So Mitch Unrein was doing what he does on the football field, which consists mainly of hand-to-hand combat with offensive lineman, when Jamon Meredith, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ right guard, reached through his face mask and gouged both his eyes simultaneously.
Temporarily blinded, Unrein reached out to fend off Meredith and was immediately penalized for the personal foul of putting his hands in another man’s face. These are the ironies NFL players live with.
Red-eyed but unbowed, Unrein absorbed this particular injustice more easily than most because he had caught a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning just a few minutes before, a rare moment of glory for a 290-pound defensive tackle from Eaton, Colorado who went undrafted and started his career on the practice squad.
“I was just glad he caught it,” teammate Champ Bailey said afterward. “You see a lot of linemen get wide open and drop that thing.”
“I’ve never had a TD catch in my entire life,” Unrein said. “The last time I scored a touchdown was as a freshman in high school. So it feels pretty good. I mean, it’s still kind of surreal.”
It was that kind of day for the Broncos, who marched down the field the first time they had the ball, topping off the drive with a goal line formation in which Unrein lined up at fullback. When he released into the left corner of the end zone, Manning lofted a floater into his arms for the one-yard touchdown.
But the Broncos seemed to regress into confusion for the remainder of the first half. At intermission, they trailed 10-7, and the mere seven points suggested their offense was short on rocket fuel.
“Their defense does a good job of moving around,” explained tight end Jacob Tamme, who, in the absence of veteran Brandon Stokley, became Manning’s security blanket.
“They run a lot of games up front and make it tough to run the ball because they’ve got D-linemen moving everywhere and linebackers doing the same thing. It was really just kind of adjusting to how they were playing us and we were able in the third quarter to come out and put some big drives together.”
Tampa defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan might have gotten this idea from Mike Nolan, the Atlanta coordinator with whom he competes in the NFC South. Nolan’s walk-around, amoeba defense confused Manning into three interceptions and the Broncos’ first loss in the second week of the season.
In this case, Manning seemed less confused than his linemen. He connected on 11 of 15 first-half passes, but the Broncos sabotaged their own efforts with six penalties for 60 yards before intermission, including 10-yard infractions against offensive linemen Orlando Franklin and Chris Kuper that short-circuited the two drives following the touchdown.
“I really felt like there were some opportunities there,” Manning said. “We had some self-inflicted penalties, some mistakes we thought were hurting us. Believe me, they have an excellent defense, but we thought we were doing some things to make it a little tougher.”
After scoring at least 30 points in the first five wins of their current seven-game winning streak — the fourth-longest in franchise history and longest in 14 years — the Broncos managed only 17 the previous week in Kansas City. Sitting with seven at halftime against Tampa, the orange-clad denizens of Sports Authority Field at Mile High began to grow restive.
If game balls went to coordinators, which they seldom do, Mike McCoy and Jack Del Rio might have deserved them after this one. In a contest of halftime adjustments, the Broncos dominated. They won the third quarter 21-0 and the fourth became a formality.
So much so that fans began to entertain themselves by doing the wave. Unfortunately, the Broncos had the ball at the time. Manning, needing quiet so his signals could be heard in the no-huddle offense, politely shushed them.
“I’m all for excitement, but certainly, in a no-huddle offense when you’re calling something at the line, the quieter the crowd can be, it certainly is helpful,” he explained, while also paying obligatory tribute to the crowd’s enthusiastic spirit.
Meanwhile, on the defensive side, the Broncos gave up consecutive scoring drives in the first quarter, then shut out quarterback Josh Freeman and his troops until the fourth, when a couple of late scores accounted for the 31-23 final. They limited Doug Martin, one of the NFL’s leading rushers also known, unfortunately, as The Muscle Hamster, to 56 yards on 18 carries, a measly average of 3.1 yards per.
“We just settled down,” Bailey said. “You’ve got to give (Freeman) credit. He’s a good quarterback. He’s been doing that all year, making plays early in the game. We knew if we just stay with it and just keep trusting our technique, we’ll be fine.”
“The hype these guys get is well-deserved,” Freeman said of the Broncos’ defense, which is ranked in the NFL’s top 10 for the first time since 2005. “They get after it. Their front four did a good job of timing their blitzes. The Denver defense played a great game today.”
Freeman completed six of eight passes in the first quarter, when the Bucs scored 10 points, but only two of six in the second and three of 12 in the third as the Broncos took control.
Von Miller had a quarterback sack to give him 15 on the year — third in the league behind San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (17.5) and Houston’s J.J. Watt (15.5) — but he also returned an interception for a touchdown, yet another plank in his campaign for defensive player of the year.
“He’s the best player in the NFL right now on defense,” said safety Rahim Moore. “He’s unstoppable. I’m just glad to be a part of his team. He makes all of us better.”
The Broncos improved their record to 9-3, clinching the AFC West title — and the playoff berth that goes with it — with four games still to play. They tied the Raiders, whom they play Thursday night in Oakland, for most AFC West titles all time, with 12.
They remain in a battle with the AFC’s other division leaders for playoff seeding. Baltimore, which leads the North, lost to Pittsburgh on Sunday, dropping them into a three-way tie with the Broncos and Patriots at 9-3. Like the Broncos, the Patriots clinched their division Sunday.
A win at Baltimore in two weeks would leapfrog the Broncos over the Ravens, but they still need help to pass the Patriots, who beat them earlier in the season, to get one of the top two AFC seeds and the first-round bye that goes with it. New England still must play Houston, which has the inside track on the AFC’s top playoff seed at 11-1, and San Francisco.
“Winning the division, that was certainly one of our goals,” Manning said. “We still want to keep getting better throughout the season.”
So the Broncos keep rolling along, playing well enough to win each week without exactly dominating.
“A year ago we were getting critiqued if we won or lost,” club vice president John Elway said last week. “Now we’re getting critiqued on how we win. So that’s a good thing, as long as we’re winning.”
The critics of the Manning signing have disappeared. The apocalyptic talk about his age and injuries has been silenced. The Broncos rule their division once more, the first step in Elway’s plan to return to their glory days.