DENVER (AP) – What Mitch Unrein lacks in dance moves he more than makes up for in shock value.
The second-year defensive lineman out of Wyoming helped the Denver Broncos wrap up their second straight AFC West title Sunday with their seventh straight win, a less-than-perfect but oh-so-pretty 31-23 win over the feisty Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Unrein caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to open the scoring, then came free for the big hit on Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman that forced a bad throw that ended up in Von Miller‘s hands for the game’s biggest play.
Miller’s pick-6 marked the first career interception and the first career touchdown for last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, who is making a stronger case by the week for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
And it put this game out of reach at 28-10.
Miller did a hip-swaying jig in the end zone, unlike Unrein, who became the first defensive lineman to catch a touchdown pass in Broncos history and celebrated with a big-time spike – followed by a mad scramble to retrieve the football.
“After I spiked it, I was, like, `Uh, oh, where’d it go?” Unrein said. “Luckily, I got it back.”
He left the dancing to Miller, though.
“I have two left feet as they say. I can two-step a little bit, country dance,” Unrein said. “It all happened so fast I didn’t know what to do.”
Unrein trotted onto the field on first-and-goal from the 1 and lined up at fullback.
“Certainly when you put a big D-lineman in there, a lot of times the defense is thinking run,” Manning said.
Unrein, though, slipped into the left flat and hauled in Manning’s floater in stride.
“It was a Willie Mays catch,” marveled teammate Kevin Vickerson. “It was over the shoulder just like Mays.”
And it seemed the hang in the air for just as long as Vic Wertz’s drive to the warning track in the 1954 World Series, too.
“It felt like a really long time when that ball was floating toward me,” Unrein said. “I was like, `Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it.’ Luckily, it hit my hands and I caught it. That’s why I wrapped it up with both hands and stood there for a second and was like, `I just scored a touchdown. That’s pretty cool.’
“Then, afterward, I had no dance, no skills like Von Miller.”
Although the Broncos had put in the trick play at practice several weeks ago – and Unrein said he caught it every time – the play surprised teammate Champ Bailey.
“Not that they threw to him, but that he caught it,” Bailey noted. “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.”
It sure stunned the Buccaneers.
“You never prepare for that play,” safety Ronde Barber said. “It happens. There isn’t much you can do about it. It never had shown up on film.”
About 90 minutes later, Unrein helped Miller get into the end zone for his first career TD, coming through the line unblocked and hitting Freeman just as he threw toward Vincent Jackson.
The ball floated into Miller’s hands at the 26 and he ran untouched into the end zone.
“I only had some O-linemen in front of me,” Miller said. “I felt like my odds were pretty good.”
Miller’s touchdown came just after Demaryius Thomas‘ second straight TD catch from Manning, whose 29 touchdown throws this season surpassed Jake Plummer and John Elway for the most scoring tosses in a single season for the Broncos.
“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 for 242 yards.
The Broncos (9-3) won their seventh straight and wrapped up a date in January in the playoffs, though there were no whoops and hollers in the locker room.
“It’s one step,” Bailey said. “It’s not like we’ve done everything we want to do.”
The Bucs (6-6), surprising contenders under first-year coach Greg Schiano, fell a game behind Seattle for the second NFC wild-card spot and their loss clinched the NFC South for Atlanta.
The Broncos held Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin to 56 yards on 18 carries.
Manning went 27 for 38 for 242 yards, as the Broncos scored 30-plus points for the sixth time over their seven-game win streak. Despite Denver’s big numbers, which included eight catches for 99 yards for Thomas and nine receptions for 89 yards from tight end Jacob Tamme, this was another far-from-perfect effort from the Broncos’ offense.
Manning was frustrated in the first half as a series of penalties, off-target throws and missed protections kept him biding his time on the bench. The only real highlight came at the end of his first drive – the 1-yard touchdown pass to Unrein.
Freeman countered with an 11-yard scoring strike to Manning’s friend and former top target in Indianapolis, Dallas Clark.
After that early touchdown drive, Freeman never got comfortable again, although he led the Bucs on a 47-yard TD drive that made it 31-23 with 2:33 left. Eric Decker recovered the onside kick and Denver lined up in victory formation twice. Schiano, as is his wont, had his players fire off the ball.
“After the game he came up and told me on the end-of-game play he didn’t mean any harm,” Manning said. “And I appreciated that comment.”
NOTES: Broncos K Matt Prater missed from 47 yards, making him 2 for 5 from 40 to 49 yards this season and 15 for 17 from everywhere else, including 3 for 4 from 50-plus. … Bucs CB LeQuan Lewis appeared to sustain a serious leg injury in the closing minutes on special teams.
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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