Rookie quarterback Tom Brandstater turned in a solid dress rehearsal. Next up just may be the real thing.
With Denver's top two quarterbacks injured, Brandstater stepped in and guided the Broncos to a 19-0 win over the Arizona Cardinals in a preseason finale Thursday night.
In a composed and effective performance, Brandstater completed 16 of 30 passes for 187 yards, and led the Broncos to scores on four of their first five possessions. The only blemish for the sixth-round draft pick out of Fresno State was an interception by Michael Adams just before halftime.
"For a rookie quarterback, and I've had a chance to coach a number of them, he's really done a nice job," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "It's not too big for him, the game's not too big for him, the huddle's not too big for him. He operated with that first unit pretty good."
While Brandstater shined, the defending NFC champion Cardinals (0-4) struggled -- again. On the heels of a disappointing performance last week against Green Bay, coach Ken Whisenhunt hinted he might play his starters longer than usual for a final exhibition game.
But he gave Kurt Warner & Co. an early exit. Warner completed just 2 of 7 passes for 48 yards and one interception before heading to the bench following the first quarter.
"We'll clean it up," Whisenhunt said of the offense. "I still feel good about our football team and the way we've been working."
Warner, who threw 30 touchdown passes last season, had none in the preseason.
"I never really felt like I got into a rhythm today for whatever reason," Warner said.
Now, Warner's eager to exit the preseason and begin the Cardinals' NFC title defense.
"I'm looking forward to game-planning a team, putting in some plays and some things we've done in the past that we really haven't done in preseason," Warner said. "I'm looking forward to all of that. But you still don't leave preseason extremely excited about what we've accomplished."
The Broncos (1-3) avoided their first winless preseason since their first year of existence in 1960. The team will officially kick off the McDaniels era on Sept. 13 at Cincinnati.
Just who may be at quarterback, though, remains up in the air.
Brandstater could be in line to start should Kyle Orton and Chris Simms not heal in time.
Orton cut and dislocated his right index finger when he smacked his right hand on a defender while following through on a pass against Chicago on Sunday night. Simms, who's backing up Orton, was already sidelined after spraining his left ankle two weeks ago at Seattle.
Brandstater's preparing, just in case he's needed.
"Things happen -- just last week alone with the Kyle injury," Brandstater said. "That's a pretty freak accident that no one can predict at all. I'm glad I got my shot and hopefully I did some good with it. I'm trying to make this team. I still haven't guaranteed myself a spot in this team and I'm trying to do everything I can to make it just like every guy on the team is."
It will be hard to deny him a roster spot, especially after Thursday.
Brandstater looked sharp in his first start, completing a 43-yard pass to Chad Jackson and another 32-yarder to Brandon Lloyd down the sideline that set up the Broncos' only touchdown, a 1-yard run by Darius Walker in the first quarter.
He nearly threw a touchdown pass to fellow rookie Kenny McKinley, but Greg Toler swatted it out of McKinley's hands in the end zone at the last moment.
"Should've brought it in," McKinley said. "I told him I wish I could've gotten that for him ... I'm not really surprised (by Brandstater's performance). I knew when he got a chance, he would succeed. He seized the moment and the opportunity and did his thing."
While the Broncos moved the ball efficiently, their drives stalled out near the red zone. Matt Prater connected on four field goals, making him 7-for-7 in the preseason. Prater went through camp with no competition.
Denver's defense has scuffled at times to pick up new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's 3-4 scheme, producing zero turnovers through the first three preseason games.
However, the Broncos forced four on Thursday, including one by defensive end Darrell Reid when he drifted back into coverage and intercepted Warner's pass over the middle. Backup safety David Bruton had an interception and recovered a fumble.
"This is a dream game -- turnovers, hold them to a goose egg," Bruton said. "You always want to see that goose egg."