The Denver Broncos didn't make it easy; they were in a gift-giving mood Sunday after the holidays, surrendering the football five times to the San Diego Chargers. Denver's defense was not in the same charitable mood, holding the Chargers to only ten points off those turnovers. The defense's ability to respond to the offense's giveaways would prove crucial, as would the surprise emergence of a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback...
With Peyton Manning active for the first time since November, Brock Osweiler led the Broncos as starting quarterback and looked good, despite a number of offensive mishaps. Yet it was still Manning who came off the bench. Did the Broncos need a spark? Did Brock deserve to be benched? Maybe and no, respectively, but off the bench Manning came, and the Broncos responded with touchdowns instead of turnovers.
The first half started well enough, with Brock Osweiler finding Demaryius Thomas for a big 72-yard touchdown. But it was all downhill from there - and by "downhill," we mean "turnovers." The Broncos coughed up four first-half turnovers and didn't score another point, while the Chargers managed six points to give Denver a skin-deep lead of 7-6 at the half.
The second half featured four lead changes and two Broncos touchdowns, one apiece by C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman.
Impressive: Brock Osweiler went 2 for 2 on his first drive. More impressive: Demaryius Thomas' reception of the second pass got the Broncos on the board with a huge 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Broncos up 7-0 early.
The Chargers responded with a decent drive of their own, converting three first downs before settling for a Lambo field goal. Broncos 7, Chargers 3.
Unfortunately, it was turnover-fest from there.
The second Broncos drive looked like it was going to go the way of the first, with C.J. Anderson trucking people and Brock Osweiler finding his groove. But an ill-advised spin move by Emmanuel Sanders after a big catch-and-run ended up with a football on the ground, and the Chargers recovered. Denver's next drive ended similarly; Osweiler's pass bounced off Jordan Norwood's hands and into the hands of San Diego defensive back Steve Williams. Then the Broncos drove down the field, and a Steve Williams sack knocked the ball out of Osweiler's nearly-throwing hand. The Broncos suffered three giveaways in three possessions all in Chargers territory.
After each turnover, Denver's defense responded, forcing Chargers punts to keep their 7-3 lead into the second quarter. After a Broncos punt, a Derek Wolfe sack on 3rd down kept Scifres busy with his fourth straight punt.
15 minutes 40 seconds into the game, the #Broncos have 250 yards of offense, three turnovers, and 7 points.— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) January 3, 2016
The Broncos would add a fourth turnover for good measure before halftime, with Michael Schofield getting abused and Brock Osweiler's arm getting hit as he threw. Interception. This time, the damage was done too deep in Denver's territory for the defense to totally make up for it, and the Chargers kicked a 42-yard field goal. Broncos 7, Charger 6.
Turnover 1 on Sanders (fumble) Turnover 2 on Norwood (off hands) Turnover 3 on Osweiler (sack) Turnover 4 on Schofield (bad at football)— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) January 3, 2016
After C.J. Anderson fumbled and the Broncos surrendered a fifth turnover, the unthinkable happened.
The Broncos also made another substitution - Tyler Polumbus in for Michael Schofield. One of the moves made a lot of sense. But both of them worked on the first drive, as Anderson recovered from his fumble to rush for three ruled touchdowns in one drive. Two of those TDs were overturned after review; the third one stuck. Broncos 14, Chargers 13.
Then Denver increased their lead with a Manning-led McManus field-goal drive. Broncos 17, Chargers 13. The Chargers struck back quickly, with Philip Rivers finding a wide-open Tyrell Williams for 80 yards after a blown coverage between Aqib Talib and who looked like Josh Bush (Darian Stewart, out with a hamstring in the first half, was sorely missed there). Chargers 20, Broncos 17.
Peyton Manning responded with a seven-play, 63-yard drive that included a 23-yard Ronnie Hillman run. McManus was good again, and the Broncos tied it up 20-20.
With a tie game late in the 4th quarter, the Broncos needed another spark. Enter Peyton Ma... I mean, Shiloh Keo! The Broncos finally registered a takeaway of their own, and the Broncos offense capitalized, with Ronnie Hillman trotting into the end zone from 23 yards out to give the Broncos a 24-20 lead.
Hell of a job by Peyton Manning to intercept that overthrown Rivers pass, then run in that touchdown.— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 4, 2016
Then Denver's defense did what it's done all season - it closed the game for the Broncos. Philip Rivers threw incomplete on 4th down, and C.J. Anderson and Manning got the one first down they needed to seal it.
The Broncos are the AFC's #1 seed, with home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The road to the Super Bowl, again, goes through Denver, Colorado. And it looks like Peyton Manning will be the man defending home turf.