The Denver Broncos regular season finale played like a re-run but with a second half twist. As the New England Patriots lost their final contest against the Miami Dolphins, the Broncos had to simply beat the languishing San Diego Chargers in order to clinch a first-round bye and the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs; but as they’ve done all year, they made it difficult on themselves.
The Broncos scored on their second play from scrimmage, dominated in total yards and were clearly the more talented team, but they could not put the opposition away. Five turnovers continued to place them in tough situations and the defense played nearly flawless football before a familiar face sparked the crowd and the offense just in time.
With 5:04 time left in a 20-20 game, after both teams had stalled briefly after a flurry of scoring, Philip Rivers was attempting to drive down the field and play the spoiler for the Broncos hopes of a final regular season victory. Broncos newcomer Shiloh Keo played deep in the middle of the field and intercepted a high pass that tipped off of wide receiver Tyrell Williams‘ hands, ending the threat. Only one more play was needed for the Broncos to get the necessary points to seal the victory and it came quickly.
Peyton Manning, not Brock Osweiler, took the snap and handed it off to the speedy Ronnie Hillman. He ran right, stiff armed a defender and sprinted to the north end zone, electrifying an uproarious crowd of 74,601 and giving the home team the necessary 27-20 lead to win their fifth-straight AFC West title.
Manning’s return to the field and subsequent comeback win came at a critical moment midway through the third quarter. It was a bold but necessary move as the Broncos had just fumbled away their fifth turnover and failed on their eighth-straight drive. With 8:18 left in the game, Antonio Gates made a fantastic catch for a touchdown and the Chargers took their first lead of the game, 13-7. Then Peyton Manning ran onto the field to a standing ovation.
Before the Keo interception and Hillman run, Manning led three other scoring drives. On his first drive in six weeks Manning led the Broncos down the field in just 2:54 minutes of game clock on seven plays. He threw precise passes out of the no-huddle, shotgun offense, aided by several runs by Hillman and C.J. Anderson. The drive ended in a spectacular 17-yard run by Anderson followed by a one-yard touchdown moments later. The lead was returned to the home team, 14-13 with 5:24 left in the third quarter.
The one-point lead that Manning procured was not enough to seal a victory. After he led another drive that set up a 48-yard Brandon McManus field goal to make the score 17-13, the Chargers came back with their first lengthy play of the day, shocking the crowd.
Throughout the contest the Chargers were held to short runs and passes of limited length on out routes and screens. Danny Woodhead led the Chargers in catches with eight but for just 51 yards. The visitors finished the day with just one play of over 20 yards and it came with 12:58 left.
Safety Josh Bush, playing for the injured Darian Stewart, bit on an intermediate route and Aqib Talib left Williams to help out underneath. Williams then hauled in the perfectly placed strike down the middle from Phillip Rivers for an 80-yard touchdown and the 20-17 lead. That one play was really the only time the defense was taken advantage of despite the poor field position the offense’s turnovers put them in. The Chargers also had to force the running attack in the second half with marginal success. Donald Brown rushed for a team-high 81 yards for the Chargers.
They big play by Rivers and Williams did not deter Manning and the Broncos; they quickly went down the field, aided in large part by catches by Emmanuel Sanders of 18 and 15 yards. However, the drive quickly stalled down the field on a failed third-and-two run by Anderson. McManus again added a field goal, this time of 35 yards and tied the game at 20 apiece.
The story of the game, Manning’s return, electrified the crowd but looked much like the offense under Osweiler’s leadership in the first half. Despite having only a one-point lead after two quarters, the Broncos had outgained the Chargers 279 yards to 93. In fact, the first drive of the game could not have been better.
Just 39 seconds into the game, on the second play from scrimmage, Demaryius Thomas turned and caught an eight-yard curl route and went up the right sideline. He made two Chargers defenders miss and then cut back to the middle of the field and took the ball 72 yards for a touchdown. It tied the team for the second-longest play of the season and quickly gave them a 7-0 lead. But once again the Broncos were plagued by mistakes.
The ensuing Chargers opening possession resulted in a 10-play, 48-yard drive culminating in a Josh Lambo 48-yard field goal, cutting the Broncos lead to 7-3. The Broncos then went scoreless on their next eight drives. Sanders fumbled a ball away, Norwood tipped an Osweiler pass into cornerback Steve Williams‘ hands, Osweiler was crushed by Williams on a blitz and fumbled the ball and then threw a pick to Adrian Phillips after his pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage.
Luckily for the Broncos, the defense again played spectacularly. They let gave up only three points on their four first-half turnovers. The defense’s rush did not allow Rivers and company to look down field at all. San Diego punted five times in the half and went 2-of-9 on third downs. Rivers entered the locker room at half with a passer rating of 62 and only 35 yards passing. He finished the day with just 228 yards passing but increased his passer rating to 86.4 with the two second-half touchdowns.
After halftime the Chargers got the ball but were forced to punt again. That is when the fifth turnover occurred and cost the Broncos the lead. Anderson escaped for six yards down the right hash, but linebacker Manti Te’o got a grip on the ball and pried it loose. The Chargers quickly capitalized. From the Denver 32-yard line they went down the field in just five plays. Gates then caught a touchdown over Keo in a fabulous display of sure-handedness.
The fifth and final turnover by the Broncos led to Manning’s return and it immediately seemed to register; that or they simply found a way to hold onto the ball. Osweiler finished the day with a 76.3 passer rating on 272 passing yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Manning finished the game with a rating of 80.3 on 5-of-9 passes for just 69 yards.
The more important statistic for the team appeared to be the resurgence and commitment to the rushing attack in the second half. The Broncos had just six carries for 55 yards at halftime between Anderson and Hillman but finished the game with 32 carries for 210 yards and an average of 6.6 per carry.
The defense also held up their end of the bargain throughout the day. They ended up allowing 310 net yards in the game (36.1 more than their season average) but they forced seven punts and held the Chargers to 33 percent on third downs. They also added three sacks by Derek Wolfe, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, finishing the season first in the NFL, each one coming at critical moments in the game.
The Broncos 12th victory of the season was their biggest. The bye week they earned will allow them to get healthy and examine why they finished the season with a minus-four turnover margin, a statistic that almost cost them their fifth-straight AFC West title. It will also afford them the time necessary to watch the film and decipher who will be the man under center to lead them in the playoffs. One thing is for sure, the Broncos can win close games. Sunday afternoon they won their ninth game by a touchdown or less and the playoffs will surely present opponents that will challenge even the top-ranked defense and either quarterback that finds his way onto the field.