It was an odd sight when the Denver Broncos took to the field in hosting the San Diego Chargers in a key AFC West battle in mid-November. Instead of a somewhat typical November day with cold, possible snow and other inclement weather, the temperature at game time was 62 degrees and sunny. For Denver, they wanted to extend their winning streak to five and take complete control in the AFC West race, but San Diego was hoping for the win to keep their playoff hopes alive and keep the Broncos from winning their seventh game of the year.
The first half of the game was filled with some uneven play as both Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers both threw key interceptions. For Manning, his pick was taken back for a touchdown by Chargers defensive back Eric Weddle to put San Diego up 7-0 early.
Denver, though, held tough and got a Manning pass to Demaryius Thomas to level the score. Rivers was then intercepted by Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard in their own territory that led to a 19 yard field goal by Broncos kicker Matt Prater. Prater had missed from 55 yards in the first quarter, but rebounded later by making three field goals.
Denver jumped out to a 24-9 lead in the fourth quarter behind their passing game and defensive domination until San Diego made some adjustment s to finally give Rivers some time to throw. With their defense stepping up to hold Denver to two field goals in the fourth quarter, the Chargers were able to put two touchdowns on the board to pull the game to within 30-23 with just a minute left.
Unfortunately for San Diego, the Denver defense held strong and sacked Rivers in the final play of the game to earn the win. Denver now has earned the three game lead in the AFC West and has the tiebreaker versus San Diego should the two teams end up tied to end the regular season with road games against Kansas City in week 12 and Oakland in week 14 left to determine the division winner. Looking back at my three bold predictions for this matchup, I was actually pretty accurate on some respects, but I did learn these five things from the proceedings:
1. In a game with plenty of stakes, both teams were very tight early and the tempo was choppy until the Broncos started to find their way through pressure on Rivers. San Diego adjusted but it was too little, too late. Manning’s early interception followed by the drive that led to Prater’s miss really put the Broncos in a bit of a hole, but the Chargers could only put up seven points from Weddle’s interception return. Rivers was able to start effectively by hitting passes early, but Rivers went incredibly cold in missing five of six passes with the first and second quarters to stall their offense. With The Broncos defense bottling up Jackie Battle and Ryan Mathews, the Chargers offense was really spinning their wheels with the increased pressure.
The first half was really accentuated by the Chargers’ inability to keep the Denver pass rush away from Rivers consistently, and the stats back up the domination – 54 total yards, 0 for 8 on third down conversions, one interception and a key third down sack by Denver linebacker Von Miller that had Rivers yelling at his lineman for blowing the coverage. The third quarter saw Denver flex its offensive muscles to take the lead, but San Diego didn’t give up and brought on offensive lineman Rex Hadnot in the fourth quarter. The move seemed to stabilize the protection to give Rivers time to throw, and give the Chargers credit because they kept it very close until the very end.
2. Denver lost Willis McGahee to a knee injury in the second quarter, and the rushing attack suffered to try and adjust, but the Broncos did win the rushing battle to help them get the victory. McGahee was just finding his stride with 55 yards of rushing and a key 18 yard catch to keep a drive alive, but he was injured in a collision with Chargers defensive back Quentin Jammer and didn’t return to the game. This put the onus of the running game on Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball, two very talented but relatively young runners.
Ball fumbled a reception in the second quarter when the Broncos were driving. Hillman and Ball did rebound from their struggles and contributed some key rushes and catches during some late drives. However, I am worried if McGahee is out for any length of time because I’m not sure that Hillman and Ball are enough of a running threat to help balance out the Broncos offense. They did enough on this night, though, so perhaps they’ll step up as needed. Reports after the game indicate that McGahee’s right knee was swelled up and he’ll have an MRI on Monday morning to determine the severity of the injury.
3. Both Manning and Rivers made mistakes, but Manning was better able to overcome the errors on this day. If you look at the actual numbers between the two quarterbacks, they are very comparable statistically: Rivers with 24 of 40 passing, 258 yards passing, two touchdowns; Manning, 25 of 42 passing for 270 yards and three touchdowns. Both passers completed at the 60 percent mark as well, but the biggest difference was the mistakes and overcoming them.
Manning’s only pick was returned for a touchdown, while Rivers’ two interceptions and one fumble lost were turned into 13 Bronco points. Denver could have actually produced more from the various turnovers including another fumble recovery and blocked punt, but give credit to the San Diego defense for stepping up to keep things close.
4. San Diego’s defense is extremely talented, and they almost did enough to help the Chargers pull off the win. As I mentioned in the quarterbacks category, the Broncos took advantage of various Charger turnovers to jump out to a 15 point lead at the midway point of the third quarter, but the situation could have been worse by virtue of another fumble recovery and blocked punt.
The Chargers did a great job of bottling up the Denver offense when it counted, and the fourth quarter emphasized that even more. When Denver got great field position off an interception by Jim Leonhard, the Broncos drove down to try and clinch the win but were instead held to a field goal which gave San Diego some hope for a comeback. Give the Chargers credit in the fact that they kept it close enough until the very end.
5. While Manning and the offense did a lot to help Denver pull off the win, it was the Denver defense that was the biggest reason for their victory. The offense scored 30 points and the special teams held up their end of the game with great punting averages and three field goals, but the Denver defense was the biggest reason for the Broncos victory this day. To hold a solid offense like San Diego to 54 yards and no third down conversions in eight attempts in the first half was impressive as the defensive line was constantly harassing Rivers. The pressure continued late when San Diego was finally able to adjust their offensive line, but the Broncos were still able to provide resistance and forced Rivers out of the pocket quite often. To his credit, Rivers did enough to improvise and create some late chances to keep it close, but the Broncos defense did enough to seal the win.