They say practice makes perfect.
The person who coined that phrase probably wasn't talking about trying to overcome 20+ point deficits, but they obviously had someone like Peyton Manning in mind when they did.
After having fallen short while trying to dig out of 20-point holes against Atlanta and Houston, and a 24-point canyon in New England, the Broncos stormed back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to stun the host Chargers 35-24 (Gamebook, ANS box score).
And on a night where John Fox told the KOA guys that Denver had practiced taking the ball away more than any team he's ever coached, the Denver defense ended six of the last eight San Diego possessions by turning Philip Rivers over.
But early on, it seemed the Broncos had instead been working on giving the ball away, and making more head-slapping mistakes on offense; two early turnovers on special teams (Remember how Ted mentioned on multiple occasions that Jim Leonhard's ho-hum punt returns were bolstered by his surehandedness?) helped stake the Chargers to a 10-0 lead.
Soon after, two inexcusable gaffes by Denver wideouts (this had already grown old) on the same series swung the game from what would have been a 10-7 deficit into a 17-0 hole. After Peyton Manning hit a wide open Eric Decker, the WR tripped over the San Diego 45-yard line on a play that was to be a far more certain touchdown than either of Demaryius Thomas's fumbles from the prior two weeks.
Three plays later, Matthew Willis (who is inexplicably making $1.26M this season) ran a fly when Manning was clearly throwing short on a hot route, and Quentin Jammer had an easy return for eighty yards and six points. Peyton's pathetic attempt at tackling or slowing Jammer down en route was more akin to a perfect Stop, Drop, and Roll demonstration (show your kids).
After a second Rivers-to-Antonio Gates touchdown (and to think, on KOA they said Denver was worried about the Chargers wideouts), it was 24-0 at halftime, and all seemed lost, at least to this writer.
The largest comeback in MNF history* began in ordinary fashion, when a touchdown drive to start the third quarter covered 85 yards, with Manning throwing for 83 of them. Why it took that long for John Fox and Mike McCoy to unleash the PMFM no-huddle, instead of the heavy package runs they started the game with, is beyond our comprehension.
* This also tied for the largest Denver comeback ever; they had trailed the Patriots 24-0 in the third quarter of a game in their inaugural 1960 season, and were behind 34-10 to the Seahawks in the third quarter of a 1979 game. (h/t Andrew Mason)
Elvis Dumervil, who had a massive game (+12.5 EPA), would force Rivers into two fumbles, the first of which came on the ensuing possession, and was returned 65 yards by Tony Carter (+11.2 EPA) to narrow the score to 24-14.
Now, back to the practice.
We all know Peyton Manning is a practice junkie, and that he attains a Jedi-like connection with his receivers once they've spent enough time together. In a six-minute span to start the fourth quarter, Manning made his two best throws of the night, and they were to his two most familiar targets.
After having been pushed out of four-down territory by fifteen yards' worth of penalties on Orlando Franklin and Willis McGahee, the Broncos faced 3rd and 16 at midfield - just the kind of down and distance they've been allowing opponents to convert this season.
This time, Manning lofted a difficult sideline pass to the trusty Jacob Tamme, who niftily tiptoed his way inbounds for a 25-yard gainer. Four plays later, Decker made up for his earlier snafu, by burrowing his way into the end zone with some help from fellow wideouts Brandon Stokley and Demaryius Thomas, who had opened Denver scoring.
Following an interception by Carter for his second momentous takeaway of the game, Peyton turned to his other security blanket for the play of the night. With the play clock winding down, he frantically audibled before throwing a pinpoint, ten-on-the-difficulty-scale throw to Stokley, who snatched the ball out of the air despite textbook coverage by Marcus Gilchrist.
The comeback was complete, and the Broncos were in the shocking position of looking to run out the clock's final 6:48 after the first of two Chris Harris (+11.0 EPA) interceptions.
But after a phantom offensive PI call on Decker helped force Denver to punt the ball back to Rivers & Co. for a comeback attempt of their own, Harris sealed the game with a classic 46-yard pick-six that was a virtual carbon copy of the one by Tracy Porter which capped off the opener against Pittsburgh.
Practice, indeed, made perfect.