About twenty minutes after John Fox announced he had no injuries to report from Thursday night’s game — other than wounded pride, perhaps — rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster tweeted he would have surgery in the morning.
In case you needed further evidence that the Broncos were not on the same page.
Having seen him after the game, I am relieved to report Webster had no visible burns, despite being toasted by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. When it became clear Rivers was going to throw the ball at whomever Webster was covering, the Broncos finally removed him from the game. The fact that Fox didn’t know about the injury afterward suggests it was a benching rather than an injury substitution. Reportedly, Webster will have surgery on a thumb and miss perhaps a week.
It was that kind of night. Twice the Broncos defense was penalized for having too many players on the field, and they used a timeout to prevent a third. A special-teams player, Nate Irving, was so eager to make a play that he jumped offsides and turned a Chargers punt from inside their 10-yard line into a first down that allowed the San Diego Time Machine to remove another seven minutes from the game clock in the third quarter, when time was starting to matter.
Not only that, the Broncos’ fabulous offensive engine, the most prolific in NFL history going in, suddenly fell out of tune. After a reasonably sharp first quarter that produced a 10-3 lead, it was shut out in consecutive quarters for the first time this season. In the second quarter, it went three-and-out three times in a row. Its yardage for the quarter was minus one. In the fourth quarter, when the Broncos still had a chance to pull it out, they made a mistake in pass protection that turned a throw-away into an interception.
And a loss. Not to bury the lead, the Broncos lost, 27-20, for just the third time in fourteen games. Also the third time in eight games. They started out 6-0. They’re 5-3 since. This has various implications for the playoffs, but this loss in particular did something else. It established a template for beating the Broncos in the playoffs.
Mike McCoy, the Chargers’ head coach and former Broncos offensive coordinator, has been working on this for a while. He knows the Broncos organization and talent as well as anyone. He employed the same template five weeks ago, in San Diego, when the teams met for the first time. The Broncos won that day, 28-20, but the Chargers had the ball almost twice as long — 38 minutes to 22 for the Broncos. Thursday night those numbers were 39 and 21.
So the Broncos could have won, as they did in San Diego, despite the limited time of possession. But McCoy tweaked his template based on what he learned the last time. The Chargers had to settle for field goals in the first game and fell behind 21-6. They settled for one on their first possession Thursday, too. But they also scored touchdowns, which allowed them to avoid having to play catch-up. As important, they held the mighty Broncos’ engine to two touchdowns, thereby changing the odds on all those records waiting to be broken.
The result of McCoy’s template wasn’t pretty. Denver couldn’t run the ball and couldn’t stop the run. The Broncos had 18 yards rushing — total, for the game — while surrendering 177.
They couldn’t convert on third down. They averaged 5.8 yards on first down and 6.4 on second. Which would make you think there wouldn’t be that many third downs. And there weren’t — nine out of 26 first downs — but they averaged only 2.2 yards on them and converted only two into fresh downs.
“I give San Diego’s defense a lot of credit,” said Peyton Manning, who added two touchdown passes to his season total. He’s now three shy of the record. “They played well on defense and we were not as sharp, we just didn’t play as well and didn’t stay on the field. We didn’t have the ball much, and when we had it, we didn’t do enough with it. Give San Diego credit. They played better than we did.”
You can attribute this to the law of averages or the short week. The Broncos lost a chance to produce a perfect record in home games for the sixth time in their history. In fact, Manning seemed to have a premonition four days before, suggesting that the dominating 91 plays run by the offense in a win over Tennessee on Sunday might not be the ideal scenario going into a short week.
McCoy’s template relies on the inability of the Broncos’ defense to get off the field, and that’s a legitimate problem. They went into the game ranked 25th after ranking in the top five a year ago. Von Miller is a nice player but nowhere near the dominant defender he was a year ago. Elvis Dumervil is gone. Kevin Vickerson, Derek Wolfe and Champ Bailey are out.
The Chargers ran against the base defense, against eight in the box and against the nickel — 44 times in all. When Rivers needed to make a play in the passing game, he did, throwing two touchdowns to rookie Keenan Allen. The Chargers converted half of their third downs.
“We didn’t mention time of possession one time this week,” Rivers said. “We mentioned the fact that we had to score. We had to score touchdowns and not field goals. We didn’t do it every time, but we did it a couple of times that were key.”
“A lot of big plays at critical moments in the game,” McCoy said. “The interception at the end of the game — outstanding. A number of three-and-outs by the defense. Give (defensive coordinator) John Pagano a lot of credit for the defensive game plan that he put in this week . . . . Peyton’s the best in the business, one of the best of all time, so the longer you keep the ball and the less he has it, the better off you’re going to be.”
The Broncos used all their available defensive backs, replacing Webster eventually with veteran Quentin Jammer, the former Charger. But they struggled in coverage at the safety position as well. They used both Paris Lenon and Wesley Woodyard at middle linebacker, trying to find an answer to the Chargers’ running game.
They still hold the first seed in the AFC, but New England can tie them with a win in Miami on Sunday. The Patriots have the tie-breaker, having beaten the Broncos in Foxborough three weeks ago, which means the Patriots would have to lose again — they play at Baltimore and at home against Buffalo after the Miami game — for the Broncos to recapture the top seed.
The defense would certainly benefit if Wolfe and Bailey could return at full strength, but it’s not clear when that might happen. As for the offense, Thursday’s rare consecutive breakdowns were mainly good plays by the Chargers. The first three-and-out included nose tackle Cam Thomas shedding center Manny Ramirez and stuffing running back Knowshon Moreno, safety Eric Weddle leaping high into the air at the line of scrimmage to bat away a Manning pass and perfect coverage by cornerback Shareece Wright on a third-down go route.
The second three-and-out included routine gains of three and five yards on first and second downs and then a disastrous breakdown in pass protection on third-and-2. Defensive end Corey Liuget, who hit Manning low in San Diego five weeks ago, aggravating an ankle injury, lined up opposite left guard Zane Beadles. At the snap, Beadles pulled out and headed to the right as if leading a running play or screen. That left a hole between tackle Chris Clark and center Manny Ramirez. Both tried to fill it, but Liuget barged between them and charged at Manning. Manning spun away and ran left. Blitzing safety Marcus Gilchrist persuaded him to go to the ground for a loss of 12.
The third three-and-out came with a minute left and Manning trying to use the sideline to save time. As Julius Thomas turned to find the third-down pass, it whizzed by him.
The worst break down came in the fourth quarter. With Wes Welker out after suffering his second concussion in three weeks, Manning connected with Andre Caldwell, the team’s fourth receiver, for two touchdowns. The second cut the deficit to 24-17 early in the fourth. When the Broncos got the ball back with 5:50 to play, they were 97 yards from the end zone with a chance to drive the length of the field and tie the score. Two completions and a 15-yard penalty on Weddle for a horse-collar tackle moved the ball to the 33. Then came the disastrous interception.
It was again Liuget’s doing. Manning wanted to throw to Julius Thomas near the left sideline. Liuget was initially double-teamed by Clark and Beadles, who seemed to have him stymied. Then Beadles broke away, looking to pick up somebody else. But there was nobody else to pick up, so Beadles found himself blocking air while Liuget used the space he had just vacated to shove past Clark and hit Manning’s arm as he threw, creating the jump ball that linebacker Thomas Keiser corralled.
By the time the Broncos got the ball back, 2:36 remained and they trailed by two scores. They managed a field goal and a failed onside kick.
The advantage to the short week, of course, is it is followed by a long week. The Broncos will rest up this weekend before going back to work for the last two games of the regular season, road contests at Houston and Oakland. The question that will probably have to await an answer until the playoffs is whether McCoy’s template can be replicated.