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'We never question his toughness': Bridgewater's return from injury a testament to his will

DENVER — Two weeks ago, Teddy Bridgewater left Empower Field at Mile High with many outsiders questioning the toughness that is so integral to who he is.

During the Broncos' Week 10 loss to the Eagles, Bridgewater failed to make a tackle attempt on Philadelphia's Darius Slay as he returned a fumble for a touchdown. The following day, Bridgewater met the media and took accountability for what happened while deflecting any doubts about his fortitude.

"I know how tough I am physically, mentally," Bridgewater said. "I know how tough I am physically and mentally through what I've gone through in life. Nothing compares to some of the things I've gone through in life. I'm not worried about my toughness being questioned. We have a tough group of men here on this football team. I don't question their toughness either. We move forward."

True to his word, Bridgewater and the Broncos powered past that speed bump to bounce back on Sunday in Week 12 with a 28-13 win over the Chargers, and in doing so, Denver's starting quarterback showed the kind of resolve through injury that helped key Denver to a big divisional win.

Bridgewater's effort proved instrumental in the game early on. Midway through the first quarter and facing second-and-goal from the 11-yard line, Bridgewater took a shotgun snap and scrambled out to his right. Bridgewater took off down the sideline, staying just a hair inside the white paint, and leapt to the goal line, clearing the pylon with the ball for the touchdown. It would be the start to a lead the Broncos would not relinquish.

On the next Denver possession, Bridgewater took another shotgun snap. This time, as he rolled to his right in the pocket, Chargers safety Derwin James blitzed from Bridgewater's blind side. Just as Bridgewater began to throw, James collided with him. The ball, initially ruled a fumble, would remain in the Broncos' hands — but not Bridgewater's. He hobbled to the sideline and called for trainer assistance as Drew Lock took the field to replace him.

Behind an effective rushing attack, the Broncos salvaged the drive to add another touchdown to Denver's lead, but eyes remained on Bridgewater, who went to the locker room to receive X-rays on his lower leg.

"He suffered a shin injury," Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the game. "I don't have all the particulars, but for you guys who have ever had a shin injury, it kind of swells up real quick, which his did. They had to take some tests to make sure nothing was happening underneath it."

As halftime approached, the Broncos clung to their lead. An interception with less than two minutes before the break allowed the Chargers an opportunity to get on the board. They moved 47 yards in six plays to find the end zone, drawing within one score.

As the team headed to the locker room, uncertainty about Bridgewater's chances turned to hope.

"Coming in off the field, I didn't know," Fangio said. "Going back out, I knew he was going to give it a chance. We were on defense first, so he was going to run around and take some drops and see how it felt. I said if he feels good and he says he can go, we'll go with him."

For quite a long time, as the Chargers marched down the field on a seven-minute drive, Bridgewater got that opportunity and made his decision.

"I'm just really psyching myself [up]," Bridgewater said. "Just reassuring myself that I can get out there and, 'You can do this.' I just want to be out there for the guys. They work so hard throughout the week, we get so little opportunities, so it's just an opportunity for me to finish this game and help us come away with the win."

Midway through the third quarter, Bridgewater returned to the huddle for Denver's first possession of the half. After a short run, a holding penalty and two incomplete passes, he headed back to the sideline, surely ready for another possession and another chance. Another seven-minute Chargers drive later, he'd have that chance, and this time, he and the Broncos wouldn't be denied.

Bridgewater helped move the sticks three times to get Denver down the field, finding Courtland Sutton and Javonte Williams for two third-down conversions, and then Williams took a swing pass 42 yards to get Denver into the red zone.

Facing third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Bridgewater faked a handoff and ran to his right. An unblocked Joey Bosa sprinted directly at him, but Bridgewater — who surely wasn't feeling as nimble as he was on his earlier touchdown run — swept him aside with a stiff-arm and extended the play long enough to throw a dart to tight end Eric Saubert for the score.

"We never question his toughness," Saubert said. "That guy, he does it all and he pushes through a lot. He's been doing it all season. I think it just speaks to the type of guy and player he is. Hats off to him finishing that out."

A few minutes later, the Broncos essentially clinched the game as Pat Surtain II returned an interception for a touchdown, which pushed Denver's lead to 21 points.

By the game's end, the Broncos bathed in their big win over a division rival and onlookers and analysts began to turn their attention to the Broncos' next game — a duel with the Chiefs in Kansas City for the division lead.

"It's a great feeling, but we got work to do," Bridgewater said. "We have seven days until the next opportunity to go out and compete, so we got to make sure that we're maximizing and winning each day leading up to that game."

Until then, he and his teammates will have the time to do the necessary preparation and the chance to heal, but at least for the immediate aftermath, all the wounds of the day don't feel so bad at all.

"When you win, it doesn't really matter what you're going through," Bridgewater said. "You feel good. I feel good right now. We'll see how I feel when I wake up in the morning."

Get a closer look at Sunday's action against the Los Angeles Chargers with photos from photographers Gabriel Christus and Eric Lars Bakke.

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