DENVER — The grief-stricken Denver Broncos honored the late Demaryius Thomas by wearing his number on their helmets, his jersey on their backs and his memory in their hearts.
They knelt in tribute to his number 88 painted on their sideline and didn't bother fighting back the tears during a moment of silence or the string of highlights shown on the scoreboard Sunday.
It was through their play that they best celebrated their fallen friend and retired receiver who died at his Georgia home on Thursday at age 33.
“The best way to honor his legacy is to go out and play great football,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said after the Broncos routed the Detroit Lions 38-10, a thrashing capped appropriately with an 88-yard touchdown drive.
“He probably was out there with us," said choked-up receiver Tim Patrick.
After the moment of silence and a video tribute, the Broncos (7-6) took the field with just 10 men in honor of Thomas. As the crowd chanted, “DT! DT!” the Lions (1-11-1) declined the delay of game penalty.
“That was for DT,” said Lions coach Dan Campbell. “That's who I did that for.”
Broncos coach Vic Fangio, who called his counterpart Saturday to tell him about the planned missing man formation, called it “a classy move on his part. And the Detroit Lions, they're a classy organization.”
Running backs Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon each scored a pair of touchdowns and Dre'Mont Jones had a monster game that included two sacks of Jared Goff.
Like so many of their fans, several Broncos arrived at the stadium wearing No. 88 jerseys and kicker Brandon McManus donned custom cleats featuring Thomas' famous mile-wide smile during the game.
About an hour before kickoff, local artist Armando Silva delivered a portrait of Thomas he painted in the parking lot to the Broncos’ locker room. That was followed by a pregame moment of silence and a video tribute featuring Thomas' 80-yard touchdown catch from Tim Tebow in overtime against the Steelers on Jan. 8, 2012.
Notorious slow starters, the Broncos scored touchdowns on their first two drives, Williams on a 5-yard run in which he carried safeties Dean Marlowe and Jalen Elliott across the goal line with him, and Gordon on a 1-yard run after a three-and-out by Detroit.
The first quarter ended with the Broncos holding a 14-0 lead, an 11-0 advantage in first downs and a yardage disparity of 135 to minus-1.
Their fortunes also flipped when the teams switched sides, however, and Goff quickly drove the Lions downfield and hit Kalif Raymond for the score from 7 yards out.
The Lions pulled to 14-10 on Riley Patterson's 36-yard field goal, but the Broncos went into the locker room up 17-10 on McManus' 52-yarder as the first half expired.
The Lions, coming off their first win but hit hard by COVID-19 last week — they had seven players on the virus list Sunday — coughed up the football on the second snap of the third quarter when Shelby Harris punched the ball from Godwin Igwebuike's grasp and linebacker Jonathon Cooper recovered at the Detroit 30.
Five plays later, Williams caught a 10-yard TD pass from Bridgewater, stretching Denver's lead to 24-10.
Jones had a dominant series on Detroit's next drive, dropping Goff for a 9-yard loss on his second sack, stuffing Igwebuike for a 3-yard loss and batting down Goff's pass on fourth-and-2.
“That was probably the greatest series of my of my career, like middle school included,” Jones said. “That was sweet for me.”
The Broncos took over at the Lions 33 and Gordon ran it in from 14 yards out. Albert Okwuegbunam's 4-yard TD catch capped an 88-yard drive late in the fourth quarter.
Denver's defense also had a goal line stand with safety Kareem Jackson breaking up Goff's pass to tight end Shane Zylstra on fourth-and-goal from the 4.
Midway through the fourth quarter, safety Justin Simmons picked off a pass and immediately darted to a blue circle on Denver's sideline, placing the ball in the middle of “88” stenciled in white paint.
“All I thought of," said Simmons, "was heading over there to DT and giving him the football.”