DENVER — Here's to you, Demaryius Thomas.
The unexpected and tragic death last week of one of the best players in Broncos history brought about a game Sunday afternoon in Denver that was dripping with raw emotion from pregame to end.
The franchise's No. 2 ranked wide receiver all-time in all the significant reception categories, Thomas, who was found dead at his home Thursday at the young age of 33, may not approved of how the Broncos balanced their attack. A combined 39 carries and 184 yards for running backs Melvin Gordon III while quarterback Teddy Bridgewater attempted 25 passes for 179 yards was a little grind-it-out rushing for D.T.'s taste.
But somewhere D.T. no doubt approved of the Broncos' 38-10 win against the undermanned Detroit Lions on a postcard-pretty Sunday afternoon at Empower Field at Mile High.
"It was definitely mentally straining,'' said safety Justin Simmons, a D.T. teammate for 2 1/2 seasons. "It was tough. You feel one way emotionally and you're trying to tell your brain from a mental standpoint to lock in and things like that. We talk about controlled aggression. Because you can't go out there and let emotions fly all over the place, especially at my position.
"It was tough, man. I think one of the toughest parts was having a real relationship with him. He meant a lot to me and my career. He really shaped me not only into the player but man that I am. You know, it was tough. I'm really thankful for the time that I had to spend with him. I didn't even know him as well as guys like Von and Kareem. But he was special."
Simmons started tearing up towards the end of his answer and had to wipe away tears before addressing the next question.
Williams and Gordon each scored touchdowns, in that order, on the team's first two possessions of the first half, and Williams and Gordon, in that order, again scored on the first two possessions of the second half.
While Williams and Gordon each scored two touchdowns, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for two scores and the Broncos whipped the Detroit Lions. 38-10.
The Broncos moved to 7-6 and play next Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, who lost in overtime Sunday to San Francisco to drop to 7-6. The Broncos-Bengals game had a chance to be flexed to Sunday night on 9News, but per source the kickoff will remain at its original 2:05 p.m. time slot.
The Lions, who were forced to play seven practice squad players Sunday because of a COVID-19 outbreak within their team. dropped to 1-11-1.
Juiced early by the stirring tributes to Thomas, the Broncos jumped to an early 14-0 lead on another sunny an unseasonably warm afternoon at Empower Field at Mile High.
Broncos players, fans remember Demaryius Thomas
Gordon did the bulk of the rush load on the first drive, but Williams finished it off with a 5-yard touchdown run. Williams did the bulk of the rush load on the second series before Gordon finished it off with a second-effort, 1-yard touchdown run.
A gathering of 66,206 (there were 10,005 no shows who got an early jump on the honey-do's) may or may not have picked up on how the game began with a prearranged tribute for D.T. that required the cooperation of the Detroit Lions and referee John Hussey. The Broncos went on the field for their first offensive play with only 10 players. The missing player was the X receiver spot that Thomas held for nine seasons. The Broncos were formally penalized for delay of game but the Lions, in a show of sportsmanship and compassion, declined the penalty.
Everybody loved Demaryius Thomas, even the other guys.
And then Broncos’ top receiver Courtland Sutton ran out from the sideline to the X receiver spot.
"When they came to me with it, I said, OK, and I talked with (Lions coach) Dan Campbell and he agreed to not accept the penalty,'' said Broncos' coach Vic Fangio. "Which was a classy move on his part, and the Detroit Lions, they're a classy organization. And John Hussey was in on it, he knew about it. But the credit goes to Patrick (Smyth). He thought of the idea.''
The Washington Football Team did a similar tribute for slain safety Sean Taylor in a December 2007 game only the team did run one defensive play with only 10 men before safety Reed Doughty went on the field for the second play. The University of Kentucky performed a similar tribute in mid-November when the Wildcats left the left guard spot open for the first play against Vanderbilt in honor of offensive line coach John Schlarman, who passed away from cancer two days prior to the game.
Smyth, the Broncos public relations boss, brought the 10-man on offense idea Friday to team president and CEO Joe Ellis, general manager George Paton and Fangio. Fangio contacted Campbell while Paton spoke with Lions’ special assistant Chris Spielman. Fangio informed his players of the idea Saturday and by all accounts they were pleased with the idea.
9News observed Smyth discussing the plan with Hussey a couple hours before kickoff Sunday.
"What we did with the first play of the game was huge,'' Bridgewater said. "It speaks volumes of this organization being first class.''
The first drive started with 10 men and finished with 7 points. The Broncos easily marched down the field behind Gordon runs, although Bridgewater did convert a third-and-2 with a 13-yard in-route completion to Tim Patrick.
On their next series, six consecutive runs by Williams and Gordon set up a run-fake, 32-yard pass completion from Bridgewater to tight end Noah Fant.
“I really think it was the moment of silence at the beginning and then when we took 10 men on the field, that sparked the locker room,'' Williams said. "We had something bigger to play for today. We were playing for ‘DT’. I never knew him but sounds like he was a great guy and when everyone is on the same page and we are able to play for something bigger than ourselves, we just dominate.”
It could have been that.
PHOTOS | Broncos vs. Lions
The Broncos had been starting slow all year and here they were scoring on the first two possessions of both halves. Anything change, Teddy, with the in-week routine or preparation?
"The quarterbacks and I, we started getting Chick-fil-A milk shakes on Saturday night,'' Bridgewater said with a grin. (Brett) Ryp, Drew (Lock), they get the peppermint-chip milk shake, I get the cookies-n-cream. I think that's what it is.
"The times we've gotten the milk shakes, we've had some success in the red zone, third down, so maybe that's what it is. ... Hey, we're just trying to find a way to get a win, man."
But after the Broncos went quickly up 14-0, the undermanned Lions didn’t fold. COVID-19 caused the Lions – not very good with their regulars as their 1-10-1 record entering the game attests – to call up seven players from their practice squad for this game. One of them, running back Craig Reynolds, busted off a 35-yard run early in the second quarter that eventually set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Jared Goff to former Broncos returner/receiver Kalif Raymond
Maybe, after all that positive emotion early, energy started to drain. The Broncos’ offense had to punt off their first two, second quarter possessions while Goff heated up for the Lions on their next drive, completing passes of 19 yards to Josh Reynolds, 9 yards off fourth-and-1 on to Raymond; and 13 yards to Amon-Ra St. Brown. That set up a 36-yard field goal by Riley Patterson.
Midway through the second quarter, the Lions hd drawn within four points, 14-10.
Bridgewater did engineer a short-passing attack in the final 65 seconds to methodically set up a 52-yard field goal by Brandon McManus as time expired in the half.
The Lions got the ball first in the second half, but Broncos' defensive lineman Shelby Harris forced running back Godwin Igwebuike to fumble it away at the Lions' 36. A couple strong runs by Gordon set up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Bridgewater to Williams.
It was 24-10 Broncos.
The next defensive series belonged to defensive lineman Dre'Mont Jones. He got his second sack of the game, a tackle for loss and, when the Lions went for it on a fourth-and-2 from their own territory, a pass deflection at the line of scrimmage.
“That was probably the greatest series of my career—middle school included—ever,'' Jones said. "That was sweet for me.”
Again needing less than 40 yards to score, the Broncos made it 31-10 when Gordon exploded for a 14-yard touchdown run.
The Lions answered by driving down until they had first and goal at the Broncos' 7. But on fourth-and-goal from the 4, Goff's pass to the end zone was knocked away by safety Kareem Jackson.
The Lions drove down deep into Denver territory but this time safety Justin Simmons made a diving interception catch, his fifth pick of the year.
After each turnover by the Denver D, they ran over and placed the ball on the '88' logo the Broncos had placed just outside the end zone area where Thomas finished off two of his most memorable touchdown catches -- the 80-yard catch-and-run from Tim Tebow on the first play of overtime to stun the favored Steelers in a first-round, 2011-season playoff game, and Peyton Manning's then NFL-record setting 509th touchdown pass.
"As a defense we had talked about how every takeaway we were going to dedicate, giving the ball to D.T.,'' Simmons said. "We all made sure we knew where the logo, the number was at. And that's what happened. I made the play, I kind of blacked out. The only thing I thought about was heading over there to D.T. and give him the football."
Gordon finished with 111 yards rushing on 24 carries one week after he missed last week's game at Kansas City with a hip injury. Williams had 73 yards rushing on 15 carries. Williams is now the 8th rookie running back in Broncos history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing and receiving combined. He has 1,022 scrimmage yards with four games remaining.
Bridgewater was efficient, completing 18 of 25 passes for 179 yards, two touchdowns and an impressive 118.6 passer rating.
Fant led Broncos receivers with four catches for 51 yards.
Game balls went to Gordon and Williams, Jones, the family of Demaryius Thomas, equipment manager Chris "Flip" Valenti, whose mom passed away last weekend, and safety Kareem Jackson, who returned to finish the game despite taking a tough hit that he delivered in the first half.
Here's the kicker to the Broncos' win on Demaryius Thomas Day: On their final touchdown drive that ate up more than 7 minutes of fourth quarter game clock, the Broncos started at their own 12 yard line. Bridgewater finished the march by hitting tight end Albert Okwuegbunam in the right flank and Albert O manuevered his way in for a 4-yard touchdown.
The drive went 88 yards.
"That's crazy,'' Sutton said as he looked up in disbelief, shaking his head. "That's crazy."
Broncos podcast: Klis' Mike Drop
Denver Broncos headlines, game previews and interviews with our 9NEWS insider Mike Klis.
HOW TO LISTEN
> Top stories curated daily just for you! Sign up for the 9NEWSLETTER to get can’t-miss stories, Next and Broncos content, weather and more delivered right to your inbox.
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Sports
MORE WAYS TO GET 9NEWS
Subscribe to our daily 9NEWSLETTER
HOW TO ADD THE 9NEWS APP TO YOUR STREAMING DEVICE
ROKU: add the channel from the ROKU store or by searching for KUSA.
For both Apple TV and Fire TV, search for "9news" to find the free app to add to your account. Another option for Fire TV is to have the app delivered directly to your Fire TV through Amazon.