DENVER — It’s been proven.
So long as Courtland Sutton is the receiver, there is such a thing as Beginner’s Lock.
Drew Lock, the Broncos’ rookie quarterback selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, threw two touchdown passes to Sutton early before Lock and Sutton hooked up for a game-deciding, pass interference penalty in the final 3 seconds to give the Broncos a wild, 23-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
A disturbingly, small crowd of 55,544 - the lowest turnout for a Broncos home game in at least 9 years -- turned out to watch Lock's NFL debut on a bright-turned-dark, chilly-turned-cold late Sunday/early-December afternoon at Empower Field at Mile High.
"We deserved that one,'' said Broncos tight end Jeff Heuerman. "We were overdue for that."
>> Listen to a game recap on Klis's Mike Drop podcast below
One Lock touchdown pass came off a spectucular one-armed catch by Sutton over Chargers' star cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. That doesn't happen every game, although maybe every home game when a Broncos QB is making his NFL debut.
"'Amazing' is not even a good word for how great of a catch that was,'' Lock said.
Another Lock touchdown pass in the first quarter came after Broncos defensive lineman Dre'Mont Jones intercepted a Phillip Rivers' screen pass, setting up field position just 18 yards away from the end zone. That doesn't happen but once every couple seasons. A few plays later, Lock had his second TD pass to Sutton.
Much later, after Rivers and the Chargers tied it, 20-20 and the Broncos had the ball deep in their own territory with just 9 seconds remaining, head coach Vic Fangio bypassed the kneeldown and overtime quarter in exchange for one more desperation heave. It worked. The refs called a 37-yard, pass interference penalty against Hayward who was struggling to cover Sutton on a deep, Hail Mary-type throw from Lock. That never happens. Refs normally "swallow" their flags in the final seconds and let the players play. Not this time.
The penalty set up Broncos kicker Brandon McManus with a 53-yard field goal attempt and he made it with 0:00 left on the clock. Broncos win, 23-20. Drew Lock is the Broncos' future!
"I think there's promise there,'' said Fangio of his new quarterback. "I really do. I'm not ready to put him in Canton, yet.''
The Broncos are 4-8 with two losses coming on end-of-game field goals set up by controversial roughing the passer penalties on Bradley Chubb in one game and then Von Miller in another. A third loss came with the Broncos having three plays from the Vikings' 4, all falling incomplete to end the game. And another loss came when Adam Vinatieri, who has missed kicks all year, nailed a 51-yard field goal with 22 seconds left to hand the Broncos a 15-13, heartbreaking defeat in Indianapolis.
This time, the Chargers felt robbed by the game-deciding pass interference penalty.
"We've been on that side of it,'' Heuerman said.
"I did not like that call at the end of the game,'' said Chargers' head coach Anthony Lynn. "I don't think that's the way you end a football game. To make that call it has to be clear and obvious and I don't think it was clear and obvious.''
Sutton wasn't surprised by the call.
"Not at all,'' he said. "In that situation they know they've got to throw that flag. I get hat you're saying, they don't want to throw it an end-of-the-game situation but if you make them throw it -- playing through the defender and make a play for the ball -- they have to call it no matter what.''
Lock was hot early and then, like all Broncos quarterbacks have done this year, cooled off after the first quarter while Chargers' quarterback Phillip Rivers threw two of his own touchdowns.
It was 17-17 when McManus (52 yards) and Chargers' kicker Michael Badgley (46 yards) exchanged long field goals late, and McManus hit from 50+ again to win it.
McManus actually made it last field goal twice but the first didn't count as Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn called timeout just before the snap from Casey Kreiter.
The Broncos are now 4-8, but 1-0 with Lock as their quarterback. The Chargers are also 4-8.
McManus had thrown a temper tantrum with seconds remaining in the first half because Fangio bypassed what would have been a league-setting 65- or 66-yard field goal attempt in exchange for a deep pass attempt. McManus yelled at his coach as he stormed off the field, then heaved his helmet on the sidelines.
"(Fangio) hasn't been here that long to see my total range in trianing camp over the years,'' McManus said. Later: "This is a storied game that I grew up watching. It was a dream of mine to play in this league and if I was able to have my name badge on the longest field goal in NFL history, I would love that.''
The longest field goal is 64 yards, set by the Broncos' Matt Prater -- McManus' predecessor -- in December 2013.
McManus made sure his anger was justified in the fourth quarter with his 52 and 53-yard successful boots. Fangio said not allowing McManus to try from 65 or so was perhaps a reason why he made the long kicks later.
"I've seen many times where guys go out there and try extra-long kicks, they alter their mechancis and it affects him the rest of the game,'' Fangio said."I'm going to say that decision not to let him go out there for the 65-yarder led him to making the 52- and 53-yarder.''
The paid crowd of 74,638 counts as a sellout but the Broncos also announced 19,094 no-shows. In the Broncos' defense, they are the only NFL team that announces actual attendance and no-shows, along with the paid crowd.
It was the Broncos' smallest crowd in at least 9 years -- since the Broncos-Rams game on November 28, 2010 that was also played on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was the last home game coached by Josh McDaniels.
Lock’s first touchdown pass was a well-thrown, 26-yard strike to Sutton, who warded off the Chargers’ top cornerback Hayward with his left arm and used his right arm to cradle the pass. Despite his right arm crashing hard on the south end zone’s turf and his left arm buried beneath Hayward, the ball remained lodged in Sutton’s grasp.
"What's crazy, Drew actually told me -- I wasn't supposed to run that route,'' Sutton said. "Drew told me to run it, which I was happy that he told me to do. Because I'm not going to go off-schedule. Him telling me to do it, it was awesome.''
Lock said later he told Sutton that if Hayward was playing bump-and-run, take off on the go route.
It’s the second time in the Broncos’ last two home games that Sutton made a tremendous end zone adjustment on a cornerback to make the game-opening score for a quarterback making his NFL debut.
He made a midair catch for a 21-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Allen off a similar pattern four weeks ago in the Broncos’ 24-19 win against the Cleveland Browns.
Following a bye week and two road losses, the Broncos with a 3-8 record decided to replace Allen with Lock. Fangio called in Lock on Tuesday and told him that if he practiced OK, he would start. It was either Friday or Saturday -- neither could remember which day -- that Fangio told Lock he made it.
Asked why the team tried to keep Lock's starting assignment a secret when it was obvious to all he would, Fangio said: "I don't know why. Just playing silly games."
Fangio assured the media Lock would start next Sunday against the Texans in Houston.
After the first Sutton scoring catch, Lock benefitted from two Chargers’ turnovers that gave the Broncos’ starting field position at the Los Angeles’ 18 and 21, respectively. The Broncos converted those turnovers into 10 points.
On the Chargers’ series after the Lock-to-Sutton touchdown, quarterback Phillip Rivers threw a screen pass right into the arms of Broncos’ defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones, another rookie. Rivers had thrown 7 interceptions in his previous two games so his slump continued.
The Jones pick gave Lock and the Broncos the ball at the Chargers’ 18. Lock capped the short drive by converting a third-and-goal with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Sutton. The Broncos were up 14-0.
Lock played with the confidence of a kid in his neighbor’s backyard. He moved away from the pressure and either made a play, or avoided a series-killing sack.
PHOTOS | Denver Broncos vs. Los Angeles Chargers
"He's a grinder,'' Heuerman said. "He's a competitor. It's fun playing with him. Confident. He was good in the huddle. Poised and composed. He's fun to be out there with.''
Lock finished with modest stats --18 of 28 for 134 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. After going up 14-0, it seemed like the Broncos went into their "four-corners" offense -- a problem all season long. Still, Lock played with joy.
"I'm always going to be like that,'' Lock said at his locker after his press conference. "I love to move around, make plays with my feet and throw from all angles. I love to play the game.''
Sutton had four catches for 74 yards, all in the first half, before drawing the huge penalty in the final seconds.
Phillip Lindsay started fast as the Broncos' running back had 33 yards off his first 5 carries, but he finished with 58 yards on 17 carries.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was only 6 of 11 for 49 yards with a pick until he connected with a wide-open Mike Williams for a 52-yard completion with 38 seconds left in the half.
After a Chargers' motion penalty, Rivers hit another wide-open target, running back Austin Ekler of Eaton for a 30-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, the Broncos were only 17-10 and Rivers was 8 of 14 for 131 yards and a touchdown with an interception. Rivers came up with a gutsy fourth-and-11 throw to Mike Williams for 38 yards to set up the game-tying field goal with 14 seconds left in regulation.
But surprisingly, the Broncos didn't want overtime and went for the win on the final play of regulation. The flag, for once, went their way.
You know why? It had to be Beginner's Lock.
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