The 2020 season has been all about rolling with the punches, but it sometimes it seems like the Broncos have taken more punches than most teams.
The timeline is painful, and quite literally. Von Miller went on injured reserve before the season began. During the Broncos' second game, they lost Courtland Sutton for the season and Drew Lock for two games. A little over a week later, the Broncos' biggest offseason acquisition, Jurrell Casey, also went on IR. In recent weeks, the team has lost more starters and key players to injuries or suspension, including Bryce Callahan, Mike Purcell and A.J. Bouye. And as is well known at this point, Broncos also had to play their Week 12 game against New Orleans without a single quarterback on the roster.
So when the Broncos entered this week, it had felt like they had possibly filled their bingo card in what has been a wild and unpredictable season.
But when their offense trotted onto the field in Charlotte on Sunday, it appeared there were a few more spaces that hadn't been hit. Garett Bolles was a late scratch for the game, as he came down with an illness Sunday morning, and Noah Fant later was ruled out with a similar illness. (Fangio said after the game that both tested negative for COVID-19 but would stay an extra day in Charlotte as a precaution.)
Even amid all that change, the Broncos appeared to be little worse for wear. The offense line — which featured three new starters in Calvin Anderson, Netane Muti and Elijah Wilkinson — allowed just one sack and helped Melvin Gordon III and Phillip Lindsay combine for nearly 100 yards. The end result was a tough road win.
"We hit a few more bingos today too," Fangio said. "You just deal with it. That's part of the good and bad of sports — there's adversity — but how you deal with it gives you an opportunity to overcome it, and which makes these wins even sweeter, makes being around these players even sweeter. These guys are a good group to be around."
The offensive line was probably the position group with the most last-minute changes, but the secondary had just as tough a task given the recent losses of Bouye, Callahan and rookie cornerback Essang Bassey. That already shorthanded group lost another player midway in the first quarter when Duke Dawson Jr. suffered a game-ending knee injury.
Get a closer look at Sunday's action against the Carolina Panthers with photos from photographers Gabriel Christus and Jacob Kupferman.
For the first three quarters, the secondary stood strong. The Broncos allowed just 122 yards through the air, with defensive backs Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons making key contributions in the run game, as well.
But in the fourth quarter, as the Panthers pressed harder to make up 15-point deficit, Denver struggled to keep Carolina from scoring. In the final frame alone, the Panthers racked up 156 net yards, including 123 through the air, and found the end zone twice.
That could have been three times — and four total fourth-quarter scores — if things didn't go well on the final drive. Carolina got the ball back with 2:48 left in the game — plenty of time for a veteran passer like Teddy Bridgewater and an explosive receiver like Robby Anderson.
Denver's defense had bent before, but it would not bend at that moment.
"It's about all 11 of us communicating and executing," Jackson said. "[I was] just telling the guys, 'We get a stop here, we're going to win the game.' Just encouraging the guys to give it all they had on that last drive. All 11 of us dug deep and we executed, and we were able to get a stop. It was huge for our defense. I wanted guys to continue to fight and play with that intensity and drive to get a stop."
The defense held strong, recording a sack and forcing an incompletion before De'Vante Bausby delivered the decisive blow, pulling down receiver Curtis Samuel for just a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-8.
"We found a way to get them stopped with a four-and-out there at the end of the game which is critical — hard to do," Fangio said. "That's kind of the team we have. We're a resilient group, we'll keep fighting even when it's not looking good, and I'm proud of the guys."
That Bausby — who has been cut multiple times in the NFL but has consistently come back to make plays — was the hero was evidence of that.
"Each man in that locker room knows that regardless of what position you play, your opportunity could be in front of you in seconds," Jackson said. "We have to go out and prepare every day, and each and every man has to hold himself accountable. As a team, we have to hold others accountable. Go out and prepare like you're going to be the guy that's playing. For guys to step in play the way they did today, it says a lot about the guys in this locker room being fighters."
As it turns out, the misfortunes that have plagued the Broncos since the season began have forged a steely fortitude that is belied by their 5-8 record.
"We don't like our record any more than anybody else does, but this is a great group of guys," Fangio said. "There's been a lot to overcome with the injuries starting from the first week of the season, all the way up to now — we lost a few more guys today. We'll keep battling, we'll keep dealing with it, and make the best of it."