SAN DIEGO — Three observations from the Broncos’ wild, memorable and utterly stunning 35-24 win over the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium here Monday night:
1. NOT ONLY IS PEYTON MANNING BACK, HE MIGHT BE BETTER THAN EVER:
As the first five and a half games dragged on, it became clearer that Manning was not the problem holding the Broncos back — but instead was the duct tape, bailing wire and super-glue that kept the entire team from being in tatters.
He could only do so much. He couldn’t help his pass-catchers hold onto the football, or get them to run the proper routes. He couldn’t rush the passer, couldn’t cover slot receivers and tight end running wild through the heart of the defense. All he could do was throw and keep a defense off-balance. This he did so well in the first five games that he was on pace for a career high in passing yardage and franchise record for touchdown passes.
Manning back? It looked like he never left.
“Other than last year, I don’t know where he went,” said cornerback Champ Bailey. “The guy is an amazing player. His preparation is, bar none, the best that I’ve seen. I don’t expect anything less from him.”
Befitting that, Manning’s hand was the steadiest in the locker room. And in spite of all the things he couldn’t do in other areas of football beyond the passing game, what he could do was to provide an example to his teammates, to take them out of panic mode and reassure them that at some point, one of these rallies would lead to victory.
“It’s very calm, very confident,” wide receiver Eric Decker said when asked about Manning’s demeanor in the huddle Monday. “As a team, as a unit, that creates an identity, and it really builds with everybody. We know that we can score every play, every time we touch the ball.”
The result? A second half margin of 35-0 that was as close to perfect as the Broncos have ever been for 30 minutes of football, a total domination reminiscent of the way his Colts teams overran the Broncos during the playoff games of January 2004 and 2005. Only an incompletion that snapped a streak of 13 consecutive completions kept Manning from a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 for the second half.
This wasn’t the Manning the Broncos expected. This was more. This was a maestro at work. This was a quarterback who peppered his efficient play by completing an impossible touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley, who was draped in coverage that appeared to offer no window to throw. Manning found it anyway, and the 21-yard score put Denver in front to stay.
If the rest of the Broncos can come close to meeting Manning’s standard, this team will be special, and the three losses to Atlanta, Houston and New England will be remembered as nothing more than foundational work — unpleasant at the time, but necessary in the building process.
2. FINALLY, THE DEFENSE WORKED AS IT WAS DESIGNED.
The Broncos’ grand defensive plan from the offseason focused on generating pressure on the quarterback from Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, who would work on the edges to collapse the pocket. Sometimes they or the defensive tackles would get sacks; at others, the pressure would force a hurried, errant throw that gave the defensive backs an increased chance at an interception. They’d surrender yards, but they’d compensate with takeaways.
In the first five games, this only worked for brief spurts. Miller and Dumervil combined for eight sacks, but takeaways were just a rumor — just four in the first five games of the season. A second-quarter interception by Jim Leonhard raised hopes, but at the same time it wasn’t the kind of game-changing turnover the Broncos wanted; the pass was 46 yards from the line of scrimmage, and basically the play was the same as a punt in terms of its impact.
Finally, in the second half, the plan worked. Dumervil had two sacks, including a strip-sack fumble that Tony Carter picked up and turned into a 65-yard touchdown return. Miller had a sack and consistently forced the Chargers to keep a tight end in to block, even though he left the field and was examined by trainers early in the fourth quarter before re-entering the game.
Most importantly, the Broncos forced three bad throws by Philip Rivers and intercepted them all. He was rattled, and Champ Bailey — who was rarely targeted and didn’t record any of the interceptions — knew it.
“I could tell just by how his balls were coming out, how he was rushing his throws,” Bailey said. “These guys, man, when they smell it, they go get it.”
After stopping the Chargers on three consecutive second-half series — two of which ended in interceptions — the Broncos had a 28-24 lead, and the defense began playing conservatively, laying back to avoid the big play. Predictably, Rivers completed four consecutive passes and moved the Chargers to the Denver 41-yard-line. Nerves among Broncos fans began to fray accordingly.
Then Miller, who had been limited on that series, entered, the Broncos got pressure, and Chris Harris recorded his first of two fourth-quarter interceptions. Order was restored.
Rivers would rather not see Miller and Dumervil again, although he might have to get used to it. The two pass rushers have combined for seven sacks of the nine-year veteran quarterback in their three games as a pair against him. It is not a coincidence that the Broncos have won two of them after going 2-8 against San Diego from 2006-10.
3. WAS THIS A TURNING POINT?
If the Broncos go on to win the AFC West, then Dumervil’s strip-sack that led to Carter’s return will be remembered as the moment where the Broncos finally asserted their presence — and caused the Chargers to crumble. Just two plays earlier, safety Jim Leonhard had failed to fall on a fumble that was easily within his reach, continuing a pattern of lost opportunities that was encapsulated by the Broncos’ baffling ineptitude at recovering fumbles; of the 17 in their games prior to Carter’s recovery, 15 had been recovered by the opponent.
So some of the Broncos’ struggles in recent weeks were, yes, a product of bad luck. But luck had nothing to do with the open-field fumbles by Demaryius Thomas, or the unexpected stumble by Eric Decker, or fumbled punt and kickoff returns by Trindon Holiday and Omar Bolden in the first half, or Manning’s first half interception when he and Matt Willis got caught in a spot of botched communication. The Broncos had made their bed — and in three other games they trailed by three scores, they lay in it. The script was always the same.
Finally, they climbed out Monday night and in doing so, re-wrote the ending. As this transpired, the Broncos drawing closer with each possession, the Chargers, one-by-one, became a sea of slumped shoulders and forlorn faces, as if they knew their demise was inevitable. They, too, have their own script — and it typically involves a baffling loss at some point before midseason sending them into a tailspin from which they make a desperate attempt to recover. That’s what happened in 2008, 2010 and 2011, and only once did they regain altitude and soar into the playoffs.
The Chargers’ schedule will offer them the opportunity to come back; like the Broncos, their next 10 games include just one against a team with a winning record after six weeks (for both clubs, that team is the Baltimore Ravens). The Chargers’ opponents are 23-34, not much better than the 19-37 mark amassed by Denver’s next 10 foes.
But as the teams left the field Monday night, it wasn’t hard to see them as two trains leaving the station in opposite directions: the Broncos to the playoffs and another crack at teams that stymied them early, and the Chargers to oblivion and an uncertain future for their embattled coach, players and the franchise itself, with sluggish ticket sales and the threat of relocation continuing to linger.
The standings say the Broncos and Chargers are tied atop the AFC West, and the schedule says San Diego plays Cleveland, Kansas City and Tampa Bay before they see the Broncos again. On paper, those are winnable games. But our understanding of the Chargers under Norv Turner leads to a different conclusion, and it would come as no surprise if the Broncos are looking to build a fail-safe, multi-game lead in the AFC West when the teams duel again Nov. 18.