CLEVELAND -- After a white-knuckle, now-they've-seen-everything ride on the shores of Lake Erie, the Denver Broncos are still among the league’s undefeated Sunday with a 26-23 overtime victory over the Cleveland Browns in FirstEnergy Stadium.
The win pushed the Broncos to 6-0, marking the seventh time in franchise history the Broncos have started a season with six straight wins. On five of the other occasions (1977, 1986, 1997, 1998 and 2013) the Broncos advanced to the Super Bowl.
However, these Broncos have conducted their business in stark contrast to the success found in recent seasons, including in their last Super Bowl trip in 2013. These Broncos have done it with defense and kicker Brandon McManus’ right leg.
The Broncos overcame three Peyton Manning interceptions -- one of which was returned for a touchdown by Karlos Dansby in the fourth quarter and one which came in overtime -- drops by No. 1 wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and ill-timed penalties to grind out the win.
A 75-yard touchdown throw from Manning to Emmanuel Sanders in the fourth quarter was the Broncos’ only touchdown, meaning the defense equaled that output with corner Aqib Talib’s 63-yard interception return, the fourth touchdown the Broncos' defense has scored this season.
A win is certainly a win, but the Broncos move through their bye week with an offense that carries plenty of questions along with with November games against the Green Bay Packers (Nov. 1) and New England Patriots (Nov. 19).
And while the defense has been good enough to carry them, the Broncos will spend their week off knowing it may not be enough to make all of their title dreams come true.
What were they thinking?: The Broncos continue to show maddening lapses in discipline. Defensive end Derek Wolfe was flagged with 3:27 left in the game for an inexplicable roughing-the-passer penalty that pushed the Browns deep into Broncos territory. Defensive end Malik Jackson, who has already paid league-mandated fines this season, had a facemask penalty with just under a minute to go in the first quarter. Jackson’s penalty kept a Browns drive going and Cleveland was poised to turn the second chance into at least some points until Talib’s interception return closed out the Browns’ drive four plays later. And with 9:14 left in the third quarter, wide receiver Bennie Fowler simply ran into Travis Benjamin after Benjamin had signaled for a fair catch on a punt return.
One reason to get excited: The Broncos' defense certainly travels. It continued to flash its ability to get to the quarterback and turn any play into an impact play for the team. Shaquil Barrett, who started in place of the injured DeMarcus Ware, had the trifecta play -- sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery -- which showed the Broncos’ depth on that side of the ball.
One reason to panic: C’mon, when the Broncos' offense struggles this much, there is a problem. Manning threw his third interception that was returned for a touchdown this season -- one of three INTs he had in the game -- and the Broncos’ inability to close out drives with touchdowns is a problem that doesn’t seem to have an easy solution.
Fantasy watch: First, Gary Kubiak said Ronnie Hillman would get some carries in the offense, then he said Hillman would split the carries with C.J. Anderson about 50-50. But Sunday it was clear Hillman may have moved solidly into the No. 1 role. Hillman now has both of the team’s 100-yard rushing games this season and he consistently showed good burst and the kind of cut-back ability the Broncos want in the offense.
Ouch: A tough day on the injury front for the Broncos saw rookie linebacker Shane Ray leave the game in the first half with a right knee injury. Ray will have additional tests after the team returns to Denver, including an MRI exam, but the concern is Ray suffered significant damage to his knee. Tight end Owen Daniels and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders have shoulder injuries. They will be examined Monday. Sanders was injured on an incompletion up the Broncos sideline -- the play was initially ruled a catch and reversed after a replay review -- before the end of regulation. Linebacker Corey Nelson also left the game in the fourth quarter after being injured on a punt return.