DENVER — During the halftime intermission, the Denver Broncos celebrated the 30th season anniversary of both Thunder, their mascot who runs on the field after any home-team score, and their cheerleaders.
It took the Broncos' offense a half to warm up, but thanks to quarterback Brett Rypien and the rushing duo of Latavius Murray and Marlon Mack, Thunder and the cheerleaders were celebrating a 24-15 defeat of the Arizona Cardinals here Sunday on a sunny, 39-degree mid-December afternoon before a relatively sparse gathering at Empower Field at Mile High.
"When you get a spot start like this you don't know what things are going to look like,'' Rypien said. "Because I haven't played in a minute, the whole goal is to go out there and try to find a way to win and when you do that you feel like you accomplished something,''
Both the Broncos and Cards are 4-10 and eliminated from postseason play with three games remaining in the season. The Broncos next play Christmas Day in Los Angeles against the 4-9 Rams.
“This team has had a lot of adversity this year, both through the injuries, through the close games and it has been great to see them all stick together, fight for each other and continually battle,'' said Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett. "We have so many games against a bunch of very good football teams. We had another choice today. We were down 9-3. Those guys had another choice, and they stepped up even more. The defense, special teams and offense. That is what you love to see. That is what I appreciate from this team watching them out there.”
The Broncos were trailing Arizona, 6-3 at the half and 9-3 midway through the third quarter when Rypien -- subbing for the concussion recovering Russell Wilson -- engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive with a big assist from Murray, who finished with 130 yards rushing off 24 carries.
Not bad for a 32-year-old running back who didn't have a job when the season opened and wasn't picked up by the Broncos until after game 4 of the season.
Murray has 567 yards rushing on the season -- his eighth consecutive season of at least 500 yards. The 32-year-old back -- has his age been mentioned? -- has been nothing if not consistent in his career that started when he was the 15th running back taken in the 2013 draft. Montee Ball, a second-round pick by the Broncos that year, is among the 13 backs selected ahead of Murray who have long stopped playing.
The only back drafted ahead of Murray and still playing is Giovani Bernard, who got his first carry of the season Sunday for Tampa Bay. For no yards.
Murray keeps bulldozing along.
"I was messing around, talking to (general manager) George Paton (about my age) so if I don't acknowledge the good genes I have -- I've got to appreciate my mom and dad for blessing me with this body,'' Murray, who is large by running back standards at 6-foot-3, 230, said from the podium in the postgame press room. "And I've been able to take care of it. This game means a lot to me. But when I was sitting home in September I didn't know if I would get a call and play.
"The hardest part was knowing I could contribute for whoever that was. For me this was taking advantage. Taking care of my body, taking advantage and still being able to play the game that I love. So as long as I feel I can contribute, I'll be standing up here again."
Rypien and Murray together set up first and goal from the 3 where backup running back Mack finished it off with a strong touchdown run. The Broncos were up, 10-9.
Murray finished off a fourth quarter drive with a determined, 10-yard touchdown run to put Denver up, 17-9. Following the second interception of the game by Broncos safety Justin Simmons, Rypien delivered a clinching, 3-yard touchdown pass to right end Eric Tomlinson for a 24-9 lead.
“We call him the Viking,'' Hackett said of Tomlinson. "He does not say anything. He is primarily a run-blocker and pass-protector. He puts his head down every day and comes to work. He wants to know how he can do the next blocking pattern. He never asks about catches or anything.”
Rypien was superb in completing 21 of 26 for 197 yards with a touchdown. He did throw an interception near the goal line on the final play of the third quarter -- he thought an Arizona defensive lineman had jumped offside and had a free play -- but considering the duress he was under in the first half of the game, Rypien's play was impressive.
"I'm never one who likes taking sacks,'' Rypien said. "I think that's one of my better strengths as a quarterback, getting the ball out quick. But you know 99 was a problem today. Just flat out he came to play.''
No. 99 was the incomparable J.J. Watt, a future Hall of Famer who had three sacks in the first half alone.
"I thought our coaching staff did a great job coming in at halftime making adjustments,'' Rypien said. "We didn’t really give them an opportunity to make plays. We were getting the ball out quick using the bubble (screens) and numbers to our advantage.”
The story midway through the third quarter was former Bronco kicker Matt Prater, a hero from Denver's magical 2011 Tebow season. Prater was his old self, hitting field goals of 45, 50 and 55 yards in succession to give Arizona a 9-3 lead midway through the third quarter. Broncos kicker Brandon McManus hit his field goal from 52 in the first quarter but missed from 38 in the second.
For the longest time, the game was hardly worth the price of admission -- even at a deeply discounted rate. With the Broncos entering the game already eliminated from the postseason with a 3-10 record, the Cardinals little better at 4-9, and both teams not playing their usual starting quarterbacks because of injury, upper deck tickets on the Broncos’ ticket app were going for as little as $12 about an hour prior to kickoff.
The standard season-ticket price for upper-level seats range from $52 to $81. The deep discount was still too expensive for many -- the Broncos announced 18,423 no-shows for the game.
Rypien started in place of Wilson, who was held out because of the wicked concussion he suffered last week. Rypien was sacked 6 times in the first half – good thing Wilson, the NFL’s most sacked quarterback with 43 entering the league’s week 15, didn’t play – for 34 yards in losses.
In the final 96 seconds of the first half, Rypien connected with Jerry Jeudy for 19 yards and Brandon Johnson for 12. But just as it appeared Rypien was heating up, Watt swatted the ball out of the quarterback’s hand. Fumble, Arizona recovered near midfield with 38 seconds left in the half.
It was Watt’s third sack of the game as he also took advantage of Broncos’ right guard Quinn Meinerz getting knocked out of the game after he was poked in the eye. Meinerz' eye injury was serious enought that he was taken outside the stadium during the game to see an eye specialist. However, the exam revealed Meinerz should be fine and will be listed this week as day-to-day.
Veteran Tom Compton, in his first real playing time of the season, was rusty at right guard. Compton later left with a back injury and was replaced by rookie Luke Wattenberg. The six first-half sacks on Rypien were tied for the most in Broncos' history. Joe Flacco was sacked six times in a half against the Chiefs in a 2019 game.
In the final seconds of the half a pass interference penalty on Broncos’ nickelback Essang Bassey, who tripped up tight end Trey McBride, the rookie from Colorado State, helped set up a 50-yard field goal by Prater as the first-half clock expired.
Arizona quarterback Colt McCoy, replacing the injured Kyler Murray, was 13 of 21 for only 78 yards with an interception thrown to Simmons. McCoy was sacked three times with DeShawn Williams getting credit for 2.5.
McCoy was knocked out with a concussion after running to pick up a third-and-1 on the first series of the second half. He was replaced by former Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who threw a second interception to Simmons, whose 26 career interceptions are tied with the great former cornerback Louis Wright for 8th place on the Broncos' all-time list.
PHOTOS | Broncos vs. Cardinals
“I am just really proud of the guys in the locker room because you can easily fold and give in with four games left, we’re not in the playoffs and just collect a check,'' Simmons said. "I think today you see guys fighting and battling.''
As expected, the Broncos have a formidable running back duo. Only instead of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, it's Murray and Mack. Williams went down in game 4 with a torn ACL and Gordon was released last month following fumble problems.
Besides his 130 yards rushing, Murray also had a 12-yard reception and got a game ball in the winning postgame locker room for the first time in his career.
"Again, heading into year 10, still checking things off the list,'' Murray said about the game ball.
Mack had 37 yards with a touchdown off 5 carries with another 26 yards receiving off 4 catches.
“We’re just a couple old heads in the run game now,'' Mack said of he and Murray. "We know we can still play this game and still believe in ourselves.”
Stadium fix or new stadium?
With Broncos ownership putting $100 million into improving their stadium’s video board, concessions and team store among other upgrades, it doesn’t figure they’re going to dig a new hole for a new stadium in the next year or two. The question is, are the Broncos committed to their existing Empower Field at Mile High lease through the 2030 season – followed by two more 5-year options (after 2035 and 2040, respectively)?
For now, the Broncos aren’t revealing details to their future plans about whether or not to go forward with a new stadium.
“We’re really viewing the long-term stadium future, and this is two separate projects,’’ said team president Damani Leech. “The ownership to their credit, was really committed to making an immediate impact on the fans as they come in here. This is about what we can do right away, right away is next season, but what we can do right away to enhance the experience for the fans.”
Empower Field is finishing up its 22nd season.
Dre’Mont Jones has a cracked hip. Denver’s most dynamic defensive lineman told 9NEWS as he was signing autographs pregame Sunday that he played most of last week’s game against the Chiefs with the fracture without knowing it. He got second and third medical opinions this week in hopes of clearance to play but all determined he needed six weeks to heal the fracture. Jones will miss what’s left of the season and then become eligible for unrestricted free agency. …
Jeudy led all receivers with 7 catches for 76 yards. In the three games since returning from an ankle injury that cost him three games, Jeudy has 19 catches for 214 yards and three touchdowns. ...
Second-year corneback Pat Surtain II got his second interception of the season and second in two games. ...
In his first 7 1/2 seasons and 44 career games in the NFL, Broncos defensive tackle DeShawn Williams had 3.5 sacks. In his last three games, though, he has 4.5 sacks -- 2.0 vs. Baltimore two weeks ago and 2.5 vs. the Cardinals.
“It felt good ... and it finally shows that hard work pays off,'' Williams said. "It might not be when you want it, but God’s timing is always right. Today was just my day. As a whole defense we balled out, it wasn't just me, and as a team we balled out today.”
Freddie Swain, signed off the Dolphins' practice squad Tuesday, not only played he had a 9-yard catch that picked up a first down. ...
Josey Jewell led the Broncos in tackles again with 10. His inside linebacker partner Alex Singleton was next with 8 tackles. ...
Cornerback Darius Phillips aggravated his hamstring injury. ...
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