Perhaps the most telling moment of Sunday’s Broncos-Chargers game came on the contest’s final play.
After being sacked by Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers got up, tossed the football to an official and made a b-line for the Denver sideline to shake hands as the final nine seconds of the game ticked off the clock.
There would be no scramble to get set and spike the ball. There would be no Hail Mary.
Rivers, normally as competitive as they come, had had enough. After a pair of interceptions, three fumbles (one lost) and four sacks at the hands of the Denver defense, could you blame him?
The Broncos and Chargers are two teams headed in opposite directions.
Sunday’s 30-23 loss was the Chargers’ fifth in their last six games and they now trail the division-leading Broncos by three games. However, since Denver holds the head-to-head tiebreaker, it is, for all practical purposes, a four game deficit.
In remarks to the media following the game, Rivers was quick to point out that he and his team are not about to throw in the towel on the 2012 season saying, “The only thing you can never question from our group is we're never going to quit.” The four-time Pro Bowl quarterback did acknowledge that the clock is ticking, “We've got to go try to win a game, we can't really worry about the big picture and where we stand.”
The loss to Denver will only increase the pressure on San Diego Head Coach Norv Turner who summed up his team’s offense this way, “We had a tough time getting open, we had a tough time protecting and we couldn't get the running game going.” San Diego converted only three of 16 third down attempts and accumulated a paltry 277 net yards of offense.
Turner gave credit to the Broncos defense saying, “Denver is outstanding and they did a great job of taking away a lot of the things that we normally would be able to do.”
On San Diego’s first 12 possessions, the Broncos forced eight three-and-outs and caused two turnovers. The Chargers’ offense did not score their first points of the game until 1:03 remained in the third quarter.
Denver’s pair of stellar outside linebackers – Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard – once again led the way. Miller sacked Rivers three times, forcing him to fumble twice, and was a nearly constant presence in the backfield while Woodyard notched eight tackles (five solo) to go with an interception and a fumble recovery.
Veteran linebacker D.J. Williams made his season debut for Denver. Williams, suspended nine games for a pair of violations of NFL rules, played 21 snaps and tallied four tackles. The nine-year pro was happy just to be back out on the field saying after the game, “I've been playing like 17 years of my life, it's basically all I know, so it feels great in the locker room, the camaraderie with the guys, just go out there go to work, go to battle and come home with a victory.”
The Broncos used Williams predominantly in their nickel package alongside Woodyard as he has better athleticism than base middle linebacker Keith Brooking and is stronger against the run than rookie Danny Trevathan. It will be interesting to see how Denver chooses when and how to use Williams – who brings considerable talent to the table – in the coming weeks.
Denver wide receiver Eric Decker described the play of his team’s defense as “unbelievable” but said of the offense, “We thought we could have done a lot better.” The Broncos offense did end the game with 386 net yards of offense and scored three touchdowns, all via the pass. Yet they were only able to convert six of sixteen third downs and committed two turnovers.
The ageless Brandon Stokley was Denver’s leading receiver on the day; the 36-year old finished the game with four receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Peyton Manning, who played with Stokley in Indianapolis from 2003 to 2006, remarked that it is rare for a receiver to maintain the speed and quickness Stokley has this late his career.
Said Manning, “(Stokley) is one of my favorite teammates of all time...he has made a lot of plays for us all year, I know (Denver offensive coordinator) Mike McCoy is constantly figuring out ways to get him the ball.”
Denver will need the veteran wide receiver to continue contributing if their dreams of a deep playoff run are to be realized.
In spite of the win and their now-commanding lead in the division, there was some bad news for the Broncos on Sunday. Starting running back Willis McGahee suffered a partial tear to his MCL and will miss six to eight weeks. Denver Head Coach John Fox said on Monday the injury is “non-surgical” and McGahee will not be placed on injured reserve.
Denver (7-3) will travel to Kansas City on Sunday to play the 1-9 Chiefs; it will be the first match up of the year for the two AFC West rivals.
It does not get any easier for San Diego; the 4-6 Chargers host the 8-2 Ravens in week 12.