DENVER (AP) — 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."