The second-year defensive lineman out of Wyoming played as big a role as Manning, Miller or anyone else Sunday in helping the Denver Broncos defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23 and wrap up their second straight AFC West title.
Unrein caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Manning to open the scoring, then got the hit on Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman that forced a bad throw. It ended up in Miller’s hands and, moments later, the end zone for the score that turned the game into a runaway.
“People are going to have to game-plan for that guy,” cornerback Champ Bailey said.
Thomas caught two other touchdown passes from Manning, who now has 29 this year and passed Jake Plummer and John Elway for the most scoring throws in a single season.
The Broncos (9-3) won their seventh straight and wrapped up a date in January in the playoffs, though there were no champagne bottles being uncorked 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. They were in this game until Unrein made his second big play and set the stage for Miller’s first NFL touchdown, which capped a 21-0 third quarter for Denver.
“The reality is, we get hit and throw the pick-6,” Schiano said. “That changes the complexion of the game. 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. And … if you’re able to be in a game where you can run it, oftentimes you’ll be able to run it in the fourth quarter.”
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 — a night-and-day difference from last year, when they won the division at 8-8 and played close-to-the-vest, low-scoring games with Tim Tebow running the offense.
Yet despite Denver’s big numbers Sunday, which included eight catches for 99 yards for Thomas and nine receptions for 89 yards from tight end Jacob Tamme, this was, yet again, a far-from-perfect effort fromManning and Co.
The quarterback was frustrated in this 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 — a 1-yard touchdown pass to Unrein, who became the first defensive lineman to catch a touchdown pass in Broncos history, then celebrated with a big-time spike.