At halftime in this game the San Diego Chargers had a comfortable three score lead and seemed destined to coast towards a 4-2 record which would seem them perched in sole possession of first place in the AFC West, two games clear of their closest rivals. Nothing is ever settled at this stage of the season but such a cushion going into your bye week with a two game lead and half-way towards a tie breaker over the team perceived to be your nearest rival would be a perfect springboard from which to re-launch a season that had faltered in the prior fortnight.
Over the next thirty minutes it would be the Broncos, on the strength of one of the biggest comebacks in NFL history, who would take control of the AFC West as we head into the second third of the season. Not only did the Broncos seize control in the game but they so comprehensively hammered the Chargers and their signal caller Philip Rivers that they cast further doubt on his performances against top quality opponents. This was the Chargers’ second home game against teams perceived to be among the league’s elite and for the second time Rivers capitulated and couldn’t elevate the Chargers to compete for sixty minutes. After amassing 131 yards and two scores in the first half Rivers would go on to turn the ball over five times in the second, including a pivotal pick six that all but ended the game as a contest.
In a game that was distinctly divided in character by the half-time break there were some real Jekyll and Hyde displays. Lets’ take a look at some of the key performances from this most memorable and bizarre of Monday Night Football encounters.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
Manning Leads the Way Back
Things were looking shaky for Peyton Manning at halftime in this game. In spite of a reserved and methodical first half the most noteworthy play was a misread between himself and Matt Willis which led to a pick six for Quentin Jammer. The play was eerily reminiscent of Charles’ Tillman’s pick six in Dallas a fortnight ago with the receiver looking to work upfield while the quarterback was looking for a hitch in front of the corner. However, unlike for Romo and the Cowboys, the Broncos performance didn’t snowball downhill. Instead, Manning put the play behind him and put together the sort of performance in the second half that we became accustomed to seeing from him. His control was noticeably improved over prior performances this season and he showed more ability to get the ball downfield with velocity. His touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley in particular showed the sort of timing, velocity and downfield accuracy that we are used to seeing from Manning. If this is a sign that he is gradually regaining his timing and arm strength the Broncos could be primed for a hot streak.
Defensive Backs Play Their Part
Manning and the offense, however, were not alone in turning this game as the Broncos secondary stepped up and put the Chargers passing game to the sword in the second half, with reserve corners contributing two pivotal scores to the comeback cause. In a first half that saw the Chargers control the game the Broncos defensive high water mark was a spectacular interception by Jim Leonard (+0.9) as he stole the ball away from Antonio Gates down the field. That interception was followed up by Manning’s pick six and it wasn’t until the second half that another Bronco defensive back was able to really spark the comeback. After Manning had started things off with a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, Tony Carter matched that with a “scoop-six” on the defense’s first drive of the second half as they bent (yielding 48 yards prior to the score) but recoiled to snap the Broncos back into the game in emphatic fashion. The Broncos defense capitalized on their foothold in the game and used it to climb over the Chargers and assert their dominance on the game with Carter intercepting a pass intended for Robert Meachem to set up the go ahead score. When Chris Harris, starting for the second straight week in place of Tracy Porter, intercepted an awful pass by Rivers (his second pick covering former Bronco Eddie Royal) and returned it to the house the comeback was complete. For a secondary so outmatched in physical stature by the Chargers’ receiving corps, the Broncos defensive backfield was standing tall by the end of this game with the San Diego passing attack on its knees.
In the first forty minutes of the game the Broncos got very little from right end in what should have been an extremely favorable matchup with Chargers’ LT Michael Harris. In that time frame Elvis Dumervil had only recorded one hurry, which came early in the first quarter, and had only contributed one tackle for loss (unblocked) in the run game as well. However, the final 20 minutes saw Dumervil work left and right to extract the sort of production against both Harris and Jeromey Clary that the Broncos would have expected coming into the game. In those final 20 minutes Dumervil recorded a pair of sacks and a trio of hurries. Both of his sacks forced fumbles from Philip Rivers and were pivotal to the outcome of the game. The first was recovered and returned for a touchdown by Tony Carter whilst the second ended the game on the Chargers’ final fourth down, with San Diego unable to advance the fumble even if they had recovered the ball rather than Mike Adams. In a game that was all about timing and putting poor play behind you Dumervil epitomized that with some timely and dominant pass rushing when the Broncos needed it most.
San Diego – Three Performances of Note
The Merry-Go-Round Comes to a Stop
Was it the game changing penalty last week? Was it the fact that they were playing a divisional opponent in a pivotal game? Was it the fact that the Chargers’ coaching staff lost their nerve? Whatever the reason the Chargers’ rotation at outside linebacker ground to a decisive halt this week and left the Chargers punchless on the outside of their defense. Coming into this season one of the most intriguing questions would be how the Chargers would manage the snaps and chemistry of a deep and versatile band of outside linebackers. Coming into this week they had struck a fine balance, getting solid contributions from throughout their depth chart but for whatever reason the Chargers went almost entirely with the top two players on their depth chart and got very little from the game as a result. The ‘depth’ OLBs combined for only 29 snaps, fewer than either Jarret Johnson (40) or Shaun Phillips (51) amassed individually. Phillips provided the only pressure that the quintet recorded on 47 combined pass rushes and while Johnson was active in run defense (+2.3), this game had an air of the confusion and lack of imagination in managing this group of defenders that many observers feared coming into the season. There is talent aplenty in this OLB corps but the Chargers must do more moving forwards to get the most out of them, and not simply stick with a losing hand as they did throughout this game.
Broncos Dam the Rivers
Things flowed just fine for the Chargers and Philip Rivers in the first half of this game. Outside of an exceptional play by Jim Leonhard to steal an interception in the second quarter the Chargers passing game was under control and with a pair of touchdown passes to Antonio Gates, Rivers had seemingly re-discovered a connection that had hit a barren spell to start the season. Everything changed at halftime though and we saw a side of Philip Rivers that we haven’t seen terribly often, as he made mistake after mistake and each of his three interceptions seemed to get worse and worse as the game progressed. His first interception of the second half was a downfield shot that Rivers is always going to take but it was underthrown and allowed his doubters to raise questions about his arm strength once again as the pass floated, never looking likely to reach its intended receiver (Robert Meachem). With the Broncos now ahead by four things got worse as Rivers was victimized by Chris Harris on a pair of interceptions that he will want to forget. The first simply saw Harris outmuscle Royal out of his break and make a diving break on the ball as Rivers tried to force it in anyway. The final interception was a cap to a second half to forget as Rivers looked again for Royal on an out-breaking route but threw it with as poor a velocity and ball location as you would ever want to see from a quarterback who at one time appeared poised to join the league’s elite. You will struggle to see a worse interception at such a crucial juncture in a game and the Chargers will need to put some effort into not only rebuilding their momentum during the bye week but also the psyche of their quarterback after a such a devastating turnover in a dismal collapse.
Gates Epitomizes Team Performance
The hook-up between Rivers and Antonio Gates (+1.7 receiving) was pivotal the Chargers first half lead. However, they went away from Gates, or were taken away from him by the Broncos defense, in the second half and without his presence in the passing game the Chargers didn’t offer the same threat. After exploiting matchups with safeties in the first half to the tune of 61 yards and two scores the Chargers simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go back to their most important receiver in the second half. After the loss of Vincent Jackson the Chargers really lack a dynamic and galvanizing talent on the outside, Malcom Floyd once again provided a solid contribution in this game (5 for 5 with 60 yards). Still, he doesn’t look like a receiver capable of leading the line, and it was surprising that the Chargers didn’t try to feed the ball back to Gates. In spite of his advancing years and history of injuries that are bound to have slowed him, Gates is still the one receiver on this team who can really strike fear into an opposing defense, he is still a nightmare matchup for defenses. In spite of that, Gates was only targeted once in the second half, a catch and conversion for 13 yards on the Chargers’ first drive after they lost the lead, as things got away from San Diego in terms of momentum and their play calling. It would be easy to dwell on how the Broncos stole momentum in this game but the Chargers must also be blunt in their admittance that they allowed this game to slip away from them with some dubious play calling in the second half.
– The Broncos’ defense got pressure on Philip Rivers on 15 of his 45 dropbacks. His passer rating on 11 pass attempts (four sacks) was a meager 16.5 as he completed only five passes for 38 yards and tossed one of his four interceptions.
– While Derek Wolfe may not get to the quarterback very often, only six pressures on 181 pass rushes (2.9 PRP), he makes it count when he does get there. His sack this week was his third of the season.
– Jackie Battle recorded a season low of two carries in this game. After only carrying the ball four times last week in New Orleans it would appear that Battle’s presence in the Chargers’ backfield is a thing of the past, for at least as long as Ryan Mathews keeps hold of the football.
PFF Game Ball
On a night that saw him tie Dan Marino’s record for the most fourth quarter and overtime game winning drives in a career, his 47th for those keeping score, can it be anyone other than Peyton Manning?