By Mark Schiff
During the Pat Bowlen era, the Broncos have had an embarrassing amount of success. But they’ve never had a season quite like this.
Led by the NFL’s top defense, the Broncos secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC on Sunday in the unlikeliest of fashions. During the season, they had injuries to their Hall of Fame quarterback and suspensions to defensive stars. Their offense was difficult to watch at times. Defensive penalties were abundant. Yet thanks to the team’s remarkable knack to rise to the occasion on both sides of the ball, they still came out on top of the AFC.
Here’s a look back at one of the most drama-filled seasons in the team’s history.
Week 1 – Baltimore 13, Denver 19
In retrospect, Denver’s season-opener against the Ravens was a harbinger of things to come, as Peyton Manning and the offense struggled mightily, but the defense came through with one of their many game-turning plays, as former Raven Darian Stewart picked off Joe Flacco in the end zone to seal the win.
Week 2 – Denver 31, Kansas City 24
In a season full of thrilling games, the Broncos comeback road win over the Chiefs might have been the most exhilarating. After looking awful in the early going, Manning lead the team on an 80-yard game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter before the defense won it on a Bradley Roby fumble return for a touchdown.
Week 3 – Denver 24, Detroit 12
The final score looks misleading as the Broncos once again found themselves in a dogfight with the Lions, but Denver was able to pull away in the fourth quarter following another big defensive play, this time by David Bruton.
Week 4 – Minnesota 20, Denver 23
The Broncos got the second of their five wins over playoff teams against the Vikings in Week 4. Ronnie Hillman accounted for one of the nicest plays of the season with his 72-yard touchdown run and the defense capped a seven-sack game with a game-ending strip sack and fumble recovery.
Week 5 – Denver 16, Oakland 10
With both Manning and the running game struggling, Denver’s defense took the reins in the team’s first meeting with the Raiders, as Chris Harris took an interception 75-yards to the house. Von Miller also had the sexiest of his team-leading 11 sacks on the season.
Week 6 – Denver 26, Cleveland 23 (OT)
In the first of their three overtime wins, Manning again crippled the offense with some horrible interceptions, but the running game got going and kicker Brandon McManus capped his strong start to the season by nailing the game-winner in OT.
Week 7 – Bye
Week 8 – Green Bay 10, Denver 29
The battle of unbeatens brought out Denver’s best performance of the season. Manning had his best game of the year and Demaryius Thomas snagged eight catches for 168 yards, while Denver’s defense held Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a career-low 77 yards passing.
Week 9 – Denver 24, Indianapolis 27
The Broncos first loss of the season was born of self-inflicted wounds. Defensive penalties (including Aqib Talib’s eye-poke, which earned him a one-game suspension) proved costly and Manning’s turnovers were too much to overcome thanks to a rushing attack that couldn’t get going.
Week 10 – Kansas City 29, Denver 13
And then the wheels fell off completely. Broncos fans at the game at least got to see Peyton Manning set the all-time passing yards mark, but they may have repressed the rest of the game, as Manning’s four-interception, 35-yard game doomed Denver against a surging Kansas City squad.
Week 11 – Denver 17, Chicago 15
It almost feels like two separate seasons; the end of the Manning-era and beginning of Brock’s. From his second pass—a 48-yard TD to Demaryius Thomas—it was clear that Osweiler was more than a capable backup. His poise and command signaled a player who was well-prepared rather than intimidated by his moment to lead the team.
Week 12 – New England 24, Denver 30 (OT)
The Broncos exhilarating comeback win against the undefeated Patriots is all the more remarkable considering it ultimately earned them the No. 1 seed in the AFC. There was very little cause for hope when New England took a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but suddenly Denver’s offense exploded to the tune of 17 unanswered points. Even when New England was able to force overtime, the team didn’t blink, and C.J. Anderson’s walk-off touchdown run in overtime was undoubtedly the play of the season.
Week 13 – Denver 17, San Diego 3
Denver’s first victory over the Chargers featured one of their finest defensive performances of the year, as they got a pick-six off of Philip Rivers and held San Diego to just a field goal. But the offense’s weak second half, in which they were held scoreless, was a taste of things to come over the next two weeks.
Week 14 – Oakland 15, Denver 12
After gaining a grip on the AFC’s top seed, the Broncos let it slip away in their most baffling loss of the season. Denver’s season-long problems finishing in the red zone came back to haunt them, as their four first-half field goals weren’t enough to overcome a putrid final 30-minutes as Oakland snuck back into the game thanks to crucial turnovers and the offensive line’s inability to protect Osweiler.
Week 15 – Denver 27, Pittsburgh 34
Denver’s second-straight loss put their backs against the wall heading into the home stretch of the season. After torching the Steelers for 27 points in the first half, the offense again went cold while Denver’s excellent pass defense, which finished No. 1 overall, allowed a season-high 34 points in the Steelers second-half comeback.
Week 16 – Cincinnati 17, Denver 20 (OT)
After the terrible first half in Denver’s huge Monday night showdown against the Bengals, it looked like the Broncos once-commanding AFC West lead was about to slip away. But as they have all year, the Broncos came up big when it counted, with the offense getting going late in the game and the defense coming up with the game-deciding fumble recovery in overtime.
Week 17 – San Diego 20, Denver 27
And in their final game of the regular season, the Broncos saved their best for last. With the offense coughing up five turnovers, coach Kubiak made the call of the year by inserting Tyler Polumbus at right guard over the woeful Michael Schofield. Oh yeah, Peyton Manning also entered the game in the third quarter and provided the offensive spark that would lead the team to its fifth-straight division title and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
So regardless of what happens in the postseason, the Broncos can be proud of their hard-fought division title. And the perseverance, confidence and never-say-die determination the team showed throughout the year should serve them well as they turn their focus to winning three more games.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.