DENVER — Whether Broncos fans wanted him or not, Drew Lock made it through a poor previous performance and injury to make his assigned start at quarterback here Sunday.
His resolve was inspiring. Overcoming another rough beginning that included an interception, Lock rallied the Broncos to a 20-13 win against the Miami Dolphins here Sunday before Denver’s final home crowd of approximately 5,700 at Empower Field at Mile High. (The final three home games will have no fans out of COVID concerns).
“This was a game that was pretty much chalked up before we even played it,'' said Lock, referring to how the slumping Broncos were 3-point home underdogs. "In a lot of people’s eyes there was no way we were going to be able pull this one off. That’s just typical NFL football. You’ve got to take it week by week—that’s what I’ve figured out. That was a really hot Dolphins team coming in. They’ve been scoring points on defense, having turnovers and taking the ball away from the offense.
"I was extremely determined. There was a lot of talk about playing this week or not playing this week. There was nothing pain-wise that was going to stop me from playing in this game. It definitely wasn’t an easy week of practice fighting through it—and even today a little bit. Our offensive line fought their butts off. They kept me clean tonight. It was a nice game.”
Lock started the game 0 of 6 with the interception. The last home crowd booed him lustily. This after he threw four interceptions in a 37-12 loss at Las Vegas, a game in which Lock left with strained muscles and soreness in his ribs area. He made it through the injury and finished the half going 9 of 15 for 118 yards. He also had a key 14-yard scramble that converted a third-and-long during the Broncos’ first touchdown drive.
“I just feel like, as a quarterback, you have to be able to have that mindset to where nothing can get to you,'' said Broncos running back Melvin Gordon III, who played the first five years of his career lined up next to Chargers' quarterback Philip Rivers. "You have to go out there and just make a play. When everyone is against you, you have to understand and know that your teammates are with you, and that’s really the only opinion that matters.
"He probably ran across some things and probably heard some things, but good quarterbacks block that out and do what needs to be done. Like I said, and like I tell the team all the time, this game is about wining and it’s about losing; when you win, everyone loves you and when you lose, it just comes with the job— especially at quarterback. For him to come out here and be resilient and do what he needs to do to help this team—and lead after he took so much heat last week, it just shows what type of player he is.”
Both Broncos running backs were having nice games -- until Gordon fumbled the ball away just before he was going in for a clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. Phillip Lindsay had 82 yards on 16 carries while Gordon had rushed for touchdowns of 1 and 20 yards and has 84 yards overall on 15 carries. But the fumble turned what would have been a 27-13 lead into Miami getting the ball back with one last chance for a tying touchdown.
An interception in the end zone by Broncos safety Justin Simmons, his fourth of the season, saved the game.
"I was happy as hell,'' Gordon said.
The bittersweet day for the running back duo on the day Broncos Country was informed Floyd Little, their first superstar running back when he played from 1967-75, is in hospice care with cancer. Fangio awarded one of his game balls to Little. The others went to Simmons, the run game -- left guard Dalton Risner accepted -- and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who has been sidelined a little more three weeks with COVID.
Lock finished 18 of 30 for 270 yards -- 61 yards coming on an end-of-game completion to Tim Patrick that was designed to run out the final 4 seconds. Patrick ran under the high fly toss for the long gainer.
"It might be the first time ever where you're supposed to throw it out of bounds and something happens,'' Lock said.
Miami’s talented rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa finished 11 of 20 for only 82 yards before he was benched early in the fourth quarter. Not because of an injury but because of performance reasons. The Dolphins’ only touchdown drive travelled a mere 22 yards following the Lock interception. Tagovailoa came up limping after Bradley Chubb dropped him for Denver D's sixth sack and the lefty was replaced by veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick with 10:44 left in the fourth quarter.
"He played against a good defensive group,'' said Miami head coach Brian Flores. "They did a good job. I think they ended up with five or six sacks, they pressured us, they played well on the back end from a coverage standpoint, and we just struggled to get going. When that's going on throughout he course of a game, you've got to do something to try to create some momentum. That's why we made the switch. He's healthy."
Fitzpatrick immediately moved the Dolphins on a field goal drive -- albeit from 53 yards by Jason Sanders -- to cut the deficit to a touchdown at 20-13 with 7:51 remaining. Fitzpatrick wasn't done. Following the Gordon fumble, he drove Miami from its own 3 yard line to the Broncos 17 at the 2-minute warning.
On third-and-8 from the 15, and the clocking ticking inside 1:10, Fitrzpatrick tried to drill a touchdown to Parker in the end zone. But Justin Simmons came over from his off safety position and picked it off to secure the win. It was Simmons' fourth interception of the year and 15th in his five NFL seasons.
"The backside safety really plays my eyes,'' Fitzpatrick said. "Unfortunately, I did not look him off as much as I needed to."
"Fitzpatrick is a helluva quarterback,'' Simmons said. "I think he’s a guy that is just not afraid to take his shots and his chances. There at the end of the game, he’s moving the ball really well since he got in and we just kept telling ourselves essentially like, ‘We got to make a play.’ We have to make a sack fumble, couple pass breakups in a row, obviously an interception if we can, but we got to make a play because he’s going to be aggressive. I mean, that’s just how he’s made his living. ... So just knew they were going to take a shot there in the endzone with him being so aggressive and just found a way to come down with the football.”
The Broncos improved to 4-6 while the Dolphins had their five-game winning streak stopped and fell to 6-4. The Broncos are 3-0 against AFC East teams this season with the first-place Buffalo Bills left to be played.
Given his recent struggles, Lock couldn’t have started much worse as he threw inaccurately across the middle on the third play of his first series and was picked off by Dolphins’ cornerback Xavien Howard. It was Howard’s sixth interception of the season and Lock’s 11th in six games.
Needing only 22 yards to travel, the Dolphins got there although they needed a defensive holding penalty against Broncos’ cornerback A.J. Bouye to wipe out a Simmons interception. Given a reprieve, Tagovailoa finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker, who did a nice job getting his second foot down in the end zone.
Down 7-0, Lock didn’t start warming up until his third series, when he opened with four straight passes, including a 15-yard completion to rookie KJ Hamler for 15 yards to convert a third-and-10. That snapped Lock’s 0-for-6 passing start and started a 7 of 7 run.
“That was a big one,'' Lock said of the Hamler hook up. "It was perfect timing for both of us. He ran a perfect route and it worked. Those are plays that we’ve got to have in these games and they’re there for us to make. That was one of the plays that maybe last week or the week before we don’t make and we’re coming off the field with a different vibe on the sideline.”
Denver's defense was terrific, holding the Dolphins to 100 yards in total offense with less than 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Tagovailoa was sacked six times, with DeShawn Williams getting two and Malik Reed getting credit for 1 1/2 sacks and another 3-yard tackle for loss.
“I’ve always said a quarterback’s two best friends are a running game and a good defense and, for the most part, we had that going tonight,'' said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. "It reflected in Drew’s play after he threw the early interception. I think he was pretty solid after that. It was a great team win.''
The Broncos host the 8-2 New Orleans Saints next Sunday at crowd-less Empower Field.
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