The Broncos had the game in complete control for three quarters, dominating the Bolts to the tune of 17-0 on the scoreboard, but it felt like it was much, much worse.
San Diego’s defense made huge stops at the end of the first half and held the Broncos to a field goal to start the second half to keep the game within range. There was a very real possibility the score could have been 28-0 by the time the Chargers touched the ball in the third quarter, but there was the slightest glimmer of hope for a comeback.
As for San Diego, there is plenty of blame to go around in this loss as the Chargers now head into the offseason.
Philip Rivers was handcuffed in the first half, as he attempted only eight passes.
Granted, he was sacked twice on the opening drive, so the coaches may have been weary of his protection, but Rivers threw four passes in each of the first two quarters.
The trend continued in the second half as Rivers attempted four passes in the third quarter as well.
In the first three quarters of the game, Rivers completed seven of his 12 attempts for 44 yards.
By contrast, Peyton Manning was 7-of-9 for 71 yards and one touchdown…in the first quarter.
When the handcuffs were released in the fourth quarter, Rivers and the offense came to life. The hurry-up offense kept the Broncos defense on the field and on its heels.
Rivers was 11 of 15 for 173 yards and two touchdowns in the final frame, but the rally started too late, and the Chargers fell short in the end.
San Diego’s running backs were absolutely ineffective.
It is hard to blame Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead or Ronnie Brown for the lack of production when the offensive line was getting destroyed by the Broncos’ front seven.
The running backs totaled 55 yards rushing on 15 carries.
Montee Ball, Denver’s backup running back, totaled 52 rushing yards on 10 carries.
Woodhead and Brown did contribute in the passing game, however.
Brown had four catches for 18 yards, and Woodhead had three for 10 yards.
Whether by design, Denver’s defense or the ineptitude of the offensive line, San Diego’s running backs were not a factor. Once the fourth quarter rolled around, the Chargers were on the comeback trail, and the running game was out of the question.
GRADE: F (but not their fault)
Like the rest of the offense, the wide receivers did not do much until the fourth quarter of the game.
Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal were each thrown to once in the first half.
Allen did have one catch in the third quarter for 19 yards, but that was the only wide receiver catch outside of the fourth quarter.
Royal hauled in an important 30-yard bomb to start the fourth quarter and set up Keenan Allen’s first touchdown.
Allen had five receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Vincent Brown was targeted once in the fourth quarter. It looked like the wind killed Rivers’ throw to Brown, but after the play, it looks like Rivers was telling Brown he ran the wrong the route.
GRADE: C+ (only one quarter of work)
Not much went right for the Chargers in the first three quarters, and there was little need for the tight ends during the fourth-quarter comeback.
Ladarius Green caught both passes thrown his way in the first half, totaling seven yards.
Antonio Gates was not targeted at all in the first half, but he caught two passes in the second half for 10 yards. He actually was thrown at three times in the fourth quarter but only caught one pass in the final frame.
The tight ends were not very effective blockers either.
Even though the Chargers defense did have its own issues, and the offensive game plan was questionable, the offensive line should take the blame for the first three quarters of misery.
In the first five pass plays (all in the first series for San Diego), right tackle D.J. Fluker gave up two sacks. The rookie from Alabama let Jeremy Mincey rush past him on the fifth play from scrimmage. It looked like Fluker thought the running back head was supposed to block Mincey. The right tackle barely touched the defender as Fluker was focused on a possible blitzing outside linebacker who never came.
The next time Rivers went back to pass, former teammate Shaun Phillips beat Fluker to the inside and sacked the quarterback.
It looked like San Diego did not want to pass the ball after that series. Fluker’s inability to keep Rivers upright may have been a factor in that game-plan decision.
The rest of the line fared just as poorly in run blocking as Fluker did in pass protection.
Johnnie Troutman got his first start at right guard, and he played like it was his first start ever at any position.
The Chargers wanted to control the ball and time of possession, but that is difficult if the team cannot control the line of scrimmage.
Once the hurry-up and no-huddle offense was employed, the line settled down and provided good protection. The Denver defense may have slacked a bit, making the O-line look better than it actually played, but Rivers was able to complete 11 of 15 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Peyton Manning is pretty good at creating yards for his offense.
He does not need free help from the defense.
Yet, that is what the Chargers defense did, giving Manning free yards with five neutral-zone infractions. Two of those penalties were on defensive linemen (Lawrence Guy and Cam Thomas).
It seemed as if the defense keyed Manning’s use of “Omaha” as a call. Once “Omaha” was called, the next word was the snap, or at least that’s what San Diego thought.
Corey Liuget had five total tackles, including a tackle for loss.
Kendall Reyes had two total tackles.
Guy and Thomas each had one tackle.
There were times when Reyes and Liuget were disruptive, but there were also times when the defensive line was pushed around.
The outside linebackers were in such a hurry to rush, they failed to stay onside.
The defense gave Peyton Manning and the Broncos 25 free yards.
The outside linebackers accounted for 60 percent of those yards, including one on 3rd-and-1 to give Denver a free first down.
U-T San Diego’s Michael Gehlken summed up the first three quarters succinctly:
If Chargers spent as much time in end zone as they do neutral zone, this would be quite the game.— Michael Gehlken (@UTgehlken) January 12, 2014
Besides Donald Butler’s tip-toe interception at the end of the first half, the linebackers did not do much in the game.
Butler’s interception should not be understated, though. It looked like Denver would at least go up 21-0 at the half and get the ball back to start the third quarter. Instead, it stays 14-0 at the break.
As a whole, the linebackers did not make an impact in the game. Denver’s running backs were able to find holes, and receivers were able to get open.
GRADE: D (Butler’s INT keeps this from being an F)
Shareece Wright dropped an interception on the first drive. That non-turnover was costly because the Broncos kept the drive alive and eventually scored a touchdown.
Undrafted free agent Jahleel Addae had a nice forced fumble in the first half, but overall the secondary was lacking. There was some tight coverage, but too often in key situations receivers were able to convert first downs.
The Broncos picked up 11 first downs through the air.
The 3rd-and-17 throw to Julius Thomas for a gain of 21 is unacceptable. There were three minutes left in the game at that point. A punt meant Philip Rivers and the offense would get the ball back with about 2:30 left in the game.
There is no guarantee the offense would have gotten the needed touchdown to force overtime, but Rivers said later, “If we got it one more time, I believe deep down we would’ve tied that up.”
Nick Novak slipped on his 53-yard field-goal attempt. He did make a 30-yard field goal and executed a masterful onside kick.
Mike Scifres got injured trying to make a tackle on a punt return in the second quarter, but he returned in the second half.
The coverage units were horrible, with Eric Decker almost getting a touchdown on a punt return and Trindon Holliday having a kickoff return for a touchdown called back for an illegal block.
While Denver kicker Matt Prater does have a deep kickoff (all five resulted in touchbacks), the Chargers need to find a return specialist in the offseason.
Denver never punted.
The offensive line was horrible.
The defense kept jumping offside and could not get a third-down stop.
And yet the team still somehow had a chance to send the game into overtime.
If this was indeed Ken Whisenhunt’s last game as San Diego’s offensive coordinator, he had a good year but really failed in this final game.
The offensive game plan was flawed, and it took too long to adjust to a scheme that worked.
It looked like San Diego wanted to control the time of possession, much like it did in the Week 15 win in Denver, but the Broncos were prepared for that. The Chargers coaches were not prepared to change that approach.
Also, the coaches shoulder the blame for the delay-of-game penalties and the early timeout on the first drive of the game.
With backs against the wall, the offense went into no-huddle, hurry-up mode, which worked. That approach should have been tried sooner, especially when it was apparent Ryan Mathews would not return, and the run game was ineffective.
At least one defensive coach should have told the players that “Omaha” was not the signal that the next word was the snap. On five different occasions from five different players, Chargers defenders jumped into the neutral zone right after Peyton called “Omaha.”