The San Diego Chargers managed to stymie the Denver Broncos' explosive offense and secure a 27-20 win at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Thursday's Week 15 AFC West showdown.
Thanks to a strong rushing attack led by Ryan Mathews (29 carries, 128 yards, one touchdown) and efficient, turnover-free quarterback play from Philip Rivers, the Chargers retained possession for 38:49 in giving a jolt to their playoff hopes, improving to 7-7 on the season.
Mathews' fifth 100-yard running game put him in some elite company, per NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano:
Ryan Mathews now has as many 100-yard rushing games this year (5) as Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy.— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) December 13, 2013
Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and Denver's No. 1 scoring offense were held to a season-low 20 points in dropping their first game at home.
It leaves the seemingly invincible Broncos in danger of not securing home field throughout the playoffs, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss:
With Broncos' home loss to the Chargers, it opens door for Patriots to earn No. 1 playoff seed if they win remaining 3 games.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 13, 2013
The key play came in the fourth quarter, when Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget hit Manning's arm and Thomas Keiser easily intercepted the fluttering pass for the first and only turnover of the game.
According to CBS Sports' Eye on Football Twitter account, this was Manning's first loss in the AFC West since joining the Broncos:
Denver's loss tonight marks Peyton Manning's first division loss as a Bronco, Manning came into the game 10-0 since signing with Denver.— Eye on Football (@EyeOnNFL) December 13, 2013
It was a masterful game plan crafted by San Diego's staff. Head coach Mike McCoy was the Broncos offensive coordinator last year and avenged a Week 10 loss to his former team in this rather shocking upset.
Fun fact: Chargers actually lead the league in average plays per drive and average length of drive.— Michael Lev (@MichaelJLev) December 13, 2013
A seven-play, 67-yard jaunt down the field began the game, as Denver took it effortlessly down the field and capped it off with Manning's 46th touchdown pass of the season to Caldwell.
San Diego responded with a field goal drive of its own thereafter, but the Broncos answered to make it a 10-3 advantage. Then came a highlight reel catch-and-run on a pivotal 3rd-and-6 by Chargers rookie wideout Keenan Allen.
Rotoworld's Evan Silva adds Philip Rivers' perspective on Allen:
Philip Rivers on OROY frontrunner Keenan Allen: "He knows how to score. He's unbelievable."— Evan Silva (@evansilva) December 13, 2013
After securing the catch on a short crossing route, Allen surged up the field and YAC'd it up, then took to the air to avert two Denver defenders at the goal line for the tying touchdown:
But the man wasn't done. With just over a minute remaining in the opening half, Rivers trusted his youngster to make a play, which is precisely what Allen did in hauling in a 10-yard TD reception.
Keenan Allen is a MONSTER. That's all there is to it. MUST-SEE (AGAIN!): http://t.co/3RMADKmiFK— NFL (@nfl) December 13, 2013
This looked like it was going to be a shootout, which was to be expected considering the caliber of passing offenses on display. However, San Diego took over with more methodical drives and superior conversion on third downs, holding the Broncos to converting two of their nine opportunities.
That lopsided time of possession allowed the Chargers to establish the run with Ryan Matthews, who seemed to break the game open with this amazing 23-yard run to make it 24-10 in the third quarter:
Four drives had netted a meager 13 yards on 13 plays, per the NFL Network telecast, before Manning decided he'd had enough and that he wouldn't go quietly at home.
Same Chargers D that gave up 31 points to the Texans and 38 points to the Chiefs currently holding Denver to 10 through three.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) December 13, 2013
Caldwell nabbed a crucial fourth-down reception to keep the Broncos' comeback bid afloat, then Manning slung it to him on a swing pass, and Denver's two 1,000-yard receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker paved the way to pay dirt.
A key stuff of Mathews on 3rd-and-1 of the next possession gave Manning a chance to tie, albeit from his own three after a beautiful coffin corner punt by Mike Scifres.
It wasn't to be, though, after Manning's crushing pick.
That was enough to put the Broncos away, as Nick Novak iced it with 2:36 left on a 35-yard field goal.
Credit Manning for putting Matt Prater in position to boot one of his own through the uprights to cut the deficit to seven, but by then it was too little, too late. An onside kick bid went begging, and the Chargers secured the road triumph.
Rivers talked about his team's victory after the game:
Here is a look at some of the top performers from the 2013 season's Thursday night finale, along with their game grades.
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos: B
It's hard to blame Manning for Denver's first home loss of the season, because he simply didn't get a lot of opportunities and still managed to add two TD passes, giving him 47 for the season.
Having said that, Manning did hold the ball too long on the play he threw the costly pick. He doesn't do that often, but solid coverage on the back end forced him to do so, and it upended what looked like a promising comeback charge.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers: A
What was most impressive about Rivers is that he didn't try to force the issue and simply took what the Broncos gave him (12-of-20 passing, 166 yards, two TDs), relying on Matthews to bear the brunt of the burden.
Rivers has averted his previous penchant for interceptions that had plagued him over the past two years, extending his run of late-season greatness in the process, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Philip Rivers: 10-3 against teams above .500 in December/January in last 8 seasons (best of any NFL QB in that span)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 13, 2013
Instead of fading on the big stage, the veteran signal-caller stood tall, made all the right reads and maintained his cool against Denver's viable pass rush to guide San Diego to this huge win.
Andre Caldwell, WR, Denver Broncos: A
Filling in for an injured Wes Welker is not an easy task, but Caldwell did his best to make up for the void and rose to the occasion when his number was called.
Although having Manning at quarterback makes establishing oneself a bit easier, it was still up to Caldwell to help keep Denver's offense running smoothly. He did an admirable job in leading the Broncos with six catches for 59 yards and the two scores.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers: A
For as banged up as Matthews has been in his career, the former first-round pick certainly lived up to his billing by being a sturdy, tough between-the-tackles runner on Thursday.
Matthews registered 29 carries for the second consecutive week—a career high—and proved capable of being a workhorse back. Now that the Chargers are more of a fixture in the playoff picture, his emergence should give the team confidence that it can win down the stretch.
The hope for San Diego is that the No. 6 slot in the wild card becomes more accessible after Week 15, and this victory went a long way in ensuring that. McCoy's bunch will return home to take on the Oakland Raiders in another divisional matchup next Sunday in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Denver's chances of getting the No. 1 seed in the AFC took a hit with this loss, but an opportunity to bounce back presents itself in Week 16, when the Broncos travel to Reliant Stadium to take on the 2-11 Houston Texans.