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After splitting the season series, the Chargers returned to Denver on an incredibly windy day to attempt the biggest upset of the week. Peyton Manning’s Broncos entered the game as 8.5-point favorites despite losing by a touchdown to Philip Rivers’ Bolts just four weeks ago.
It was hardly a surprising spread, though, the Broncos are coming off a historic season and have scored 30+ points in 13 of 16 games this season. The Chargers, despite a potent offense, only scored more than 30 points three times this season.
On the first drive of the game, it was Broncos defense that stepped up, just like they did in their last meeting in Denver when they held the Bolts to just 20 points. Shaun Phillips and Jeremy Mincey sacked Rivers twice and held the Chargers to just 23 yards on nine plays, forcing a punt from the San Diego 43-yard line.
Peyton Manning took over inside his own 20 but didn’t waste any time as he completed six of eight pass attempts while marching the Broncos for season-long 86 yards on 14 plays on a seven-minute drive to put the Broncos on the board with a short pass to Demaryius Thomas. Denver 7, San Diego 0.
Rivers got the ball at his own 20 but only moved backwards as the Broncos defense made another stand and forced a three-and-out. It looked like Peyton was about to march down the field again but rookie defensive back Jahleel Addae forced a Julius Thomas fumble on the third play of the drive to give Rivers the ball back at the San Diego 44.
Despite the highly favorable field position, the Broncos sacked Rivers on a third-down play once again to force a 53-yard Nick Novak field goal attempt. It wasn’t the wind that got the best of Novak, it was the turf, as the kicker slipped approaching the ball and the attempt sailed wide left despite having plenty of distance.
The Broncos got the ball at their own 32 and this time it was Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball who carried the offense. The two backs combined for 54 total yards on a nine-play, five-minute drive to set up a three-yard touchdown strike to Wes Welker. That touchdown gave Peyton 57 total touchdowns in the regular season and postseason, setting another single-season record as he bested Marino’s 56. Denver 14, San Diego 0.
The Chargers couldn’t string anything together once again and were forced to punt. Eric Decker broke through for a huge 47-yard return that would have easily been a touchdown had he not tripped at the San Diego 30.
Peyton hit Eric Decker right in the chest in the back of the endzone but Darrell Stuckey broke up the pass and Donald Butler grabbed it, dragged his feet on the edge, and completed the endzone interception to keep it a two possession game going into halftime.
The two takeaways were the Chargers’ only highlights of the first half. The Broncos defense and the vicious wind held Philip Rivers to 5-of-8 for just 20 yards through two quarters. Despite more emphasis on the run game, the Bolts were only able to convert 12 rushing attempts for 44 yards.
On the flip side, the Denver Broncos highlights were abundant. Despite the wind, Peyton was efficient as ever, completing 11 of 16 pass attempts for 100 yards and two scores. The Broncos ran a very balanced play call as they also ran 17 times for 77 yards.
Manning was right back at it coming out of the half, however, marching the offense 37 yards on 11 plays but the Chargers defense held up to force a fourth down on the San Diego 27. Still, Matt Prater was able to overcome the wind to barely squeeze through a 45-yarder and make it a three score game. Denver 17, San Diego 0.
The Bolts were only able to move the ball 18 yards on six plays as they were forced to punt for the fourth time in three quarters. Peyton Manning took over and immediately nailed a 19-yard throw to Eric Decker to kick off a seven-play, 51-yard drive but the Chargers defense stepped up yet again to force a Matt Prater 47-yard field goal attempt. After barely surviving the wind on the previous try, Prater’s kick went wide left and the Chargers got the ball back at their own 37.
This time, Philip Rivers was finally able to get something going and took advantage of the good field position. Rivers connected on a big 30-yard pass to Eddie Royal that set up a 16-yard touchdown throw to Keenan Allen to cap off a six-play, 63-yard drive. After being dominated for a good 45 minutes, the Bolts had made it a game with 13 minutes remaining in the fourth. Denver 17, San Diego 7.
Things almost took a drastic turn on the very next play as Trindon Holliday returned the kickoff for 105-yard endzone-to-endzone run but it was called back due to an illegal block and Denver got the ball at their own 10 instead. The Chargers needed to get a stop, preferably quickly, if they hoped to have a fighting chance but instead they allowed Peyton and Knowshon Moreno march down the field on a nine-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that ate up almost five minutes. That put Denver up by three scores with just eight minutes remaining in the fourth. Denver 24, San Diego 7.
Philip Rivers did his best to come from behind, though, as he completed a huge 49-yard pass to Keenan Allen that set up another 16-yard pass to the rookie for a touchdown. Denver 24, San Diego 14.
Down by ten, the Chargers attempted an onside kick. Eric Decker was unable to corral the ball and it bounced back to the Chargers to give Rivers a fighting chance with just under six minutes left in the fourth. Rivers looked the strongest he had all day as he completed a 17-yarder and 25-yarder to Keenan Allen but the Broncos got a big red zone stop and held the Bolts to a 30-yard Nick Novak field goal. Denver 24, San Diego 17.
It looked like the Chargers were about to force a three-and-out to make it a game but instead Peyton converted a 3rd-and-17 with a 21-yard pass to Julius Thomas with three minutes left to essentially put the game away.
Denver Broncos won 24-17. They will face the New England Patriots in next week’s AFC Championship game at Mile High.
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