ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Fate seemed to be working against the Broncos all week, doing everything to siphon hope from this season.
It started Monday when general manager George Paton traded eight-time Pro Bowler Von Miller to the Rams. It continued with injuries to All-Pro Garett Bolles, outside linebacker Malik Reed and nose tackle Mike Purcell. Too many distractions, too many aches and pains, too many inconveniences to mount a challenge against NFC East power Dallas.
In between losing an iconic player and a half dozen to the trainer's room Sunday, the Broncos regained footing on their season, delivering their most impressive victory since Peyton Manning retired.
The Broncos did not upset the Cowboys. They clubbed them in the shins with a crowbar and left them curled up in the fetal position. Denver triumphed 30-16, leaving a chunk of fans in the crowd of 93,000 to chant "Let's go, Broncos" several times during the second half.
"How 'bout them Broncos?" Broncos coach Vic Fangio said as he stepped up to the podium.
Add that to the list of things we never expected to see Sunday. The notable events included:
—The Broncos' setting a single-high for rushing yards — by the third quarter — and finishing with 190.
—Denver turning its own blocked punt into a third-quarter field goal.
—The Broncos becoming the first team in 34 games to blank the Cowboys at home at halftime. They nearly became the first team to shut out Dallas at home for the first time since 1991.
—Teddy Bridgewater overcoming a slow start to show more accuracy than a DNA test on dimes to Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy.
"Your best players have to play their best in big games," safety Justin Simmons said. "When it comes down to it, we have to make the plays. And today we made those plays. You saw how guys handled this week and responded."
The outcome was straight out of coach Fangio's blueprint to attempt to derail the Chiefs a few years ago: win time of possession (the Broncos held the ball for 32 minutes, 15 seconds through three quarters as they led 30-0), and cover more ground than Lewis and Clark. Playing keepaway worked to perfection as rookie Javonte Williams produced the first 100-yard game of his career (17 for 111) and Melvin Gordon chugged for 80. There was nothing suspicious about it, just sawdust on the ground and fists in the air.
"Really, the past two weeks we have come out to practice with a fire lit, and we have to keep that going and block out the noise," said center Lloyd Cushenberry, the only opening day lineman starter to play all snaps on Sunday. "We have to keep putting in the work."
Defensively, the Broncos made Dak Prescott, in his return from a one game absence due to a calf injury, look skittish and erratic. He completed 19 of 39 passes for 232 yards, one interception and two scores, both in garbage time.
The Cowboys averaged 31 points a game when he started this season. They looked lost and desperate, failing on four fourth downs. They were equally weak on third down as the Broncos produced consistent pressure from the likes of rookie Jonathon Cooper and leaned on strong coverage across the secondary, including formerly benched Kyle Fuller, who received a game ball after playing right, left and slot corner on Sunday.
The day began with issues. Talk about deceiving. The only thing that went wrong was Denver's first drive. After the blocked punt stroke of luck, there was a sense this day was going to be different.
The Broncos talked all week about how their goals remained in front of them. Now they can say that with a straight face after beating a team with a winning record for the first time this season.
"We stay humble and we can do some great things," said quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who finished 19 of 29 for 248 yards and a touchdown.
The Broncos are 5-4 and host the Eagles next Sunday before the bye week. They are in the mix for a playoff berth for the first time since they were 6-6 at the end of the 2018 season.
Former president George W. Bush soaked in the cheers and flipped the coin to begin the day. The Broncos won the toss and put their defenders on the field, but not before the special teams put them in harm's way. After three weeks without a gaffe, the coverage unit was gashed for 54 yards by Tony Pollard.
Denver's defense, however, has played with purpose and passion the past two weeks that was absent during the four game losing skid. The Broncos stoned the Cowboys on fourth-and-1 from the 38 yard line with cornerback Ronald Darby corralling Zeke Elliott.
"Disrespectful," Patrick said of the Cowboys going for it on fourth down twice early on. "That (blank) was disrespectful. They were trying us and that's what happens when you try us."
The Broncos responded by introducing Buzz to Kill, a drive that proved a juxtaposition to the rest of the game. Denver netted -10 yards on its first three plays.
Forget a chip, the Broncos promised to play with the entire bag of Fritos on their shoulder. They regrouped, doing just that.
After a gash play from Amari Cooper — the kind that set up scores by the Ravens and Raiders — the Broncos stiffened again. On fourth-and-2 from the 20-yard line, Prescott short-armed a crossing pass to Cedrick Wilson as the ball fluttered incomplete.
This time the Broncos took it personally. Leaning on the run game — that's how you play keepaway in the NFL — Williams and Gordon gobbled up chunks of yards. Jerry Jeudy caught a 25-yard crosser, and with an extra lineman in the game, Gordon ricocheted into the end zone. The Broncos led 6-0 with 1:48 remaining in the first quarter after Brandon McManus missed his first extra point of the season.
What followed next widened eyes. Bridgewater made two of his most impressive throws of the season. He connected with Patrick for 11 yards on the sideline, lofting the ball over Gordon.
"That was us just playing football," Patrick said.
On the next snap, he preyed on cornerback Trevon Diggs' aggressiveness, placing a 44-yard dime to Patrick down the left sideline for the score as the Broncos extended their cushion to 13-0.
You need a little luck to pull off an upset. And it came in bizarre fashion for Denver.
On their first drive of the second half, the Broncos sputtered, leaving a fourth-and-4 at the 17-yard line. The Cowboys raced through, blocking Sam Martin's punt. And somehow the Broncos benefited. Cowboys' cornerback Nahshon Wright touched the bouncing ball, and Denver reserve linebacker Jonas Griffith recovered at the 19-yard line.
Widening the lens after the game, it was arguably the most important play, preventing any momentum for Dallas.
"I knew they touched it," Fangio said. "I was waiting to see if they would call it."
Williams followed with his latest Batman run — Boom. Pow. Bang — breaking loose of a 300-pound man on his back for a 30-yard gain, giving him a career-high 84 yards midway through the third quarter.
"I thought I was going to score," Williams said.
A blocked punt became a short field goal as the Broncos widened their advantage to 19-0. McManus, however, pushed a 53-yarder right with 4:54 remaining in the third, presenting a spark for the Cowboys.
Both times, the Broncos' defense rose up. Denver snuffed out Dallas on fourth down for the third straight time as Prescott struggled. Rather than scramble for a first down, he overthrew CeeDee Lamb.
It was a snapshot of a picture perfect day.
"None of us," Simmons said, "are surprised by what happened."
Already shorthanded without Garett Bolles (ankle) and Noah Fant (COVID-19), outside linebacker Malik Reed (hip) and nose tackle Mike Purcell (thumb) were inactive. ...
Right guard Graham Glasgow appeared to suffer a serious left ankle injury on the last play of the half. He exited on a cart with his leg in an air cast. ...
Star rookie cornerback Pat Surtain II hurt his knee in the third quarter. ...
Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam injured his knee after the half but returned. ...
Right tackle Bobby Massie hurt his left ankle on friendly fire from teammates in pile. Cam Fleming replaced him in the second quarter. Dalton Risner (shoulder) also dealt with an injury. ...
Defensive lineman McTelvin Agim hurt his knee late in the second quarter. ...
Jonathon Cooper delivered the first sack of his career with two minutes left in the first half, wrestling Dak Prescott to the turf for an 11-yard loss. Cooper underwent three heart surgeries before getting cleared for training camp. The former Ohio State captain continues to impress. ...
On his leaping first-half, 25-yard reception, Jerry Jeudy faked like he was going to shoot the arrow in celebration. He stopped. Jeudy was fined $12K by the league for unsportsmanlike conduct for the gesture last week. ...
Drew Lock tested for COVID-19 after arriving in Dallas, leading to some anxious moments for the quarterback room. There was fear receiver Kendall Hinton might be under center again. After a problem with his test — not a false positive, but a test that had to be run again — Bridgewater was cleared about five minutes before warmups. ...
Lock found out when he landed that a close contact outside the building had tested positive for COVID-19. Lock then tested positive. He will have to travel separately back to Denver. ...