Finishing touch
Bill Williamson, The Denver Post, published 4 October 2004

Two weeks ago, in the Broncos' first Florida getaway of the season, Jason Elam never got to attempt a game-winning field goal. Sunday, the Broncos' offense allowed Elam a chance to be a fourth-quarter factor in Florida, Take Two, the difference in a similar game with a different outcome. "We won the game," Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Other than that, it was very similar. Same type of game. But this time we got it done."

Learning from the ineptitude of their first road foray of the season - a frustrating one-point loss at Jacksonville in a game the Broncos dominated - Denver was able to survive a defense-first game with a 16-13 victory over the still-winless Buccaneers. A dominant fourth-quarter offensive performance by Denver, which still needs to improve its running game and red-zone offense, keyed the victory. Fueled by another huge play centering on wide receiver Ashley Lelie, the Broncos sealed the game with a 23-yard field goal by Elam, his third of the game, with 9:07 remaining.

The Broncos are 3-1 heading into their game against Carolina (1-2) on Sunday at Invesco Field at Mile High. The Broncos, who lead Oakland and San Diego by a game in the AFC West, are 2-9 in Florida during the regular season. The Broncos flew home late Sunday night in a much cheerier mood than they did two weeks ago. "This time, we made the necessary plays," said middle linebacker Al Wilson, the leader of an increasingly dominant defense. "Two weeks ago we made mistakes, but we learned from those mistakes and we were able to turn it around."

Like the Jacksonville game, it was played in hot, humid weather. And like the Jacksonville game, both offenses struggled. However, unlike the Jacksonville game, the Broncos took advantage of their opportunities in the fourth quarter. "We are very fortunate to come away with a win," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "I knew it wasn't going to come easy."

As the game reached the fourth quarter tied 13-13, it seemed it was going to come down to one major play. It didn't take long for the big play to materialize. On the first play of the final quarter, Denver quarterback Jake Plummer tried to awaken the offense from a putrid third quarter in which the Broncos gained 10 yards and had no first downs and saw their 13-10 lead disappear. Plummer, whose record as Denver's quarterback improved to 12-4 with the victory, attempted a pass to Lelie at midfield. However, Lelie was mugged by Tampa Bay safety Dwight Smith on the play, giving Denver a first down at the 50. "At first I was upset at myself for not making the play," Lelie said. "But then I saw the penalty flag, and I realized why I wasn't able to make the play. I started feeling pretty good then."

Last week, in a 23-13 victory over visiting San Diego, Lelie's leaping, 33-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-9 was the key play of the game. Sunday, the penalty gave the Broncos the extra energy they needed. Thirteen plays later, Elam kicked the field goal. Denver dominated the clock in the fourth quarter as it had possession for 13 minutes, 20 seconds to the Buccaneers' 1:40. Tampa Bay ran just four offensive plays in the quarter. The Broncos, who used fullback Reuben Droughns as the lead back on several occasions, had 71 of their 111 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. "We buckled down in the fourth quarter and did our jobs," tight end Jeb Putzier said. "We did the things to win the game in the fourth quarter."

Defensively, the Broncos came up big despite Tampa Bay owning the ball 9:58 of the third quarter. With the score tied and the Buccaneers stealing the momentum, Denver safety John Lynch came up with the defensive play of the game against the team for which he started for 11 seasons. With hundreds of fans wearing Lynch's No. 47 jersey in the stands, Lynch leveled Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 from the Buccaneers' 44. Lynch credited defensive coordinator Larry Coyer for a brilliant, but unusual call by having the Broncos in a goal-line defense for the play. "That never happens at midfield," Brad Johnson said.

Lynch and the Denver defense survived a fluke play in the second quarter that cut Denver's lead to 10-7 - a 51-yard play from Johnson to rookie receiver Michael Clayton. Bailey fell, leaving Clayton wide open. Then, after making the catch, Clayton fell down. Lynch came in and touched Clayton; however, Clayton already was up and had strolled into the end zone. Still, despite the fluke plays, times of unsteady offense and the challenges of playing on the road, the Broncos found a way to reverse their Florida fortunes. "I don't care if we won ugly," Bailey said. "Road games are tough, especially out here in the heat. Back home in the Rocky Mountains, it's probably 40 degrees. It's a big difference. To win out here, we'll take it any way we can."