After 17 days, one canceled road trip, multiple schedule changes and a bit of a bumpy ride in the final minutes, the Denver Broncos showed, even considering their frustrations of the past two weeks, that they had made the most of their time.
With Drew Lock back at quarterback, Phillip Lindsay back at running back and a refreshed-looking group, the Broncos had neither punted nor had been flagged for a penalty until the fourth quarter. They got just enough on offense, all on six field goals from Brandon McManus, for an 18-12 victory over the New England Patriots as the team looked as prepared as coach Vic Fangio had repeatedly promised it would be.
It was McManus' first six field goal game of his career -- he had a five field goal game during the team's playoff run in the 2015 season -- as the Broncos improved to 2-3 after an 0-3 start. It was also the first time in franchise history a kicker had six field goals in a game.
Lindsay rushed for 101 yards on 23 carries in his first game action since leaving Week 1 with a toe injury. Lock, who had not played since leaving Week 2 with a shoulder injury, showed some rust at times -- especially with interceptions on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter -- but put a little big-play pop back in the offense.
The game had been rescheduled twice due to positive COVID-19 tests among multiple Patriots players, and the Broncos had not played a game since their Oct. 1 win over the New York Jets. The Broncos had practiced much of those two weeks, while the Patriots' practice schedule was inconsistent.
Two words: More Lindsay.
Lindsay's explosiveness was missed in the offense. While Melvin Gordon did have the team's only 100-yard rushing game over the first four weeks of the season, the Broncos had lacked some consistent impact running the ball.
They came into the game with 24 rushing attempts of no gain of negative yardage in the first four games -- by comparison they had 10 such runs over the first four games last season -- and had often put themselves in difficult second- and third-down situations because of it. But Lindsay's return certainly helped matters as he was quick to the hole and he found some creases in the Patriots' battered defensive line, especially in the first half.
Promising trend: The Broncos forced three turnovers to go with their four sacks, and that is something their defense could use a lot more of in the weeks to come.
Coming into Sunday's game, the Broncos had just one interception and had recovered one fumble -- both in their Week 2 loss to the Steelers -- which put them at the bottom of the league's rankings in takeaways.
The Patriots came into the game tied for eighth in the league in giveaways, with seven.
Biggest hole in game plan: Certainly when a team doesn't punt until the first minute of the fourth quarter, plenty of things have gone right on offense.
But the Broncos, almost desperately at times, want their three-wide receiver set to not only work, but to be their personnel grouping of choice. And at times they drift away from other things that are working to try and force the issue. The Broncos used a variety of two-tight end and two-back looks with plenty of success to build their early lead, but went in three-wide sets on the last eight snaps of the first half.
And in those eight snaps -- all in New England territory -- the Broncos were 0-of-2 passing, surrendered a sack and had a run for no gain.
When wide receiver KJ Hamler, who was inactive Sunday with a hamstring injury, returns to the lineup it will give the Broncos more options. But right now, as it was during training camp, their bigger personnel groupings are more productive, especially in the opponent's territory.
QB breakdown: Lock had not played since leaving the Week 2 loss to the Steelers with his right (throwing) shoulder injury and at times it showed.
But overall he clearly changed the tenor of the team's offense when he pushed the ball down the field multiple times in the Broncos' first two possessions alone. The Broncos had several drops as well, including a potential touchdown or two, but overall he was most comfortable when getting the ball to Tim Patrick, who had his second 100-yard game of the season. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who was a teammate of Lock's at Missouri, also had a nice game with two catches for 45 yards.
But Lock didn't reach a 50% completion rate -- he was 10 of 24 -- and his two interceptions over the final five minutes of the game, both from deep in Broncos' territory, were potentially crushing decisions.