CHICAGO --This was more like it.
The offense played its first turnover-free game of the season. The defense made the key takeaway when it mattered most in the fourth quarter, and then after the offense went three-and-out, stiffened just in time to stop Jeremy Langford on what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion.
It wasn't always elegant, but it was a 17-15 win over a Bears team that has made a habit of playing playoff contenders close at Soldier Field. They hung with the Packers and Vikings to the final moments earlier this season, so it was no surprise that they would stick with the Broncos on Sunday.
Denver might have lost its third game in a row if the recent sloppiness had continued. But with Brock Osweiler filling in for an injured Peyton Manning, the offense didn't lose the football once. Osweiler took sacks rather than trying to force the football and make ill-advised decisions. The running backs protected the football.
"What we needed to do was go play clean football as a team," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said. "We'd obviously had a bunch of turnovers [and were] hurting ourselves."The message this week was, 'Let's protect the football and play, okay? We'll play great defense; we're consistent in what we're doing there. And let's not hurt ourselves as a team. And that's what we ultimately did."
Let's look back at the three keys.
1. Put Osweiler in position to succeed.
Most of the Broncos' snaps were under center -- 51 out of 68, to be exact. They ran a few bootlegs and playfakes. They got the ground game going for a season-best 170 yards.
It was nothing new, at least not to anyone paying attention during training camp.
"Yeah. We just played better," RB C.J. Anderson said. "Everybody did their job better today, and that's all we can be happy about."
"We were really balanced today," TE Owen Daniels added. "We were able run the ball; we didn't have to get out of our game plan. We were able to stay committed to the run even though not every run was a big run, but as long as you can stay committed to staying in your game plan, you get a lot more stuff off the run where we run some keepers and play-action stuff down the field. Brock did a great job of handling it and obviously C.J. [Anderson] and Ronnie [Hillman] ran awesome, and the guys up front worked their butts off. If we can stay balanced, we can do a ton of different stuff and keep the defense kind of on their ears a little bit."
The rushing game was effective, but Kubiak would like to see the pass protection hold up better.
"We didn't protect him very well in the first half. He had to take his lumps in a couple of situations," Kubiak said. "But he kept his composure, and then would come back and make the next play. He did his job, he did a heck of a job, and his team played well around him, and that was the most important thing."
- Contain the Bears' RBs.**
Matt Forte was inactive, leaving the burden on Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey, and while there were bursts of effectiveness from each, neither turned in the kind of backbreaking breakaway plays that had helped the Bears climb back to within one game of .500 after an 0-3 start.
Forte and Langford combined for 57 yards on 22 carries -- a mere 2.6 yards per carry. Langford added 17 yards on three receptions, but neither had any gains longer than nine yards.
Without any consistency there, Jay Cutler had to test the Broncos downfield more often. While this resulted in some big plays, it didn't allow the Bears to have the kind of consistent offensive performance they needed.
3. Ride out the ups and downs.
Osweiler avoided mistakes in his first start, finishing with no interceptions on 20-of-27 passing. He took what was there; he found open tight ends on short and intermediate routes; he played with patience.
But sometimes, the timing will be amiss -- as it was on fourth-and-1 from the Chicago 2-yard-line, when the feet of Hillman and Osweiler became entangled. Hillman had a hole, a first down and a potential touchdown, but tripped, and the Broncos were stopped.
It wasn't a bad playcall -- but the execution was off. The seam was there. A bit more practice, and that shouldn't happen again.
Just as important was how the defense responded to penalties. It didn't flinch, and stiffened. Only after Bradley Roby's controversial pass-interference penalty while in coverage on Martellus Bennett did the Broncos follow a penalty by allowing a touchdown.