If the Broncos make the playoffs this year — and given the competition in their division, that’s probably the way to bet — they may well look back at halftime in San Diego as the turning point of their season.
Trailing 24-0, they were looking at a record of 2-4 and a two-game deficit to the Chargers. More important, they were looking thoroughly unable to get out of their own way. They couldn’t field a punt or a kickoff. They couldn’t get their passer and pass receivers on the same page. They couldn’t even run unmolested to the end zone without falling to the ground for no apparent reason.
“We had the big play to (Eric) Decker and that guy made a great tackle,” Peyton Manning deadpanned afterward. “I mean, the piece of grass made the tackle, excuse me. So when those things happen, you kind of wonder, hey, golly, is it meant to be? That’s the play we have to have in order to help this comeback.
“We put that play in and thought we could get that exact result, thinking more the touchdown though, not the 50-yard completion and fall down. That was frustrating, obviously, a potential 14-point swing. We’ve got a chance to get a touchdown and then (Quentin) Jammer makes a play and they go up 17. ”
This is what makes sports more intriguing than scripted entertainment, because it is so often utterly inexplicable. The Broncos were as bad as they could be in the first half, then about as good as they could be in the second. The Chargers were the opposite. By the end, it was the biggest comeback in the history of Monday Night Football.
So, naturally, everybody wanted to know what was said in the locker room at intermission. Some sort of Knute Rockne thing?
“There’s no magical words of wisdom, that’s for sure,” coach John Fox told KOA afterward. “I think as I looked in their eyes, and I told them this, I could see they thought they could come back and win the game. The whole thing is believing. They did, and we were fortunate after digging ourselves such a big hole to be able to come back.”
They did have one thing going for them — plenty of experience fighting back from large deficits.
“There’s no speech that causes that turnaround,” Manning said. “It’s simply a matter of will. I do think offensively the fact that we had been there before, we have shown the ability to score quickly. It was nice to finally get a lead there in the fourth quarter and give our defense a chance to play with the lead and they could really peel their ears back and rush the passer.”
The litany of mistakes in the first half made the Broncos look as incompetent as they had looked since Manning’s arrival:
— In his first attempt to field a punt for the Broncos — a fair catch, no less — Trindon Holliday, signed just last week after being released by Houston, dropped the ball. The Chargers recovered and kicked a field goal three plays later.
— Rookie Omar Bolden fumbled the ensuing kickoff. The Chargers kept trying to give the Broncos the ball and the Broncos kept giving it back. The Chargers required only two plays to score a touchdown, making it 10-0.
— Following a Jim Leonhard interception, the Broncos were driving when Manning and Matt Willis miscommunicated on a sight adjustment. Instead of completing a long drive with a score and pulling themselves back into the game, the Broncos watched Jammer, the Chargers cornerback, pick off Manning’s pass and run it 80 yards the other way for a 17-0 lead.
— As if to rub it in, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers drove the ball down the Broncos’ throats in the final four minutes of the half, capping the drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Antonio Gates.
“We were really down,” said veteran receiver Brandon Stokley. “Anytime you’re down 24-0 in the first half and played like we played, we were disappointed. But we’ve got a lot of professionals in this room, a lot of guys with heart and character, and I knew we were going to come out in the second half and give everything we had, and that’s what we did.”
The Broncos emerged from the visitors’ locker room and drove the length of the field to their first touchdown, a 29-yard strike from Manning to Demaryius Thomas.
Just like that, everything changed. Now it was the Chargers making critical mistakes. When Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil got the first of his two quarterback sacks on San Diego’s first possession of the third quarter, Rivers fumbled the ball. Cornerback Tony Carter picked it up on the run and raced 65 yards for a touchdown. With 4:41 still to play in the third, the Broncos had pulled to within 24-14 and made it into a game again.
“DBs are taught to scoop all balls, whether it’s a fumble or not, so we were just doing something carrying from the practice field to the game field,” Carter said.
“We’ve been working on that since OTAs,” Dumervil said. “It was like a domino effect. We finally got one and they just started coming in bunches. That’s just the way it works with turnovers, man, and sacks and interceptions. They come in bunches and at this point now we’ve got to stay consistent with it.”
“We kind of unraveled after that,” Rivers said. “They scored and made it 24-7 and we were driving, just kind of moving right along down the field and they got us in a third down and they brought an all-out blitz. I was trying to just lose a little ground and lay it to Malcolm (Floyd). I was throwing it really to be incomplete or maybe get interference or anything. Malcolm’s one-on-one. We either punt or try a long field goal there. And then obviously that play happens and then we go three and out and then they score again and then we throw an interception and they score again. It kind of unraveled after that play.”
Decker, who had fallen down with nothing but green grass between him and the end zone in the first half, carried three San Diego defenders with him across the goal line early in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to three.
On the Chargers’ next possession, the Broncos produced yet another turnover, this one an interception by Carter. Four plays later, Manning approached the line of scrimmage and spied single coverage on Stokley, his old friend, and checked off at the line of scrimmage.
Manning was so busy changing the call he almost ran out of time. Center Dan Koppen had to motion to him to get back into the shotgun to take the snap before the play clock ran out. Manning turned to his right and launched a perfect fade into the end zone. The 36-year-old Stokley went up and took the ball from cornerback Marcus Gilchrist to give the Broncos their first lead at 28-24.
“I’ve thrown that route to Stokley quite a few times,” said Manning, who played four seasons with Stokley in Indianapolis. “That’s one of those that all the years and all the practice repetitions, it sure does pay off.
“We got man-to-man coverage, got him in press coverage, and I’ll take Stokley in the slot over anybody. I love Wes Welker and some of the all-time slot greats, but he’s my favorite, he’s the best in my opinion, and he’s really hard to cover there.
“I just gave him a little fade route and the guy really had pretty good coverage. It was kind of an in-between decision whether to throw the fade or to throw that back shoulder, and I decided to give him a chance to make a play on the ball. The fact that he caught it and got the feet in bounds, it sure was an awesome play and the team sure needed it at that point in time.”
“Peyton made an audible at the last second and actually made a great throw. I guess the catch was all right,” Stokley said.
“We’ve been talking about starting fast and starting fast and starting fast and we just didn’t start fast. So that was disappointing to come out the gates like we did. But we’ve shown all year we’ve got a lot of heart. That first half was embarrassing, but we fought back.”
Cornerback Chris Harris, elevated to the No. 2 cover position with Tracy Porter home in Denver nursing an illness, ended each of the next two Chargers possessions with interceptions. He returned the second 46 yards for the clinching touchdown.
Rivers finished with a remarkable five second-half turnovers — three interceptions and two fumbles.
“Mostly just poor throws,” Rivers said. “I wasn’t fooled out there once today. The first interception, I didn’t see exactly how it ended, but I know I gave (tight end Antonio) Gates a chance down there and they ended up with it. The other ones were bad throws. There’s really no other reason for them.”
Even after adding three turnovers to their own mounting season total in the first half, the Broncos ended up winning the turnover battle.
“You get what you emphasize,” Fox said. “After that first half, I was like, I’m not sure that really worked. But it’s kind of how you finish and I was proud of the way our guys pulled together as a football team. That’s as good a second half as I’ve ever seen.”
“I think the identity is slowly starting to come,” Decker said. “I think we understand who we are and what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are. I would say offensively, if we don’t hurt ourselves, we’re an explosive team. Defensively, if we can make plays on third downs, we can stop anybody. That’s our mindset. That’s the attitude we have.”
The Broncos still aspire to play well enough early in games not to require all these big comebacks. But as a gut check and a turning point, Monday night in San Diego will do nicely. Maybe it was a halftime speech after all.
“Coach Fox just told us we’d better pick it up,” Decker said. “Otherwise it’s going to be a sad, sad bye week.”
Instead, the Broncos head into the bye week with reason to believe.