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Lock throws 4 touchdowns to lead banged-up Broncos past Carolina, 32-27

Lock was hit early, but he hung in to make key completions, including 2 long touchdowns to rookie KJ Hamler.
Credit: AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock looks to pass against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Oh, so that's why John Elway and Vic Fangio stuck with Drew Lock.

Showing guts amid some vicious hits early, Lock's perpetual toughness and unusual patience helped him hang in long enough to eventually deliver a potential-reaching performance. The Broncos' second-year quarterback threw four touchdown passes in a 32-27 win against Carolina on a warm, mid-December Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

"There were a couple that hurt, couple you feel,'' Lock said with a smile after the best game by many statistical measures in his still young career. "The ones where you get caught off guard like on a rollout or boot, and your caught off your feet, then you're just useless. And it's however fall down, those are the ones that get you sometimes.''

He was speaking about a first-quarter play from near his own end zone, when he got crushed almost immediately after the snap but still managed to escape just enough to roll and flip a completion to tight end Nick Vannett.

Lock later got hammered on a blitz, fumbled it away on a play that led to a Carolina touchdown, yet came back on the next possession and directed a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. During that scoring drive, Lock got driven to the ground by Brian Burns but a roughing-the-passer penalty turned a fourth down punt into a drive-continuing first down.

The Broncos' QB dusted himself off, shook off the pain, dunked, dinked and chucked, and led his team.

Credit: Drew Litton

"I've been hit a couple times in my life so I'm pretty weathered, pretty used to it,'' Lock said.

The Broncos began this game short-handed on both sides of the ball – especially along their offensive line and at their cornerback position – yet Lock and a determined defense was enough.

The Broncos improved to 5-8 while Carolina fell to 4-9.

In the best game of his still young career, Lock was 21 of 27 for 280 yards with four touchdown passes -- a 2-yard touchdown pass to Vannett, a 37-yard scoring strike to wide-open rookie KJ Hamler on the Broncos' first possession of the second half, a 2-yard flip to Tim Patrick and a game-clinching 49-yard strike to Hamler, who was open again, this time on a deep post. Lock's passer rating was at a career-best 149.5.

Hamler had just two catches in the game -- for 86 yards and two touchdowns. Carolina cornerback Rasul Douglas got burned on both. In fairness to Douglas, it looked like the safety came up on a shorter route and let Hamler free on the post. Douglas broke off his zone area and chased, to no avail.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos wide receiver KJ Hamler catches a during ball warms up before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Still, Douglas also got whipped on a double-move by rookie receiver Jerry Jeudy for a 31-yard gain that set up an end-of-half touchdown to Vannett.

"I noticed he kind of played a little flat-footed,'' Hamler said from his film study of Douglas during the week. "Still a good player. I don't think just because I scored, that doesn't make him a bad player at all. It's football. You're going to win some, you're going to lose some. Just noticed he was a little flat-footed so just ... using my speed to my advantage was the best route for me.''

One of the keys to Lock's career-best game was uncommon patience -- 13 of his 21 completions were to tight ends or running backs. The 3-point shooter took the layups. The shorter completions helped set up the deep scoring throws to Hamler.

"That's exactly what it was,'' Lock said. "If I just play the game and let it come to me then those big ones will come. Ryp (backup QB Brett Rypien) tells it to me every single week, he goes, 'Hey, man, you're special player, but do your job in the first couple quarters, maybe even the third quarter and if the big play will be there, you're good enough to make the big play. Make it when it's there.

"Check these balls down when they're not there.''

Quarterback coach Mike Shula and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur have also worked on Lock's patience in trying to make him take the shorter throws during practice.

"I think it's just me starting to feel things, seeing it, and knowing where to put the ball,'' Lock said.

The first half featured two huge plays, neither from an offense.

The first was a sensational 83-yard punt return for a touchdown by the Broncos' Diontae Spencer, who came off the COVID reserve list this week. Other returners might have called for a fair catch on the ball as Spencer caught the punt with gunner Trenton Cannon bearing down on him. Spencer hopped away from Cannon, then hopped again to avoid second gunner Myles Hartsfield, and sped through a hole along the left side and travelled 83 yards to the end zone.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos wide receiver KJ Hamler scores past Carolina Panthers cornerback Rasul Douglas during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

"The return we had, the call, the guys were just supposed to get back and block and it was just me trusting them that they were going to get there,'' Spencer said.

Spencer and his special teams coordinator Tom McMahon, whose mom recently passed away, each received a game ball, as did defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who was back after missing the previous six games battling COVID.

Brandon McManus clanked the left upright to miss the extra point.

The Broncos appeared to be building on that lead in the second quarter when they were putting together a 10-play, 56-yard drive that was a nice mix of Phillip Lindsay runs and short throws by Lock. But then Carolina safety Jeremy Chinn shot in free on a blitz and walloped Lock into a fumble. Defensive end Efe Obada picked it up and rambled 54 yards to the Broncos’ 3 yard line where he was brought down from behind by hustling receiver Jerry Jeudy.

Two plays later, Panthers’ running back Mike Davis powered through a hole for a touchdown. Joey Slye made the extra point for a 7-6 lead.

But Lock answered on the next drive, with some help from Burns’ roughing-the-passer penalty, followed by the 31-yard completion to Jeudy.

Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was 30 of 40 passing for 283 yards but he also took three sacks in the first half for a combined 32 yards in losses – including a slot corner blitz sack by Broncos newcomer Will Parks for a 16-yard loss -- and was brought down a fourth time by Dre'Mont Jones on Carolina's unsuccessful final possession.

The Broncos started the game without their top three cornerbacks and a fourth, Duke Dawson Jr., went down early with a serious knee injury. A source told 9NEWS the team fears Dawson suffered a torn ACL, but it won't be known for certain until an MRI exam is taken Monday morning.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos running back Melvin Gordon III is tackled by Carolina Panthers linebacker Jermaine Carter during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Prior to the game, Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles was deemed unable to play for the first time in his four-year career. Bolles woke up with what he thought was a minor upset stomach, and asked for Pepto Bismol. This led the Broncos’ and the NFL medical staff to rule him out because it was considered a COVID symptom. Bolles had started all 60 games of his NFL career until he was replaced Sunday by Calvin Anderson.

The Broncos also lost tight end Noah Fant early in the game because of illness. Both Bolles and Fant tested negative for COVID, but they stayed back overnight in Charlotte, where they will take another test Monday morning. If they test negative, Bolles and Fant will take a charter flight back to Denver on Monday.

The Panthers were playing without star running back Christian McCaffrey, the Valor Christian product who has a quad injury, and receiver D.J. Moore, who is on the COVID reserve list. But the Broncos were missing five of their 12 defensive players.

And their offensive line had three new starters -- Calvin Anderson was a game-day replacement for Bolles at left tackle; rookie Netane Muti got his first career start in place of the injured Graham Glasgow at right guard; and Elijah Wilkinson was deemed ready to replace Demar Dotson at right tackle. 

There was little change to start the second half. Vic Fangio's defense forced a three-and-out against Carolina, while Lock led a quick, four-play, 63-yard touchdown drive that featured a roll-and-throw, 11-yard completion to Jeudy, a 15-yard run by Melvin Gordon and then the deep throw to Hamler, who whipped past the man coverage of Douglas.

That put the Broncos up 19-7. But at that point, the Panthers began to solve Vic
Fangio's defense. Carolina had a nice drive that stalled at the Broncos' 17, leaving a 35-yard field goal by Slye to draw within, 19-10 with 6:53 left in the third quarter.

Credit: AP Photo/Brian Blanco
Denver Broncos tight end Nick Vannett celebrates after scoring against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C.

Lock answered again with another 75-yard touchdown drive. The key play was a 32-yard, cross-field completion to Patrick, and a 29-yard screen to tight end Troy Fumagalli before tossing to Patrick for the short touchdown. Fumagalli had 53 yards receiving off 4 catches while filling in nicely for Fant.

"As a third tight end you've always got to be ready, you never know what's going to happen,'' said Fumagalli, who had eight career catches through his first three NFL seasons coming into this game. "That's just part of the job. Just whenever your name's called, step up and get a team win. It was good to be out there today, good to get the win, and it was exciting.''

Gordon brought balance with 65 yards rushing on 13 carries. He added another 23 yards receiving off three catches. He has an appearance in Denver Country Court on Monday morning on charges of speeding and driving under the influence. A plea would trigger a three-game suspension from the league, although it's unclear if Gordon would serve that suspension over the final three games left this season, or to start next year.

But then Bridgewater started to heat up against the Broncos' second-string secondary. He finished his 75-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown off a quarterback draw up the middle that cut the Broncos' lead to 25-17.

A short Slye field goal brought the Panthers within 25-20 with 5:12 remaining. But that's when Lock answered with a 49-yard touchdown strike to Hamler, who was open again down the middle. The Broncos were up 32-20 with 3:54 left and seemingly had the game put away.

Not quite. Bridgewater needed just 4 plays and 28 seconds to lead Carolina to a 75-yard touchdown drive capped by a 10-yard run by Davis, his second touchdown of the game.

It was 32-27 and the subsequent line-drive kickoff by Slye got past the returner Spencer and the Broncos started at their own 9 yard line. Lock had a pass from his end zone that was batted up in the air, but it fell into Gordon's hands, who ran it out safely for a 1-yard gain.

The Panthers got the ball back at their own 27-yard line with 2:48 remaining. But a sack by Jones helped leave Carolina with a fourth-and-8 at the 2 minute warning. On the first play after the break, Bridgewater threw short to Curtis Samuel, who was tackled by De'Vante Bausby well short of the first down. Ballgame. 

"I think ultimately today, some key penalties really hurt us and weren’t able to make the plays down the stretch to win the game,'' said Panthers' first-year coach Matt Rhule.

The Broncos return home to play the AFC East-leading, 10-3 Buffalo Bills on Saturday -- not Sunday, but Saturday -- at Empower Field at Mile High. 

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