You held a stranglehold upon the Denver Broncos and the AFC West, and with a 24-0 lead heading into the half during Monday Night Football, you stood just 30 minutes away from taking a commanding two game lead in the AFC West.
Yet somehow, you inexplicably gave the game away with six turnovers, with five of them coming in the second half. Four interceptions. Two fumbles. Incredible.
Even worse, you directly contributed to 14 Broncos points with a fumble that was returned 65 yards for a touchdown and an interception that was returned 46-yards for a touchdown.
Playing in front of your adoring San Diego home crowd, you coughed up the game with a colossal meltdown for the ages. You were certainly fired up heading into the half, but then it all went wrong. With your mistakes, you directly contributed to the wrong side of history as the Denver Broncos tied an NFL record for the largest comeback win for a road team. The Broncos also tied the record for the fourth largest regular-season comeback in NFL history, and Peyton Manning engineered his NFL record 37th comeback, and the largest comeback of his career (topping his 21 point masterpiece against the Buccaneers in '03).
Whew! What an interesting tale of two halves. As a Broncos fan, it's tough to find the precise words to explain my reactions throughout the game. Emotions ranged from disgust to glee and everything in-between. Let's just say, I'm thankful.
I'm thankful because the Broncos absolutely hate first halves and continuously dig themselves into a hole. In fact, the Broncos have trailed at the half in five of their six games this year, with a Week 4 thrashing of the Oakland Raiders serving as the lone exception. The Broncos have been outscored 65-37 in first halves this season, and this game marks the fourth 20 point deficit the Broncos have faced in this young season. Fortunately, this time the Broncos were able to actually come back and win. Furious rallies against Atlanta, Houston, and New England all came up short, but this time, the Broncos prevailed.
Within the first three minutes of the game, it looked like the Broncos were bound to come up short once again as they coughed up the ball on consecutive special teams plays. First, Trindon Holliday, freshly signed off of waivers, muffed a punt on Denver's 17-yard line. This led to a Chargers recovery and the opening score of the game, a field goal. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Omar Bolden fumbled the ball on the return and the Chargers capitalized with a touchdown, giving them a 10-0 lead in the opening minutes.
The Broncos have suffered some inexplicable turnovers this season — hello Demaryius Thomas and Willis McGahee — and it sure seemed like this opening foreshadowed another tough day. After an embarrassing first quarter, a gaffe in the second quarter absolutely solidified my belief that the Broncos were destined to lose.
Facing a second-and-ten on Denver's own 15-yard line, Manning exploited a defensive lapse in the secondary and hit a streaking Eric Decker. With no one in front of him, Decker hauled in the reception and had 50 yards of open field until the end zone. Instead, Decker suffered an epic fail as he stumbled and tripped over himself. The play resulted in a 55-yard gain instead of what looked like a guaranteed touchdown.
Three plays after the grass tackled Decker, Manning and his young receiver, Matt Willis, suffered a major miscommunication. Manning expected Willis to run a quick stop hot route as the blitz came, but Willis missed the line sight adjustment and instead streaked. Manning tossed the ball expecting the stop route, and Quentin Jammer capitalized on the miscommunication by intercepting the ball and returning it 80-yards for a touchdown. Bam! 17-0 in one fell swoop.
On the ensuing series, the Broncos went three-and-out, and the Chargers capitalized with a ten play drive that led to another touchdown with 24 seconds remaining in the half, making the score 24-0. Just like that, the Broncos faced another humiliating deficit in front of a national audience.
Then, it all turned around.
First, Manning led an impressive eight play, 85-yard drive that put the Broncos on the board and was capped with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas.
Then, Elvis Dumervil came up with a momentum swinging play as he stymied a nice drive by Rivers and the Chargers. On the eleventh play of the drive, the Chargers faced a third-and-eight on Denver's 33-yard line. Coming off of the edge, Dumervil turned the corner and knocked the ball out as Rivers wound up to throw the ball. Tony Carter picked up the fumble and took it the distance for a 65-yard touchdown, making the score 24-14.
The following drive, the Chargers went three-and-out.
Then Manning responded with a drive exclusively out of the shotgun. It was this drive that provided arguably the most important play of the game. Following consecutive penalties that pushed a third-and-one to a third-and-sixteen, Manning dropped a perfect pass in-between the linebacker/safety low/high zone coverage to find Jacob Tamme for a 25-yard completion. This huge first down kept the Broncos alive momentum wise, and Manning finished the drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker. Decker made up for his prior mishap by taking the bubble screen and bullying his way into the end zone to make the score 24-21.
Then Rivers tossed his first of three fourth quarter interceptions. Facing a third-and-eight, Rivers forced a ball deep down the middle and he threw it short. In single coverage without any help, Tony Carter sold out to make a play on the floating ball, and he came up with the interception. Manning capitalized with a four-play, 50-yard drive that finished with a spectacular throw to Brandon Stokley for a 21-yard touchdown. For the first time in the game, the Broncos took the lead, 24-28.
With over nine minutes remaining in the game, the Chargers still had plenty of time to make up for their mistakes. Facing another long third down, this time a third-and-seven, Rivers tossed another pick. However, this one probably wasn't his fault. Eddie Royal failed to cut in front of his defender as he ran a quick in route over the middle. Chris Harris made a great play on the ball as he jammed Royal, cut in front of him, and then picked off the pass.
Following the Harris pick, the Broncos failed to put points on the board, and the Chargers regained possession with just under four minutes remaining in the game. With the game up for grabs, the Chargers still had a great opportunity to pull out the win, and Rivers still had a chance to atone for his mistakes. However, Harris wasn't done just yet. On second-and-six at the San Diego 45-yard line, Rivers tossed his final interception of the game. Rivers looked to hit Royal on an out route toward the sidelines, but Rivers lagged in his read and he threw the ball late and behind. In man defense, Harris read the play perfectly as he drove on the ball hard, picked it off, and took it the distance for a touchdown. Game. 24-35, Broncos.
On the next Chargers possession, Dumervil came up with another forced fumble to close the game. Mike Adams recovered the Rivers fumble and Manning took a couple knees to end the game.
Overall, the dichotomy of each half was rather stunning. The Chargers seemed to put the game away in the first half as they came up with opportunistic plays. Then, the Broncos came up with numerous huge plays that led to one of the biggest comebacks in NFL history. The doom and gloom of the Broncos first half performance took a jaw-dropping turn as Rivers set career highs with four interceptions and six total turnovers.
So, thank you, Philip. You missed an opportunity to bury the Broncos with a favorable two game advantage in the division, and instead, you gave the Broncos a 3-3 record (much more favorable than 2-4), good for first place in the AFC West. With just two teams above .500 in the AFC, you missed out on an opportunity to capitalize on a weak AFC conference. You used to be considered an elite quarterback, but this season seems to be marking year two of an unexpected decline. Now, you have to sit through a bye week and stew over this loss as the Broncos will look to increase their lead in the division with a game against the New Orleans Saints.
Some will give the credit for the win to the Broncos defense, to Elvis Dumervil, to Von Miller, to Chris Harris, to Tony Carter. Others will give the credit to the offense, and pretty much just Peyton Manning. But, I have to give the credit to Philip Rivers. I mean, come on, four turnovers in the deciding quarter, how does that happen? We've seen the Broncos go on some furious rallies this season, but this time they actually won, and it never would have been possible without Rivers' performance.
On Monday Night Football, Rivers served as the 12th man for the Denver Broncos, and it may have been unexpected, but I'll take it, and so will the Denver Broncos.
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