The San Diego Chargers were the first team to hand Peyton Manning and the Broncos a loss in Denver this season with an inspiring performance Thursday night. The win comes three weeks after the Bolts were the first road team to win in Kansas City this season.
The win put San Diego (7-7) back into serious wild-card discussions while also questioning the Broncos’ (11-3) stranglehold on the top seed in the AFC.
This might have been the Chargers’ most complete game of the season, with the offense, defense and special teams all contributing to the win.
Philip Rivers may not have had great numbers (12 completions on 20 pass attempts for 166 yards), but he controlled the offense through pinpoint passes all night.
It may have been the least amount of passing yards he has thrown all season, but Rivers was masterful in finding receivers and putting the ball only where a Charger could catch it.
Rivers also audibled brilliantly, calling the right plays against what Denver’s defense was trying to do.
There is very little to critique from Rivers’ performance.
The win also made Rivers the second quarterback in NFL history to beat Eli and Peyton Manning in successive weeks. The other was Vince Young.
Ryan Mathews eclipsed 100 yards rushing for the second straight game and the fifth game this season. Mathews’ 127 rushing yards matches his season high he achieved against Miami in Week 11 and gave him 1,012 on the year, the second time in his career to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in a season.
Mathews ran hard and held onto the ball. His rushing was a big part of San Diego being able to dominate the time of possession battle and give Peyton Manning so few opportunities. There were times when it looked like there was no hole, yet Mathews was still able to slip through a crease and gain yards.
His 23-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was brilliant, and even when he ran the wrong play in the fourth quarter, he still gained 13 yards. He finished the game averaging 4.4 yards per attempt.
Danny Woodhead had nine rushing attempts for 29 yards and Ronnie Brown carried the ball three times for 12 yards.
The running backs totaled 168 rushing yards on 41 carries (4.1 average).
Woodhead and Mathews each caught one pass, but the real contribution in the passing game was protection. Woodhead delivered a fantastic block on a blitzing defensive back to give Rivers time to complete a pass.
It would be nice to see more production through the air (Woodhead gained 13 yards on his catch while Mathews netted one yard), but the game plan was to control the clock with the ground game.
The wide receivers caught eight passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
Keenan Allen was targeted five times, catching two for 29 yards. Both receptions resulted in touchdowns. His first score was impressive as he jumped over a Denver defensive player and bullied his way past another into the end zone. His second was a great jumping catch over a defender in the corner of the end zone.
Allen now has 63 catches for 931 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. He has four touchdowns the past two games.
Eddie Royal was thrown to six times, more than any other San Diego player. He finished with three catches for 46 yards. Royal made some tough catches and also had a nice run after the catch on a quick screen.
Vincent Brown caught all three passes thrown his direction. Brown had a team-high 54 receiving yards, which is the second-most receiving yards he has had in a game this season.
The receivers also did a nice job in the run game. Brown was blocking his defender eight yards into the end zone on Mathews’ touchdown.
This was not a good game for the tight ends, especially as blockers.
All three tight ends got pushed around on various plays in the run game.
Statistically, Antonio Gates had two receptions for 23 yards, but he also whiffed on blocks, resulting in loss of yards on running plays.
John Phillips and Ladarius Green also were responsible for loss of yardage for the running backs.
The running game averaged 4.1 per carry.
The Chargers held onto the ball for 38:49.
Philip Rivers was sacked twice, but one was because the wide receivers did not get open.
This may have been the best game the offensive line has played all year.
D.J. Fluker mauled people in the running game.
King Dunlap destroyed defenders on Eddie Royal’s quick screen.
Nick Hardwick was 15 yards downfield paving the way on Mathews’ touchdown.
The game’s MVP may have been Ryan Mathews, but the real reason San Diego won was because of the O-line.
The defensive line played well, especially against the run, even though it may not show up in the statistics.
Cam Thomas and Sean Lissemore were stout in the middle. Lissemore missed a tackle for loss, but Thomas threw the center to the side to stop Knowshon Moreno for a loss.
Corey Liuget pressured Peyton Manning to scramble out of the pocket, resulting in a Marcus Gilchrist sack. Liuget also provided the pressure and hit that resulted in Thomas Keiser’s crucial interception.
It would have been nice to see more pressure in the pass game. Peyton Manning dropped back on 41 pass attempts, and he had a relatively clean pocket most plays.
Still, Denver was held to 18 total rushing yards, and a lot of the credit should go to the D-line.
This may have been the best performance by San Diego’s linebackers this season.
There were very few missed tackles and most completions were contested.
Donald Butler had six tackles and Jarret Johnson had four, but Johnson and Butler were active and around the ball throughout the game. Johnson in particular seemed to be all over the field making plays.
Manti Te’o and Reggie Walker both had two tackles, and Melvin Ingram caused some pressure on the few plays he was in the game.
Thomas Keiser had the interception, but he also batted another pass down.
The most important part of the game for the linebackers, however, was the open-field tackling. Rarely did a Denver player have the opportunity to gain more yards after contact.
The Chargers have had more interceptions in other games, but this is the best game this secondary has played this season.
After the first series where Manning was hitting wide-open receivers, the defensive backs settled down and shut down the Bronco receivers.
Yes, Manning still completed 65 percent of his passes, but a lot of those passes had to be in very small windows due to tight coverage.
Denver receivers had to make contested catches, yes, and when they did haul in the pass, they were tackled immediately.
Like the linebackers, the decrease of missed tackles was apparent and a key part to the victory.
Nick Novak booting the kickoff out of bounds was horrible, but he hit 35- and 38-yard field goals.
Mike Scifres was outstanding in the punt game, nailing all three of his kicks inside the 20-yard line. Actually, his punts were downed at the 6-, 11- and 3-yard lines, forcing the Broncos to have long drives.
The coverage units did a nice job containing Denver returners. Seyi Ajirotutu in particular had a nice open-field tackle on a kickoff.
The players made the plays, but defensive coordinator John Pagano put them in the right positions to make those plays. The defensive game plan was fantastic. Denver had three straight 3-and-outs in the first half, and in four straight drives, the Broncos were held to 13 total yards.
The offensive game plan was just as impressive. The Chargers had the ball for close to two-thirds of the game.
There were some head-scratching moments, though: the draw on 3rd-and-long in the second quarter; the timeout to start the third quarter.
The assistant coaches deserve credit for convincing head coach Mike McCoy to challenge too many men on the field. If that fails to be a penalty, the Chargers lose a time out and also look like idiots.