DENVER — For as sore as Drew Lock's ribs may have been heading into Sunday's game against the Dolphins, it would've been impossible to blame him if his ego had been just as sore.
The second-year quarterback — now just 13 starts into his career following a 20-13 win over the Dolphins — took a beating in the press and on social media following a four-interception day against the Raiders in Week 10.
Early in the Broncos' final game in front of fans this season at Empower Field at Mile High, Lock didn't seem destined for a much better performance. He was picked off on his first third-down attempt, and the Dolphins cashed the turnover in for an early 7-0 lead.
Lock returned on the next series to throw two more incompletions, including a deep overthrow intended for Tim Patrick. He began the third drive in similar fashion and stared down a third-and-10 with an 0-for-6 stat line. The boos had returned to Empower Field at Mile High — as they did before a 21-point comeback against the Chargers — and the Broncos were in danger of recording three consecutive three-and-outs with just one yard of total offense.
On third-and-10, though, Lock fired a bullet to KJ Hamler, who held on for a 15-yard gain. Eight plays later, the Broncos were in the end zone — and they wouldn't trail again.
"That was a big one," Lock said after the win, his seventh as a starter. "That's one of those play calls where you're pushing the ball downfield. ... We timed it up great. KJ is a threat over the top. He's got a lot of speed and when you mix that with a really good ability to be able to shut it down quick, he's tough to guard — and that's exactly what it was. It was perfect timing for both of us. He ran a perfect route and it worked.
"Those are plays that we've got to have in these games and they're there for us to make. That was one of the plays that maybe last week or the week before we don't make, and we're coming off the field with a different vibe on the sideline. I'm proud of us for always progressing."
Beginning with that third-down completion, Lock completed 18 of his next 24 throws. Although he wasn't perfect — he misfired six more times on the day, including an overthrow to an open Troy Fumagalli in the third quarter — he avoided mistakes and looked more like the quarterback that led the Broncos to four wins in five games to end 2019.
"I think Drew comes back from bad plays," Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the game. "I think that's one of his good qualities. I don't think he lets it linger and has a hangover from it. Again, getting the running game going helps the boot game and having the defense play well alongside that turns it to where it's not a game where you have to throw it every play and they can tee off on the rush."
Indeed, Lock relied on a potent rushing attack that tallied 189 yards on 33 carries. That output was the team's highest of the season and the most in a game since last year's Week 5 win over the Chargers.
Lock's ability to rebound from two consecutive losses, though, was about more than an improved running game and a defense that held the Dolphins to 105 net yards through three quarters. His improved play — he finished 18-of-30 for 270 yards, one interception and a 75.7 quarterback rating — also took a degree of mental toughness.
"I just feel like, as a quarterback, you have to be able to have that mindset to where nothing can get to you," Melvin Gordon III said. "You have to go out there and just make a play. When everyone is against you, you have to understand and know that your teammates are with you, and that's really the only opinion that matters. He probably ran across some things and probably heard some things, but good quarterbacks block that out and do what needs to be done. Like I said, and like I tell the team all the time, this game is about winning and it's about losing; when you win, everyone loves you and when you lose, it just comes with the job — especially at quarterback. For him to come out here and be resilient and do what he needs to do to help this team — and lead after he took so much heat last week — it just shows what type of player he is."
Lock, who was limited in practice on Thursday and Friday and was listed as questionable to play, wasn't going to let a rib injury prevent him from leading his team to an upset win.
"There was a lot of talk about playing this week or not playing this week," Lock said. "There was nothing pain-wise that was going to stop me from playing in this game. It definitely wasn't an easy week of practice fighting through it — and even today a little bit."
But fight, he did. Through the injury and through a couple of poor performances.
By the time his last-second moonball to Patrick dropped into the receiver's hands, the Broncos had secured a win — and Lock had sent a message.