Broncos’ offense, however, was a different story.

Going one-for-13 on third-down conversions and amassing just 10 first downs overall on the way to a measly 204 yards of offense, rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch had a tough day taking over for an injured Trevor Siemian.

And although Gary Kubiak is hoping Siemian is back for next week’s road trip to face the surging Titans, he was not disappointed in his rookie’s second NFL start.

"I just think it was just a guy who went out and played in his second start," Kubiak said Monday. "I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve seen young players. I look at the course of the game. He was really locked in to what we were doing early, on top of what we were doing early, as the game got longer, now it’s time to adjust."

Kubiak didn’t let his rookie off the hook for plays he didn’t make – particularly two big misses to Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas that were likely touchdowns – but the coach still sees a lot of promise in No. 12.

"He’s still a young, raw player. He learned a lot from this game," Kubiak said. "I think this guy has a brilliant career ahead of him. I’m excited about some of the things I’ve seen. I’m also excited about things I know we can correct."

Thomas said it takes a little adjustment for receivers to get used to the timing of different quarterbacks, but he considers that more his job than the QB’s.

"The main thing for me is getting open for the guy that I have as a quarterback. All guys are different," said Thomas, who caught six of 10 passes for 61 yards. "From my standpoint, my job is getting open and getting my quarterback a throw."

It was Lynch’s turn this week to feel immense gratitude toward the defense for the win, and he definitely did. Having counted a loss for his first NFL start, the rookie was happy with the W, if not too happy with his personal performance.

"Whenever we got a couple of those turnovers, we knew we had a chance to drive down and end the game with ball in the offense’s hands, but we didn’t do that," Lynch noted. "Thankfully, we got our defense on the other side of the ball and still came away with the win."

And DT, who was pumping up his quarterback throughout the game to keep him positive, was quick to point out that doing enough to get the win is the most important thing.

"We put [Lynch] in a situation where we needed a must-win," Thomas said. "Throughout the week we all told him that from defense to offense to special teams, we have his back. We did our job in taking care of the ball on the offensive side. He made sure we didn’t have any turnovers. That was big."

It was big, as was special teams play that marked a drastic improvement over last week’s bumbles.

Kalif Raymond, called up from the practice squad to replace Jordan Norwood on punt returns, had a solid day with 40 yards on four returns, including one 22-yarder.

"I like getting hit. The harder that I get hit, the more that I feel awake," Raymond said of his first NFL game. "That's when I feel that I get in my zone. …‘OK, let's just play, let's play football. This is what I came here to do. That hit was nothing. Let's go.’"

At 8-4, the Broncos have moved into sixth place in the Wild Card race with another tough road game coming up in Tennessee.

Hopefully a second trip out east in two weeks will be familiar.

"I could feel the fatigue in what was going on, but we played through that. We pushed ourselves through that and found the juice," Kubiak said of Sunday’s win, adding that he told the team he was as proud of them as he’s ever been. "I could see what they were going through today, but they were able to muster and get the W so I’m very proud of them."