This was their last chance.
After a game full of opportunities, the Broncos had one final drive in front of them.
Down seven points, Joe Flacco and Co. needed to travel 62 yards in just under three minutes. Armed with only one timeout, the Broncos’ offense wouldn’t get the ball back if they failed.
In Flacco’s first regular-season home game as a Bronco, he had a chance to start a legacy in Denver. A defense full of Pro Bowlers — led by former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack — stood in his way.
Not a problem for Joe Cool, as his head coach called him in July.
“Joe’s got a calm demeanor about him, but he is still a fiery competitor,” Head Coach Vic Fangio said. “I think Joe’s at a time in his career that he has that calm demeanor about him — and when things are going good, it’s ‘Joe Cool.’ And if thinks aren’t going, well, [the impression is that] Joe doesn’t care that much — or he’s not getting fired up. That’s how Joe is. Joe is a competitor. He leads through example. He is not going to be a guy who loses his emotions.
“But trust me, inside his brain and belly, it’s turning for him.”
On that September Sunday, the 34-year-old quarterback buckled his chinstrap, called the play in the huddle and then walked to line of scrimmage.
And then he did what he came to Denver to do.
When John Elway traded for Flacco in March, the Broncos’ president of football operations/general manager said he believed the quarterback’s best football was ahead of him.
“Joe’s the perfect fit for us — the fact that he’s a winner, he’s played in a lot of big games and he has a lot of good football left in him at 34 years old,” Elway said. “We feel like he’s just really coming into his prime. We’re excited about the fact that he’s going to be our quarterback.”
Through three weeks, there’s reason to believe Flacco is living up to that standard.
His 69.1 completion percentage after three games would be the best mark of his career by four percentage points. He’s on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards and just 10 interceptions, both of which would be the second-best season totals in his 12-year career.
The Broncos rank 20th in total offense through three weeks, but they seemed to turn the corner in red-zone efficiency in a game against Green Bay. After scoring touchdowns in just two of their seven red-zone opportunities through the first two weeks, Flacco and Co. scored two touchdowns in three chances at Lambeau Field.
“I think pretty damn close,” said Fangio ahead of Week 3 when asked how Flacco has lived up to expectations. “I thought he’s thrown the ball well for the most part. Like all quarterbacks, I’m sure he has a throw or two that he’d like to have back in each game whether it be from the decision-making process or the accuracy process, but overall I think Joe’s done well.”
Perhaps the best news?
Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello’s system should highlight Flacco’s strengths — and it should continue to get more successful as the weeks progress. The Broncos, after all, are just a few weeks into installing the new system in Denver.
“I just know this, Joe is composed and he's tough under pressure,” Scangarello said. “It's what makes him a good quarterback. It's one of the things that I've felt all along that he's very underrated, I think it's starting to come out. Really, if you really think about it, every game from here on out, he should improve. It's more familiarity, more recall, more similar situations and that's the exciting part. I think he's playing pretty well. There’s plays that he wants back, but there's a lot of plays that he's made to keep us in the game and that's exciting. I think we can feel that.
“The points will come, and he'll end up winning a lot of games for us, because in the clutch, you can count on him.”
Flacco says he didn’t say much to his teammates as he walked into the huddle against Chicago.
Whatever he did say seemed to work.
“We ended up not being in the huddle that long, but it's really no different than any other [drive],” Flacco said. “I think we were pretty confident at that point in the game. We had kept them on the field for a pretty long time, so we were just kind trying to execute. Then, once the drive starts, everybody just kind of gets the play and you're just playing football. You're reacting and doing your thing at that point.”
He found Royce Freeman to start the drive with a 19-yard gain, hit Courtland Sutton for a pair of fourth-down conversions and then lofted a perfect pass to Emmanuel Sanders in the back of the end zone.
Then, after Fangio decided to go for a two-point conversion, Flacco found Sanders again at the near pylon for the lead.
The Broncos weren’t able to hold their lead due to a series of unfortunate plays, but Flacco had done his part.
“Seeing it year in and year out, that doesn’t lie to you,” running back Phillip Lindsay said. “He’s going to be who he is — and that’s a calm, cool and collected man that’s going to win games.
“We scored and then we went for two and we scored — he did his job.”
Since his NFL career started in 2008, late-game drives have simply been a part of Flacco’s game. The veteran quarterback ranks eighth among active quarterbacks with 24 game-winning drives, and were it not for the Bears' late score, he would've added another against Chicago.
Among active players, only Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford and Philip Rivers have more game-winning drives.
“Joe’s been in that situation a lot playing in the AFC North,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “I played in the AFC North as well, and playing in that division, it’s always going to be close games. It’s always going to be crunch games. He just has that [mentality] of ‘Let’s go out and win this game by any means [necessary].’”
But as Sanders explained, part of what makes Flacco so good in those moments — what makes Joe Cool — is that he’s the same person on fourth-and-10 as he is in the locker room on Monday afternoon.
“He’s always the same,” Sanders said. “His personality is the same no matter what. He’s smooth, cool. Cool, calm and collected. That’s just Joe. I’ve never seen him get out of that character. That’s just who he is.”
Only after the successful two-point conversion did Flacco show emotion.
He and Sanders bumped helmets, screaming in exultation.
That, Joe, was cool.