The final game on the schedule was a battle between AFC West rivals as the San Diego Chargers headed to Denver to take on the Broncos. The Chargers were coming off a 27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Broncos were coming off a bye week. Denver kicker Matt Prater sent the opening kickoff through the end zone and the Chargers started at their 20. Running back Ryan Mathews got things off to a decent start with a five-yard carry. Short passes from quarterback Philip Rivers to running back Ronnie Brown and tight end Ladarius Green got the Chargers a first down at the 33. After a short run by Mathews, Rivers was sacked for a loss of nine on the next play. On third and 17, running back Danny Woodhead ran up the middle for eight yards. But they got a break as the Broncos were flagged for a facemask penalty. The drive stalled at the 43 and punter Matt Scifres got off a 51-yard punt that was fielded at the Denver six by return man/wide receiver Eric Decker. Decker returned the punt six yards and the Broncos went to work from their 14-yard line.
The Broncos brought out the no huddle offense and passes to tight end Julius Thomas, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and Decker already had the Chargers looking baffled. Another completion to wide receiver Andre Caldwell set up a first down at the San Diego 29. On third and one from the 21, running back Montee Ball ran off right tackle for a gain of five yards. A seven-yard pass to D. Thomas and a four-yard run by Ball made it first and goal from the three. Two plays later, Manning looked to his left and hooked up with D. Thomas for a touchdown. Prater made the point after and the Broncos led 7-0 with 2:25 to go in the first quarter.
The Chargers ended up getting a grand total of minus two yards on their next possession. Scifres punted again and the Broncos took over at their 42. On third and two from the 50, Manning completed a short pass to J. Thomas who fumbled at the 45. The ball was recovered at the 43 by cornerback Richard Marshall. That was a good break for the Chargers and on the strength of some good running by Mathews and Woodhead, they moved down to the Denver 30. On third down, Rivers was sacked for a loss of five by defensive end Malik Jackson. That brought kicker Nick Novak into the game for a 53-yard field goal attempt. On the attempt, his plant foot slipped and the kick sailed wide left.
The Broncos had dodged a bullet and started with good field position from their 43. A holding call moved them back ten yards, but they got 12 of it back as Manning hit running back Knowshon Moreno out of the backfield. This is when the offside penalties started occurring. As usual, Manning would do his usual long counts and yell “Omaha” over and over again. On second and eight from the 45, the Chargers jumped offside and that gave the Broncos five free yards. On second and three, Moreno burst up the middle for a gain of 11 and a first down at the San Diego 39. Two more carries by Ball got them another first down at the 22. From the 22, Ball got the call again and gained four yards. From the 18, the Chargers fell for the Omaha call again and jumped offside. From the 13, Moreno ran up the middle for five more yards and a first and goal from the eight. Moreno got yet another carry and gained five more yards. Two plays later, Manning fired a pass to wide receiver Wes Welker on the left side and he took it in for the score. Prater made the point after and the Broncos led 14-0 with six minutes to go in the first half.
The Chargers gained 14 yards on their next “drive” and Scifres punted again. Decker fielded the punt at the Denver 23 and returned it straight up the middle for a gain of 47 yards. If he hadn’t tripped over his own feet at the 30, he would have scored. On first down, Manning hooked up with D. Thomas for nine yards. On second and one, Moreno was stuffed for no gain. The Broncos really needed to keep this drive going. A 21-0 lead just might be insurmountable for the hapless Charger offense. That’s when Manning used the magic word. He screamed “Omaha!” again and sure enough, the Chargers jumped offside. That made it first down at the 16. Moreno got the call two more times and gained 12 yards for a first and goal at the four. Moreno was stopped for no gain on first down and a pass to Decker fell incomplete. On third down, Manning looked for Decker again, but the pass was intercepted by linebacker Donald Butler in the end zone. The Chargers took a knee and the first half ended with the Broncos leading 14-0.
A decent kickoff return by return man Trindon Holliday gave the Broncos the ball at their 36. A nine-yard pass to D. Thomas, two carries by Moreno and yet another nine-yard pass to D. Thomas netted a first down at the San Diego 41. From the 41, Manning fired a strike to J. Thomas for eight yards. On third and one from the 32, Manning found Welker at the 26 for another first down. After that, they went nowhere and Prater came on for a 45-yard field goal attempt. It was good and the Broncos were now up 17-0 with 9:35 to go in the third quarter.
With Mathews out with an injured ankle, Woodhead and Brown would get the carries for the rest of the game. Of course, if you’re down by 17 midway through the third quarter, the running game probably won’t be of much value. On third and three from the 27, we finally had a Keenan Allen sighting. The rookie wide receiver hauled in a pass from Rivers for a gain of 19 and a first down at the 46. Denver cornerback Chris Harris was injured on this play and would not return. He was later diagnosed with a torn ACL. But they wouldn’t get much farther and they were forced to punt again. Scifres had the heavy wind at his back and he hit a 62-yard punt through the end zone.
From the 20, Manning found Decker on the right side for a gain of 19. He used that magic word again and the Chargers jumped offside. That moved the ball to the 44. Ball ran up the middle for eight and Manning completed an eight-yard pass to Welker. Ball carried again up the middle for four more yards and a first down at the 36. Then the Chargers jumped offside again. This is a recording. Despite the lack of discipline, the Chargers tightened up and the drive stalled at the 29. The normally automatic Prater had some trouble with the windy conditions and his kick sailed wide left. With one minute to go in the third quarter, the Chargers got the ball back at their 37.
On second and ten, Rivers “scrambled” for six yards. That’s something you don’t see every day. That set up a third and four from the 43. Rivers had time and found wide receiver Eddie Royal across the middle for a gain of 30 yards. With Harris out, he was replaced by former Charger Quentin Jammer. On the pass to Royal, Jammer looked totally lost. An illegal use of hands penalty on Denver moved the Chargers five yards closer to the goal line. Woodhead ran up the middle for six yards, but a completion to Woodhead was quickly snuffed out by the Denver defense. On third and four from the 16, Rivers floated one up the right side and Allen came down with it in the end zone for a touchdown. Novak made the point after and the Broncos led 17-7 with 13 minutes to go in the game.
Holliday had another good kick return, but it was brought back to the 19 because of an illegal block in the back penalty. On third and seven, Manning went deep down the middle for Welker and the pass was incomplete. But the Chargers were flagged for pass interference. That gave the Broncos a first down at their 45. From the San Diego 47 on third and two, Manning completed a 17-yard pass to J. Thomas. This was a recurring theme in the game. Whenever third down came up, Manning always seemed to look for J. Thomas. The Chargers were unable to address that problem. Manning found Welker again for six yards and Moreno ran up the left side and was pushed out of bounds at the ten. Two plays later, Moreno took it up the middle for a score. Prater made the point after and the Broncos led 24-7 with 8:12 remaining in the game.
The Chargers started out at their 20 and three plays gained five yards. On fourth down, they had no choice but to go for it. Rivers took the snap and fired a pass to Allen that was good for a gain of 49 yards. On first down from the Denver 26, Rivers ran for a gain of five yards. A short pass to Brown got them another first down at the 16. From the 16, Rivers hooked up with Allen again and this time it was good for another touchdown. Novak made the point after and we had the makings of a close game. With 5:43 to go, the Broncos led 24-14.
The Chargers tried an onside kick and Marshall came up with the ball. Rivers and the offense went to work from their 40-yard line. On second and 14 from the 36, Rivers tossed a 17-yard completion to Allen for a first down at the Denver 47. Allen wasn’t done and on second and five, he caught another pass for 25 yards and a first down at the 17. The drive stalled at the 12 and Novak was brought into the game for a 30-yard field goal attempt. He split the uprights and that made the score 24-17 with just under four minutes remaining in the game.
There would be no onside kick this time as Novak kicked the ball deep in hopes that the defense could stop the Broncos. From the 27, things didn’t get off to a good start for the Broncos as they were flagged for a false start. Then Moreno was thrown for a loss of two yards. On second and 17, Manning looked for D. Thomas and the pass fell incomplete. That brought up third down. Who do you think Manning will look for? Welker? Decker? Moreno? Shannon Sharpe? None of those choices are correct. The answer is Julius Thomas. Out of the shotgun, Manning threw a deep ball to the right and sure enough Thomas grabbed it for a gain on 21 and a first down at the 41. That was a damaging blow to the hopes of Charger fans. Moreno ran up the middle for a short gain and the Chargers called their second timeout. Moreno got the call on second down and was held to a minimal gain. The Chargers called their final timeout. Uh-oh. It’s third down again. You don’t think that evil #80 is going to get the ball again do you? It was third and six and Manning knew a first down would get them a win and a ticket to the AFC championship game. He calmly took the snap out of the shotgun and completed a nine-yard pass to J. Thomas yet again. That did it. The Chargers couldn’t stop the clock and a couple more runs by Moreno and a kneel down by Manning ended the game. Final score: Broncos 24 Chargers 17.
For the Chargers, Philip Rivers completed 18 of 27 for 217 yards and two touchdowns. Keenan Allen led all receivers in receptions with six and receiving yards with 142 and two touchdowns. As a team, the Chargers rushed for just 65 yards on 18 carries. Danny Woodhead was the leading rusher with 29 yards on nine carries. Their longest gain on the ground was a 16-yard carry by Ryan Mathews. Defensively, cornerback Marcus Gilchrist led the team in solo tackles with seven.
For the Broncos, Peyton Manning completed 25 of 36 for 230 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Demaryius Thomas had the most receptions with eight and Julius Thomas had the most receiving yards with 76. The Broncos had a good day on the ground as they totaled 133 yards on 34 carries. Knowshon Moreno was the leading rusher with 82 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown. Defensively, cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey tied for the lead in solo tackles with four apiece. The Broncos sacked Rivers four times and defensive end Shaun Phillips led the team with two.
Well, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Denver. Tom Brady and the Patriots will be in Denver on Sunday and I look forward to what should be a high scoring game.