DENVER -- **When the Broncos jogged back to the locker room at halftime Thursday trailing Carolina 17-7, the unease among the 76,671 onlookers -- most of whom were clad in orange -- was palpable. As the 10-point deficit lingered through the third quarter thanks in part to a interception, that discomfort turned to a smattering of boos after one three-and-out.
But in the locker room at halftime and on the west sideline early in the second half, the mood was different.
The Broncos didn't fret or fidget. Fingers weren't pointed. Paint didn't peel in the locker room at halftime.
They opted to be cool, because that is their default setting. That is the tone Head Coach Gary Kubiak has set. It helped create three rallies from double-digit deficits and against playoff-bound teams last year. It worked again Thursday.
"Kubs came in, told us exactly what we needed to hear," said defensive end Jared Crick, "and we went out there and won the football game in the second half."
And in the 21-20 win over Carolina, no one stayed cooler than first-time starter Trevor Siemian, who admitted feeling "butterflies" but projected a calm, steely facade that remained in place even after two interceptions in the Carolina red zone that threatened to undermine any hopes of winning the season opener.
When the team went into the locker room at halftime, it walked in with three drives that all advanced inside the Carolina 30-yard line in four possessions before a half-ending kneeldown -- and just seven points from a possible 21.
The Broncos had met the enemy. But it wasn't the Panthers, who came into the game with 19 wins in their previous 20 regular-season contests. It was themselves -- and Siemian quickly reminded his teammates of that.
Siemian's words sounded familiar to veterans -- because they sounded like they'd come from Peyton Manning.
"It sounded like Peyton: 'Hey, man, we're moving the ball. We're just shooting ourselves in the foot.' That's something 18 would say," RB C.J. Anderson said.
And after Siemian opened the second half with another strong drive that ended in a Bene Benwikere interception, he remained unfazed, reiterating his halftime point.
"He kept saying in the huddle, 'We're moving the ball. We're moving the ball. We're just shooting ourselves. It's not like they're stopping us. We're killing ourselves,'" Anderson said. "Which was true."
Which also meant that if the Broncos could solve their own riddles, they could come back.
But it also took the defense recovering from first-half issues of its own.
The powerful defense looked disjointed at times. Tackles were missed. Carolina converted five consecutive third downs on an 18-play, 89 yard match that gobbled up 9:15 and consumed more plays than any drive allowed by the Broncos last season. Twice the Broncos were called for having 12 men on the field; a timeout prevented a third infraction.
This was not what the defense knew it could be.
"We played terrible. Third-down situations were terrible. Communication was terrible. And that's not how we play," said Chris Harris Jr.
"Everybody was just messing up -- coaches, players," he added. "We weren't in sync in the first half."
But as was the case on the offensive side of the locker room, the defense knew that solutions were in their hands. Just as there was no discord among the offense, the defense rested at halftime, secure in its belief that it could -- and would -- do better.
"It wasn't a rip session anywhere," Crick said. "Guys were just [saying], 'You know what? We're not communicating.' That was the biggest problem. That was really the only problem. So let's slow it down, communicate, and then play football.
"And we did that, offense and defense."
The offense cleaned up its act, with two touchdown drives and no turnovers after Siemian's second interception. Carolina's first four drives of the second half ended in three punts and a Harris interception that set up Anderson's game-winning touchdown run.
"We found a way to win a football game," Anderson said.
The final act to preserve the win, a wide-left 50-yard field-goal attempt by Graham Gano, was beyond the Broncos' control. But the turnaround to reverse the course of the game and prevent the self-inflicted wounds was entirely in the Broncos' hands.
They won despite their mistakes because they fixed them on the fly. To the players who returned from last year's championship, it's just the formula they've followed before.
"It's not magic, man," Harris said. "We've got heart. We have more heart than other teams. It's plain and simple."
The Broncos celebrate after an incredible comeback victory over the Carolina Panthers to start the season. (Photos by Eric Bakke unless noted)