Picky, Picky. Justin Simmons’ interception seals Broncos’ win

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DENVER — This is what the offense was supposed to look like. More balanced than an accountant’s checkbook.

This is what the Broncos were supposed to play like. Smart, disciplined football with a mean streak on defense.

This is why Justin Simmons should be paid. His interception sealed the most impressive Sunday of the season.

In the Broncos’ last home game with fans, the sun beamed slivers of light in the 46-degree afternoon, and the team provided glimmers of hope in a 20-13 win.

“I am just really proud of the entire team,” coach Vic Fangio said. “It was a great team win.”

Drew Lock remains the team’s future at quarterback, at least for another week, showing toughness and resolve after another ugly start. The offensive line made sure Lock was protected, and for the first time in weeks, they threw down the sawdust and punched back on the ground. The defense boasted energy and attitude, befitting a prideful team that Bradley Chubb promised would “not quit.”

A 4-6 record is nothing to dance about, but it offers a glimpse of why this team was considered a playoff contender in August. That seems like a long ago, before the injuries to Von Miller, Courtland Sutton, Jurrell Casey and Mike Purcell. What Sunday showed is that the Broncos are still buying in, still competing after their first triumph against a team with a winning record.

Because they are the Broncos, the game came with accompanying drama. It came after Tua Tagovailoa was set the sideline limping following the Broncos’ sixth sack of him. Ryan Fitzpatrick entered. Fitzmagic provided a boost, but ran out of pixie dust when Simmons picked him off with the clock winding down.

Even before the crowd rained boos down in the first quarter, it had not been a great week for Lock. He cringed through a strained oblique and bruised ribs against the Raiders, needing three good days of practice to prove he deserved to start. Injuries and ineffectiveness left his status uncertain until Saturday. Through seven starts this season he had siphoned the goodwill, and threatened to extinguish hope.

After he fired an interception on the opening drive — his fifth in five quarters, which led to an easy touchdown for Miami — it was fair to wonder when he took over with 7:34 remaining in the first period if he was playing to keep his job.

Then, something weird happened. The offense finally, mercifully fit. Seatbelt-required darts over the middle into double coverage vanished. The West Coast principles from last season reappeared. The Broncos finished with 189 yards rushing.

“A quarterback’s best friend is a running game,” Fangio said. “Drew settled down after his early mistake.”

On the most important drive, Lock completed four of six passes for 41 yards. The Broncos ran five times for 42 yards, including a 20-yard scamper from Phillip Lindsay. It spanned 6 minutes, their first of more than five since Oct. 23, and it allowed Lock to pull himself up by the ropes.

The Broncos took their first lead in a month when Lock connected with Tim Patrick on an RPO-fake and fastball for 41 yards from the pistol formation. It set up Brandon McManus’ 29-yard field goal with 9:55 remaining in the half.

“Our run game exploded,” Lock said.

The beauty of a poor record is that it casts a team as the ugly man in the fight. The Broncos had nothing to lose. That was reflected in coach Vic Fangio’s scheme. The Broncos pressured Tagovailoa relentlessly. Malik Reed treated the backfield like an Airbnb, living in Tagovailoa’s face. He finished with a sack, tackle for loss and multiple hits in the first half alone. When DeMarcus Walker, Chubb and Reed sandwiched Tagovailoa late in the second quarter, Miami settled for a 41-yard field goal.

Tua was attempting to become the first rookie to win his first four starts since 2004. The Dolphins were going to have do in spite of him, not because of him. He was ultimately benched.

Knotted at 10, the Broncos remained aggressive in the two-minute drill. Bouyed by a 22-yard completion to Jerry Jeudy — he drew the tough assignment of Xavien Howard — Denver scooted into the locker room with a lead following Brandon McManus’ 47-yard field goal. Save for Lock’s interception, it represented one of the Broncos’ best 30 minutes of the season. Not only did they hold a lead, but the defense sacked Tagovailoa three times.

The Broncos widened their lead to 20-10 when Melvin Gordon scampered 20 yards for a score. This what the Broncos had in mind when they signed Gordon. He and Lindsay looked more like Thunder and Lightning that the previous scattered showers.

“We stuck with it,” Lindsay said. “It shows what can happen when you trust the run game. There’s no science to this. You can put all the cute things together. But it comes down can you beat the man in front of you.”

The formula is simple. When the Broncos run, they win. When Lock throws 40 times, he’s 1-3 and a turnover machine. This a team that needs check(downs) and balances. Lock finished 18 for 30 for 270 yards. Gordon (84 yards) and Phillip Lindsay (82 yards) combined for uppercuts and jabs.

“We were just sticking together. We know this football team is great,” left guard Dalton Risner said. “We have great coaches. And when execute we can win. We owned the guy on the other side of the line of scrimmage. It feels good man. I am damn proud. We put on our work gloves.”

At one point in the second half, the Broncos had outgained the Dolphins 328-85. Denver finished 459 yards compared to Miami’s 223. For one Sunday, the Broncos looked the part. They were physical, mean and tough.

“We made Tua uncomfortable,” Malik Reed said. “We stick together and we believe in each other.”

They let the Dolphins hang around after Gordon’s fumble at the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. But Simmons played center field and produced the big interception — his fourth of the year — to seal the most impressive win of the season.

“Our defense played angry today,” Simmons said. “We found a way to close it out. What happened last week didn’t sit well. We knew we were better than that.”

It was, again, nothing to dance about. But it provided soothing balm and a reminder to the Broncos of their potential.

“It’s a great day,” Risner said, “to be a Bronco.”

Footnotes
In the fourth quarter, Tua Tagovailoa headed to the bench after being sacked for the sixth time, appearing to wrench his ankle as Bradley Chubb wrestled him to the ground. He was benched for performance, not injury, according to the Dolphins. …

The Broncos are sending a game ball to Floyd Little’s family. The Broncos Hall of Famer has moved into hospice care during his battle with cancer. …

Malik Reed notched his sixth sack of the season the Dolphins’ last drive of the first quarter. He set the tone in the first half with a sack, tackle for a loss, and consistent pressure on Tagovailoa. …

DeShawn Williams notched two sacks. He plays with urgency after failing to land an NFL job for four years. …

The Broncos inactive list featured only one surprise, tackle Elijah Wilkinson. Fangio indicated he was likely to be activated off the IR, but in the end they decided against it. The inactives were Wilkinson, Jeff Driskel, Tyrie Cleveland, Duke Dawson, Kevin Toliver, Joe Jones and Jake Rodgers. …

Bradley Chubb was Sunday’s captain. He has taken on an added leadership role this season in Von Miller’s absence.