(Jacksonville, FL) Tebow mania swept northern Florida for the NFL season opener at Jacksonville on Sunday, but the homecoming hype wilted in the heat as the Jaguars outlasted the Broncos, 24-17.
It was a defensive dual for much of the game with the first touchdown not coming until 14:10 minutes into the second quarter. Mercedes Lewis scored on a 21-yard David Garrard pass for Jacksonville and the Broncos answered :34 seconds later on a 8-yard Jabar Gaffney touchdown catch to close out the half, 7-7.
Adrenalin rushes were abundant yet unrewarded on the Broncos sideline after several players lost reason to celebrate with the loss. Tim Tebow’s homecoming in his first NFL game, Jabar Gaffney’s homecoming touchdown, the first of the Broncos 2010 season, and Robert Ayers first career NFL sack in his sophomore year, all in vain.
“It doesn’t feel good at all,” Gaffney said after the game. “We wanted to come out here and win. That’s first. Individually, I’m not really looking at that. I just want to win as a team.”
Defensive Robert Ayers echoed Gaffney’s sentiment. “In this game, it didn’t really mean much,” Ayers said. “We lost, so that’s all that mattered — the stat in the win-loss column. That’s all I worry about. We didn’t get it done today, so that’s what I’m focusing on.”
Record setting temperatures were met with cooling rains and lightning causing a 33 minute delay at the start of the fourth quarter of the game. The 105-degree heat index was the hottest game on record for the Jaguars.
Both teams traded punches until the final frame but it was a costly Kyle Orton interception on the Broncos last possession that prevented a second consecutive come-from-behind opening day road victory for head coach Josh McDaniels.
The Broncos opened the game with three big plays including a 28-yard Daniel Graham catch, a 10-yard Knowshon Moreno run and a 13-yard Eddie Royal catch. But the drive stalled after a rookie Zane Beadles holding call, and sack of Kyle Orton on Beadles side of the line.
No time was wasted getting Tim Tebow into the game. Tebow was used on the third offensive play in the game taking his first play under center on a quarterback draw. The play resulted in a one-yard gain. “With Tim’s package, if it was something that gave them trouble, we would stay in it maybe a little bit more,” McDaniels said. “But we had no predetermined number of plays for that.”
Tebow returned to where it all began when he was a standout quarterback for the Florida Gators and became the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for twenty or more touchdowns in a season. He played quarterback for Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida 18 miles south of Jacksonville.
“It’s cool for the first opportunity for me to play in a real game to be in Jacksonville, a place that I’ve played a lot of games,” Tebow said. “That was a lot of fun.”
Running back Knowshon Moreno returned to the lineup for the Broncos after missing the entire preseason. Moreno’s first play from scrimmage was a ten yard run for a first down. “I needed to get back out there and get used to the speed of the game again and how physical the game is,” Moreno said. “It felt great to get back — especially for the team.”
Correll Buckhalter backed Moreno and had a crucial fumble in Jaguars territory negating a Broncos drive. Moreno finished with 60 yards on 15 carries. Buckhalter had 15 yards on six carries.
“We only had one negative run all day, but we feel like we left a lot of yards on the field in the running game,” McDaniels said. “We had some plays (where we) either blocked well and didn’t see it exactly the way we need to see it or could have blocked it better based on the opportunity that we were presented and didn’t quite get that done.”
With that said McDaniels turned to his former team for an answer, adding running back Laurence Maroney to the Broncos lineup in a trade for an unspecified 2011 draft pick with the New England Patriots. Maroney is a former first-round pick and accumulated 2,430 rushing yards with 21 touchdowns in his first four seasons in the league, adding 40 catches for 409 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield.
Sunday’s loss against the Jaguars was the first season opening loss for the Broncos since 2006. The loss puts the heat on the Broncos to post a first win in what is an unforgiving schedule in the first quarter of the season. The new Moreno – Maroney backfield will look to get things on track in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
The Broncos have never lost a home opener at INVESCO Field and enter Sunday’s game against Seattle having won its last 10 home openers (since 2000). That streak is the longest current streak in the league and is tied for the third longest in the NFL since the 1970 merger. Also the Broncos own an NFL best 23-3 record in home openers since 1984.