The Buffalo Bills' defense rediscovered its early-season magic and put a dent in the Tim Tebow mystique Saturday.
The Bills harassed Tebow into the worst game of his life, intercepting four of his passes and returning two of them for touchdowns.
The 40-14 decision snapped Buffalo's seven-game losing streak in front of a crowd of 45,112, the smallest in a decade at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"It's been a long time coming," said defensive end Spencer Johnson. "Gosh, seven games? It felt good to come smiling into the locker room. For us to go out and play like we did, it's great to finally get that big gorilla off our backs."
"That's what we needed, that's what our fans needed, and that's what the whole community needed," said linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. "To let everybody know that there is some bright spots and things to definitely look forward to next year."
Buffalo (6-9) got 111 rushing yards from C.J. Spiller, an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown from Leodis McKelvin and an error-free game from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The defense, however, was the difference. During the seven-game losing streak, Buffalo had allowed an average of 32 points a game, and the Bills' defense had yielded 159 rushing yards a game while forcing only seven turnovers.
Saturday's victory was set up by the Bills' beleaguered run defense. Denver rushed for 53 yards on the way to a touchdown on its first drive of the game. After that, the Broncos managed just 80 yards on 26 carries, an average of only 3.07 per attempt.
Bills linebacker Chris Kelsay played his best game of the year. Kelsay manhandled Denver rookie tackle Orlando Franklin, setting the edge against the run and getting two quarterback sacks.
"Kelsay went off today," said linebacker Arthur Moats. "We had a favorable matchup with him. Then once we got them behind and we knew they were going to have to throw the ball, it was pin your ears back and go."
"It was a lot of fun today," Kelsay said. "Passing the ball hasn't been their forte, statistics-speaking, so we felt that if we could make them throw the ball, that'd play into our hand."
The Bills made the Broncos go three plays and out on all five first-half possessions after the opening drive. And the Bills players gave credit to beleaguered defensive coordinator George Edwards.
"I think coach Edwards did a great job as far as giving us different keys based on what personnel they had in the game and what type of plays they were gonna run," said cornerback Drayton Florence. "When they got in a regular set [two receivers, two backs], it was more traditional runs. When they got in two tight ends, it was more of the option game. So I think our defensive ends did a great job of being aware of that and knowing how they were going to attack us."
Kelsay beat Franklin for a 12-yard sack on Denver's second series. He held the edge on two straight 1-yard runs in the third. On a third-and-1 play on Denver's fifth drive, he stood up tight end Virgil Green and stuffed Jeremiah Johnson for no gain.
"On third and 1, teams have been attacking us on the flip play, where they fake it up the middle and flip it outside," Florence said. "We've been getting burned on that. This game we knew it was coming, our guys prepared for it, and we didn't let [Willis] McGahee get started."
Tebow threw only four passes in the first half, but with Buffalo holding a 23-14 lead late in the third quarter Denver had to open it up.
On first down from their own 10, the Broncos lined up four receivers on the left side of the formation, and Tebow threw down the numbers on the left for Eric Decker. Bills safety Jairus Byrd stepped in front of the pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.
"They were in a formation we recognized," Byrd said. "Tebow dropped back and he threw it where we thought he was going to throw it. Any time you're back in the deep middle, you've got to key the quarterback. He stared him down. I knew where he wanted to go."
On Denver's next possession, Kelsay beat Franklin around the edge and hit Tebow's arm as he threw. The ball blooped into the arms of Johnson, who returned it 17 yards for a score, his first since his college days at Auburn.
"I had a clear shot on him, and I know that as a left-handed quarterback, I had to launch to try to get the ball out of his hands," Kelsay said.
Tebow finished 13 of 30 for 185 yards, 86 of which came in the final seven minutes.
"They just tell Tebow to go out there and run around and make something happen," Florence said. "Early in the game they were running the ball because they didn't have to throw it. He's just using his athletic ability, sort of like Michael Vick was doing early in his career. Just give him one side of the field to read. If it's not there, make something happen and scramble."
"We were able to say when we're man to man, one of the backers lock the running back and the other one spies the quarterback," Sheppard said. "I mean, it worked to perfection today. They were flushing him, and myself or Nick would go and wrap and contain. It was just a good day all-around."