DENVER --What does it say about the Broncos that they can lose the turnover battle, commit costly penalties and still defeat a team that came into Sports Authority Field at Mile High having won 19 of its last 20 regular-season games?
When Graham Gano's 50-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left, it allowed the Broncos to escape with a 21-20 win over the Carolina Panthers that mixed equal parts grit, guile and good fortune.
It was perhaps an attempt that should not have happened; a controversial penalty against Chris Harris Jr. kept the Panthers' potential game-winning drive alive, when he was called for illegal hands to the face in spite of Kelvin Benjamin appearing to grab Harris' face mask.
But that moment would not have been possible without the defense overcome a shaky first half to contain Carolina after halftime, holding them to three points and racking up three sacks of Cam Newton during a second half that saw Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware mount more pressure with each passing series.
"I think, shoot, Coach Wade just got aggressive," Harris said. "He said, 'Forget it, man, I'm just going to call everything aggressive,' and trust our DBs to play man. We kind of went back to our old play-calling from the Super Bowl."
And in one of the most physical games in recent memory, the Broncos followed the model that got them their third world championship: Crank up the pressure on defense, and capitalize on offense. Harris' tip-drill-to-himself interception early in the fourth quarter set up what turned out to be C.J. Anderson's game-winning touchdown run, and when Gano's kick missed, the Broncos escaped with their fifth consecutive home win by seven points or fewer.
"We're a dogfight team. We're relentless," Anderson said. "If we clean those mistakes, we'll put ourselves in position [to be] where we want to."
A look back at how the three keys to the game turned out:
- Use balance to defuse pressure**
Perhaps knowing that Carolina would try to stop the run first, the Broncos came out throwing, with Trevor Siemian dropping back to pass on the game's first five plays. Denver followed with a pair of C.J. Anderson runs for 13 and five yards, and the tone was set, although Devontae Booker's fumble on the next snap short-circuited what had been a promising first series for Siemian and the offense.
Siemian was able to use the play-action and screen passes to defuse the Panthers' potent pass rush. His first professional touchdown pass came on a perfectly-executed screen pass to C.J. Anderson; he stood tall and lofted the pass to Anderson under a heavy rush from Thomas Davis, then saw Matt Paradis, Michael Schofield and Max Garcia provide a burly escort to the end zone.
For the game, the Broncos called 28 pass plays, 27 run plays and two half-ending kneeldowns. That is balance, to a tee.
2. Start by stopping the run
After shutting down the Panthers early, the Broncos gave up some runs as the game progressed, but did allow the backbreaking long sprints that the Panthers pulled off throughout their 17-2 season.
Late in the second quarter, Newton's runs of 9 and 12 yards set up the 44-yard Graham Gano field goal that extended the Panthers' lead to 17-7. But the Broncos held the Panthers to first downs on just eight of their 32 runs. While Carolina moved the chains on just 25 percent of their carries, the Broncos moved the sticks on 33 percent of their 27 non-kneeldown runs.
3. Protect the football
The tone for the game appeared to be set when Devontae Booker entered on the first possession and immediately fumbled on his first professional carry, scuttling a promising drive at the Carolina 29-yard line.
The Broncos were able to overcome that early giveaway -- and two subsequent Siemian interceptions that gave the Panthers a plus-two turnover margin. But the Broncos bucked the odds to win; Carolina came into Thursday with a 28-game undefeated streak when it won the takeaway battle, and a 19-game winning streak with a plus-2 margin or better.
Meanwhile, the Broncos find ways to overcome their miscues. They are now 4-3 under Head Coach Gary Kubiak with a negative turnover differential. In that same time frame, the other 31 teams are 52-159 with a negative turnover margin.