DENVER -- Early in the third quarter, Broncos fans weren't "united in orange." The only thing that bonded them was silence.
It was understandable, really. On the previous 13 plays, the Broncos had given up three touchdowns -- all of which were in some way self-inflicted. The issues were on all three phases: a protection breakdown and a falling receiver setting up two turnovers, a special-teams penalty for 12 men on the field negating a field-goal attempt and leading to a touchdown one play later; a wide open lane against the Broncos defense that allowed Washington running back Alfred Morris to sprint 14 yards to the Denver 1-yard-line.
This was four minutes and five seconds of forgettable football, and it could have undone not only the entire day, but the Broncos' hopes of keeping the streaking Chiefs within hailing distance with the home-and-home series looming in the next four games. The discomfort was exacerbated by the previous week's loss and starters Julius Thomas and Duke Ihenacho hobbling; neither would return because of ankle injuries.
A few fans in the end zone of the 300 level tried to get a "Let's Go Broncos" chant going. It died before it made it to the goal line. The nervousness in the crowd was as palpable as the sunshine above.
But none of that negative energy seeped to the Denver sideline. The Broncos had outgained Washington to this point, and until a 95-yard, 16-play march at the end of the first half, had held the Robert Griffin III-led offense in check. And even though the seven points were the fewest for the Broncos in a half in 14 games, the fact that it had been so long since the offense had been that stifled was evidence that the first 30 minutes was an aberration.
Still, it was a shock to the system of fans accustomed to one quick march after another, who seemed too stunned to fret. It was time for a rally. Not a panic-infused one flooded with deep shots and risky blitzes, but with short passes and draws on offense and four-man rushes on defense.
"Four quarters, man. It's four quarters," said defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "It's not whoever gets to 21 (points) first. We all knew what we had to do."
"No, never panic, because that's when things get worse," added Montee Ball. "We made sure to tell everybody to focus on your individual job, worry about what you have to do personally and get it done. I think that was the overall message and you could kind of see that's what happened."
The game had 26 minutes and 25 seconds left to play. For an offense as productive as Denver's, that's enough for an entire game's worth of production. For a defense as potentially explosive as Denver's, it was enough time to deliver the shutdown performance that was elusive in the season to date.
The Broncos' sprint to 38 unanswered points and a 45-21 romp began quietly.
Dink -- Knowshon Moreno gets six yards off right tackle. Dunk -- Peyton Manning hits Wes Welker for 11 yards. Dink -- Moreno rushes for six more. And then slam dunk -- Manning hits Welker for 28 yards.
Order was restored. Denver was only at the Washington 28 and a touchdown was still seven plays away, but with those four plays, the offense -- and the team as a whole -- had found its footing.
"I felt that drive was crucial," Manning said. "I knew we couldn't get it all in one play. Washington was truying to make us go the distance ... We knew at halftime we were going to have to go the long haul -- and we did."
But the momentum the Broncos seized on that 11-play, 75-yard drive would have been lost if the defense had not seized control. The next five series saw the Broncos pressure Griffin out of his comfort zone, causing the Washington offense to unravel.
On those possessions, Washington ran 16 plays and gained 17 yards. There were as many takeaways as first downs (two apiece), and one came directly from a penalty against Denver defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. At one point, Griffin was hit on four consecutive pass plays; two of those ended in sacks, one of which saw him lose a fumble after being jumped by Von Miller, who made his first sack of the 2013 season one for the career highlight reel.
By the time the Broncos were done, they led 38-21 and were as giddy as they were cool and composed when they trailed by 14 and faced the prospect of a two-game AFC West deficit and a dispiriting bye week.
"That's lights-out football, man," said Vickerson. "Stout against the run. Good against the pass. Can't ask for nothing better, man."
They kept their focus, and played what might have been the most dominating 25 minutes in recent memory -- a run only sullied by a pair of interceptions that likely kept Denver from a third 50-point outburst this season.
But the Broncos were so overwhelming and precise otherwise that it didn't matter -- all because they regained their composure after flirting with losing it for nearly five harrowing minutes.
"Well, it was a matter of -- we talk about it all the time -- focus on the skill to do your job, not the outcome," said tight end Joel Dreessen. "So, not to sound cliché, but you've got to dial it in really one play at a time. We know if we do that, then we can move the football and we eventually get in the end zone. We just focus on the skill."
And if the Broncos do that, the capabilities of their collective skill might be higher than anyone else's, and the issues the past two weeks will be aberrative hiccups, and nothing more.