DENVER --It was midway through the second quarter Monday night, and the Broncos were as frigid as the 16-degree air that made this night the third-coldest at home in team history.
The offense had punted on each of its first two possessions, and spent a good chunk of its second series skidding backward thanks to consecutive penalties. The defense had been gashed in a way it had rarely experienced before, allowing consecutive touchdowns that perpetuated the woes of last week's second half in Pittsburgh.
The Broncos were down 14-0, and had allowed 38 unanswered points in their last three-plus quarters of play. Given the second-half struggles of this month -- in which they'd been outscored 36-0 after halftime in the previous three games -- a palpable unease settled over Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The energy, crackling at kickoff, barely rippled.
But there was a bigger trend bubbling for the Broncos than three bad second halves in succession: their propensity for comebacks against some of the league's best teams. When they trailed by 14 points in Kansas City in Week 2 and by the same deficit in the snow against New England 10 weeks later, the Broncos responded with their best football of the season.
"We never think we're out of it -- even when we get down 14 real quick," said tight end Owen Daniels."We know it's a long game -- it's a 60-minute game. It's sticking to the plan and being able to adjust like we did today offensively and just trusting in our defense and special teams, that they're going to play well and pick things up."
This is what the team was built for. This is what John Elway wanted when he said he desired a team that, if it went down, would do so "kicking and screaming." Those words hang over the 2015 Broncos like low clouds on a snowy night.
But against three of the best teams the Broncos have seen this year, they've lived up to them.
Monday night, they did it again, and the result was a 20-17 overtime win that seemed impossible when they fell behind 14-0 and looked like anything but a playoff contender.
Once again, the Broncos showed that, at their best, they have the fortitude and talent to dig themselves out of almost any hole. Three-score deficits have been too much to overcome, but 14-point deficits have brought out their best.
"That was kicking and screaming," running back C.J. Anderson said. "That was going after it."
"We're not afraid to get in a street fight; that's what it felt like out there," Daniels added. "It was an old-school type of game. To be able to win games like that is big-time for us, to know that we can do that."
Whether the adversity was in the form of a 14-point deficit, penalties and sacks that stalled drives, an Anderson fumble after a perfectly placed hit or a series of tip-toe catches near the sidelines by the Bengals' balletic receivers, the Broncos didn't flinch.
So when Brandon McManus shanked a 45-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds of regulation to force the game to overtime, the Broncos didn't buckle, either -- even though it took the air out of a crowd that was preparing to celebrate victory before the football sailed closer to the southeast tunnel than the uprights.
"It's easy for us, when McManus missed the field goal, to just quit and lay down and say, 'Oh, man, it's just not meant to be for us.' But guys stayed in tune," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "Everybody stayed in focus, and that's what it takes."
It took extreme focus for the Broncos to get back in the game. They had to adjust their game plans on the fly. On defense, that meant crowding defenders near the line of scrimmage on defense to try and stall the Bengals' steady ground game -- which also had the effect of cranking up the pressure on quarterback AJ McCarron, who was making his second NFL start.
"We loaded the box. We forced them to try to throw the ball outside, and we had to shut down the run," Harris said. "That was the key."
After roaring to 205 yards and two touchdowns on their first three series, the Bengals hobbled to just 90 yards on their last seven, going three-and-out three times and having their final series end on a bad snap that DeMarcus Ware recovered to clinch the game.
The offense's tweaks were familiar to all who watched the Broncos' Week 2 comeback at Kansas City. With a 14-0 deficit, Head Coach Gary Kubiak tossed aside the initial game plan in favor of extensive use of the no-huddle and three-wide receiver sets -- just like he did in Week 2.
"That wasn't in the game plan whatsoever," Daniels said.
The Broncos quickly sprinted to their first points of the game on a 23-yard McManus field goal 14 seconds before halftime, and then followed with an 81-yard drive to a 10-yard Brock Osweiler-to-Emmanuel Sanders touchdown.
"I think it caught them off guard a lot," Anderson said. "Just like our defense was caught off-guard with the wildcat [formation] and the speed option. I think it caught the Bengals off-guard a lot.
"That's not a Kubiak-style system that they're used to seeing. We went back into what we'd done over previous years, and it was a good thing that we all knew it, and it helped us out."
"We felt like they were getting a little tired," Daniels added. "They weren't moving quite as fast when we were doing that. So we stuck to it. I think we got some good things out of it. Nice change-up. We didn't plan on doing that, but it's good to know that we can adjust and do that type of stuff on the run."
And it might help the Broncos in January, as well. Once again, the offense proved it could adjust to tempo to what suited it best at that moment. It's now worked to defeat two playoff teams, including one on the road. And that adjustment of pace has now worked with two quarterbacks: Peyton Manning and Osweiler.
"It's just huge. We always tell ourselves, since April, that we want to be the best-conditioned team. So if we want to slow it down, we can. Those are good things. Those are good signs to have."
And it's good to know that when the Broncos fall into trouble, they won't capitulate. They will adjust. They will toss aside a game plan, if necessary, and focus on making the changes they need to make -- and doing so before it's too late.
They'll generate more pressure with tempo on offense and pass rushers on defense. And they won't panic.
"It's great that our team is able to keep its head level like that," Daniels said. "It definitely pays off in those types of situations."
It could pay off in an even bigger way when the stakes are raised next month.
From on the field to inside the locker room, the emotional scene after a thrilling overtime victory over the Bengals.