The enduring play of the best game of Drew Lock's young career will be his 49-yard bomb to KJ Hamler for a fourth-quarter score that put the Broncos ahead by double digits with less than four minutes to play.
It was an aggressive, arcing pass that landed in KJ Hamler's outstretched hands, and it was the type of play that Broncos fans expect to see from the hopeful franchise quarterback.
And it likely wouldn't have happened if not for a series of shorter passes over the course of the previous three quarters.
After several games of failing to find success on deep passes, Lock was 3-of-3 for 117 yards and two touchdowns on his attempts that traveled at least 21 yards downfield. But, perhaps more importantly, Lock was 18-of-24 for 163 yards and two touchdowns on his other pass attempts, as he consistently relied on check-down passes and screen plays to help the Broncos move the ball through the air.
Lock's commitment to the short passing game allowed him to avoid throwing an interception for just the third time this season, and he led the Broncos on four touchdown drives against a middling Panthers defense.
And in the second half, after Lock had lulled the Panthers' defense into expecting the short passes, he went over the top for a series of big plays, including the final score to Hamler.
"It was just about me coming in and doing my job," Lock said. "Knowing that if I just play my game and let it come to me, then the big ones will come. 'Ryp' [reserve QB Brett Rypien] tells it to me every single week. He goes, 'Hey, you're a special player. But do your job here these first couple quarters, maybe in the third quarter the big play needs to be there and you're good enough to make the big play. Make it when it's there. Check these balls down if it's not there. If it eats you up or you know it's going to be a close one, if you try to press something, get it down.'
"[Quarterbacks Coach Mike] Shula and [Offensive Coordinator] Pat Shurmur were obviously stressing that to me throughout the week, and we worked on it in practice. In my opinion, it's just me starting to feel things and seeing it and knowing where to get the ball when it's just not perfect."
While not every play was perfect, Lock's stat line was close. He finished 21-of-27 for 280 yards, a career-high four touchdowns and a 149.5 quarterback rating. It was likely the best performance of his young career, and it placed him among elite company. Lock's passer rating is the third highest in franchise history, behind only performances from Peyton Manning and John Elway.
Lock also became just the fourth Broncos quarterback to throw at least four touchdowns, no interceptions and complete 75 percent of his passes.
"Drew had a heck of a game today," Hamler said. "We can do that every week. I think he was on-point today. He's doing his thing, I'm not going to lie about that."
Getting to Sunday's performance, however, wasn't so easy. Lock had thrown 13 interceptions over his last seven games, which led the AFC, and he faced questions ahead of Sunday about his decision-making and reluctance to check the ball down.
"That's the toughest thing to learn, for me at least," Lock said. "I don't know about others, but that's the toughest thing for me. Yes, [Elway has] preached to me just doing your job and not trying to force anything. Once you force it, those are the ones that you want back. It sucks, because the ones you end up forcing are in games that you want really, really bad. You want to win so badly that you end up doing some things out of character. It's all about being calm and focused in those games. That's when you make the right decisions, and I've been getting preached that quite a bit here these last couple weeks."
It seemed to sink in Sunday, as Lock led the Broncos to their third road win of the season and largely avoided the negative plays that have plagued him this year. A second-quarter strip-sack seemed to result from a protection breakdown rather than a mistake of Lock's, and a dangerous pass near his own end zone on the team's penultimate drive was caught safely by Melvin Gordon III. Instead of pondering what-ifs, Lock left the field celebrating a four-touchdown performance.
At least for a week, the questions about his decision-making and the Broncos' plans at quarterback should cease. Then, next week against the Bills, Lock will get to return to the field with a chance to prove himself all over again.
Via check-downs or deep passes, the second-year quarterback will aim to lead his team to another win.