NASHVILLE, Tenn. --It was just another hard-fought, competitive game between two physical teams before Titans wide receiver Harry Douglas went low at Chris Harris Jr.'s right knee late in the second quarter.
That was when "competitive" crossed the line to "dirty."
"That was so illegal. I never had a player just try to end my career like that," Harris said. "That was dirty. He should be fined. That's not football. Trying to take me out for the game, trying to end my career. It's not football."
The Broncos knew it right away. Harris rose while flanked by team medical personnel, he turned back to Douglas and yelled at him while gesturing with his index finger, following up after fellow cornerback Aqib Talib had to be restrained from going after Douglas.
"I can't even say what I was yelling," Harris said. "It wasn't good."
Talib's fiery response showed that the Broncos weren't going to stand for having one of their own taken down in such a fashion.
One play later, with Harris still on the sideline trying to shake off the injury after being treated on the field, Talib went after Douglas. Benches emptied.
"You cut somebody's knees, and they're not paying any attention to you, that ain't right," said outside linebacker Shane Ray. "The reaction that we had as a defense -- we [are] not wrong at all. I would have done the same thing for any other one of my teammates, and I'm sure they would have done the same for theirs if we did that to them. It is what it is."
Talib was flagged for a personal foul. But that was a price the Broncos were willing to pay to stand up for one of their own.
"You mess with one of us, and you're going to mess with us all," said safety T.J. Ward.
Added quarterback Trevor Siemian: "We've got each other's backs, all across the board," Siemian said. "It's a super-tight group. We've all got each other's back. I think we just compete really hard, and it's an emotional game sometimes."
It wasn't just the block itself, but the circumstances of it that rankled the Broncos.
"It's unnecessary. If the run's coming your way and you've got a straight-up block, go ahead. Chop him. That's part of the game," Ward said. But when the ball's on the other side of the field, and you've got a back-side corner just cruising, and you come and chop him, that's just dirty. And we don't play like that."
Added defensive end Derek Wolfe: "There's a difference between playing hard and playing dirty. Trying to hurt each other, and trying to beat each other. If you're trying to beat somebody, trying to whup somebody, inside the rules of the game. There's no honor in trying to hurt somebody on purpose. There's no honor in that."
The Broncos surged back in the second half but dropped a 13-10 decision in Nashville to the Tennessee Titans. (Photos by Eric Bakke, unless noted)
And it was an aggression for which the Broncos would not stand.
"When one of our leaders goes down in that kind of fashion, you're poking at a pack of wolves," Ray said. "The reaction that they got was what they deserved."
Talib's anger galvanized Denver's defense. Prior to Talib's personal foul, the Titans racked up 177 yards and 11 first downs earned by rush or pass on 35 plays, converted 5 of 8 third-down attempts and averaged 5.1 yards per snap.
After that, Tennessee mustered just 76 yards on their next 27 plays prior to three game-ending kneeldowns, had just four first downs and went 1-for-8 on third downs -- including 0-for-6 after halftime -- while averaging 2.24 yards per play.
"Once that happened, of course, now the competition is raised," Ray said. "Now we want to really punish guys. It changed the game a little bit, but not too much."
The defense responded -- and Harris played a big part in it, as usual. Thankfully for the Broncos, he returned after missing one play.
Having already suffered one torn anterior cruciate ligament during the 2013 divisional playoffs, Harris admitted that his career flashed before his eyes when he felt the hit.
"I've already had knee surgery. He comes for my right knee -- my good knee," Harris said. "I couldn't believe he did that to me, but they didn't call it. Hopefully they go back and look at that, and he gets fined."
It won't turn a loss into a win. But the Broncos' reaction to the hit and their all-for-one mentality was a reminder of the kind of timber from which they're cut.