JACKSONVILLE — Is your Broncomania beat down by defeat and long-suppressed inside your aching heart? Go ahead and let it out. It’s safe again to have a crush on the orange.
While COVID-19 still lurks in every aspect of our lives, no longer does the pandemic define us. For the first time since the coronavirus shook us to the core, more than 75,000 fans will stand and roar as the undefeated Broncos take the field next weekend for a home-opener in a stadium filled to the brim with hope and joy.
“I expect an electric stadium. So buckle yourself down. That stadium is going to be alive and well,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said Sunday, after Denver’s 23-13 thumping of Jacksonville.
The best moment of this victory was after most of the crowd at TIAA Bank Field had already headed to the exits. Unable to hug his mother due to COVID safety protocols Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater tossed a football to Rose Murphy. It was his most-rewarding completion of the afternoon.
“I was able to run over to my Mom and toss her the ball after the game. I couldn’t touch her or anything. It’s a huge sacrifice we make daily,” said Bridgewater, who decided against buying 60 tickets for friends and family in Florida out of an abundance of caution against the coronavirus.
The bond between Bridgewater and his mother is a story well-loved and fondly told.
Teddy wanted to quit football at age 14, wanting only to take care of his mom after she was diagnosed with cancer. Rose would hear none of it, telling him to play on while she fought the disease.
When a gruesome knee injury in 2016 threatened not only his NFL career but possible amputation of his left leg, Teddy’s comeback began with the strength gained by watching Rose beat cancer.
“It’s definitely a grind still going to work during the pandemic,” Bridgewater said, “because you don’t want to be the guy (that risks exposure to COVID), you don’t want to be selfish and bring anything within the locker room.”
The dangers of a pandemic that has killed nearly 700,000 Americans haven’t disappeared. That’s why I wish the Broncos would step up and require proof of vaccination before allowing any fan in their stadium for the home opener against the New York Jets. But the team will instead follow local health guidelines and encourage unvaccinated patrons to wear a mask.
During the darkest days of COVID-19 in 2020, football was a welcome distraction in Broncos Country. But it never felt anything like a party. A year ago, health restrictions allowed fans through the gates of Empower Field only four times. Attendance was limited to no more than 5,341. Although their cheers were spirited, they rang hollow in a stadium that felt like a ghost town.
This Broncos team that 75,000 strong will enthusiastically greet next week is not flamboyant, but fully committed to what it does best. Denver is methodical on offense, now having controlled the ball an average of 37 minutes in two victories. Bridgewater has completed 77% of 70 pass attempts, not a single one resulting in an interception. With linebacker Von Miller back from injury and showing Vonster tendencies, the defense has shown hints it could be among the five stingiest in the league.
The turning point of this game was ushered in by a hard rain during the final minute of the first half, as Denver clung to a 10-7 lead. With a chance for Jacksonville to tie, Josh Lambo instead hooked a field-goal attempt from 48 yards wide left.
Whatever home-field advantage that was in this stadium had been reduced to puddles of mud. And when the Broncos began the third quarter with a long touchdown drive, capped by a 14-yard pass from Bridgewater to tight end Noah Fant, the Jaguars felt that same creeping hopelessness Denver players have battled far too often during a five-year playoff drought.
I’ve got nothing against Jacksonville. But with the Florida Gators residing in a nearby swamp, this town has never seemed particularly enamored with NFL football. If London calls the Jaguars, they should not only answer, but pack their bags and leave.
A 2-0 start does not guarantee anything except Mile High will rocking for the home-opener.
“I don’t even remember the last time we were 2-0,” Miller said. “We want to keep pushing.”
Should the Broncos go 3-0 with a victory against the woebegone Jets, then maybe we’ve really got something to talk about. Since 1990, nearly three out of four (74.2%) of the 155 NFL teams that didn’t lose through three weeks have earned a playoff bid.
The Broncos are coming home to a city that has been aching to fall in love again with its NFL team.
“I can’t wait to get there,” Fangio said. “But I’m going to calm myself down and put in a good, solid week of work.”