Denver's defense was so dominant in beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that the Broncos even spared tackle Mitch Unrein to help unclog their sputtering offense.
When he wasn't catching Peyton Manning's first touchdown pass, Unrein helped build a wall of defenders that slowed down Doug Martin, flustered Josh Freeman and derailed the Bucs in Denver's 31-23 win Sunday.
The Buccaneers (6-6) hung tough until the third quarter, forcing four consecutive punts after a game-opening TD drive before things got out of hand.
Manning threw TD passes to Demaryius Thomas on consecutive drives to erase a 10-7 halftime deficit, something defensive end Da'Quan Bowers said was "definitely disheartening. They found a hole in the defense and capitalized on it."
The real backbreaker came two plays after Thomas' second TD grab.
That's when Unrein, a second-year undrafted defensive tackle-turned tight end from the University of Wyoming, blasted Freeman just as he released a throw to Vincent Jackson.
Von Miller snared the pass at the 26 and raced untouched into the end zone for his first career pick-6. That put the Bucs in a 28-10 hole they couldn't climb out of, sealing the NFC South crown for the Atlanta Falcons and relegating the Buccaneers to the wild-card chase.
"You look at that type of swing that a pick-6 is from a mental standpoint, from a point standpoint, it's tough to overcome," said Freeman, who completed 18 of 39 passes.
"That changes the complexion of the game," Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano said. "Now, we're not able to run the football. I mean, we didn't run it gang-busters in the first half, but we ran it."
Despite becoming mostly one-dimensional, Freeman led the Bucs on two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to make a game of it. Michael Koenen's onside kick was corraled by Denver's Eric Decker with 2½ minutes remaining and the Broncos (9-3) ran out the clock for their seventh straight win and the AFC West title.
Freeman was only sacked once — but that was by Miller, who forced a fumble on the play, and also had one of Denver's 10 pass breakups that were a result of so much pressure they put on the passer.
"The hype these guys get, it's well-deserved," Freeman said. "They get after it."
Martin was held to 56 yards on 18 carries, one of the worst days of his sensational rookie season, and Denver played two high safeties, taking away the deep passes.
"I have to give respect to the Denver Broncos," Martin said. "They did a good job of containing our offense."
And making them one-dimensional.
"That is every offense's dream, to have the best of both worlds," said tight end Dallas Clark, who caught an 11-yard TD pass in the first quarter. "You really put yourself against the wall when you can't get that part of the game going."
Denver's stout defense allowed the Broncos' sputtering offense a chance to settle down after a series of mistakes and missed assignments kept the crowd quiet, concerned they were about to witness the Broncos' first loss in 56 days.
Manning drove the Broncos 65 yards on their opening drive, hitting Unrein with a touchdown toss.
"Was I surprised? Yes," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Not that they threw to him, but that he caught it. Too many times you see a defensive player run a route, be wide open and he drops it. He got his hands up and caught it."
"You never prepare for that play," Bucs safety Ronde Barber said. "It happens. There isn't much you can do about it. It never had shown up on film."
Manning also threw a dart on third down to a fallen Knowshon Moreno, who rolled over for the first down, and another time spun and threw to Lance Ball 6 yards behind him. By game's end, he had another stellar stat line: 27 for 38 for 242 yards, three TDs and one interception.
"We threw a lot of looks at him. They worked for a half, but you know he's seen them all," Barber said.
"The big guy under center is the difference," said Bucs cornerback Leonard Johnson. "He fuels the machine. I thought we had a handle on him in the first half. Then on their second possession of the third quarter, it got away from us."
In the end, the Bucs couldn't overcome the 18-point hole that Miller's interception return created, leaving them to take solace in the fact they still haven't lost a game by more than a touchdown this season.
"This team is going to fight," Schiano said.
The Buccaneers have lost consecutive games for the first time since dropping three in a row in September yet are still in the thick of the wild-card race.
"We have a lot of football left to be played," Freeman said.
Notes: CB LeQuan Lewis appeared to sustain a serious leg injury in the closing minutes, but the Bucs gave no update. ... Lavonte David's interception of Manning marked the 19th straight game the Broncos have committed a turnover.
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