Recent and ancient history between the San Diego Chargers and Peyton Manning made no difference. The Denver Broncos didn’t play a perfect game but good and smart enough to get by and past a tricky rival, getting to the AFC Championship game by using the same tactics their rivals tried to pull on them in the past.
The Broncos were able to keep Philip Rivers off the field for most of the game, having possession for 35:27 minutes. Peyton Manning threw his customary turnover against the Broncos, but he also threw two early touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, while the running game led by Knowshon Moreno did the rest.
The Broncos didn’t try to out-sling the Chargers. After losing in a similar shootout earlier this season and to the Baltimore Ravens a year ago, this one was about not impressing, but getting things done – eating the clock, running the ball, keeping it simple and playing surprisingly good defense, by trying to keep their own defense off the field for as much as possible.
Manning used his hard count to draw five neutral zone infraction penalties, the most drawn by a team in a single game since 2001. He finished the game 25-of-36 for 230 yards, two touchdowns and an interception; not exactly record breaking stuff, but good enough to get the 24-17 win, with his biggest play probably being completing on 3rd-and-17 to Julius Thomas. The Broncos were 9-of-13 on third down, while the Chargers struggled. They didn’t turn the ball over, but converted only 4-of-12 on 3rd down.
I felt like that game last year forced us to address those types of situations all season long. We’ve worked on it in training camp, we’ve worked on it in the season. It was nice that all that hard work paid off for us.
The Broncos nearly let it all slip away in the fourth quarter. The offense went numb, and the Chargers started making big plays. Rivers completed 6-of-7 passes 15 or more yards downfield for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter after not completing a deep pass in the first three quarters. Keenan Allen was held without a catch in the first half, but had five receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Broncos simply couldn’t handle the deep throws as they were unable to pressure Rivers for an entire game, but their good work early on was enough to rely on in the ending.
One of the secret heroes for the Broncos was their offensive line unit. Manning wasn’t sacked even once, and allowing him to be put under durress only twice out of 36 dropbacks. Manning completed both passes under duress Sunday, a touchdown to Wes Welker and the big third down completion to Julius Thomas.
The Broncos have another rematch in the AFC Championship game, this time against the Patriots who they lost to on the road when they met in the regular season. Another chapter in the Manning-Brady story, with the Broncos as slight favorites, but knowing that having this kind of fourth quarter collapse might be too risky to allow against the Patriots, who have already come back from a huge deficit against Denver once this season.