Final Score: Chargers 27, Broncos 20

Last updated: Dec 13, 2013 8:26 AM

Mental errors have plagued the Broncos (11-3) all year long, and on Thursday night, they caught up with them, in the form of a stunning 27-20 (Gamebook) loss to the visiting Chargers (7-7).

San Diego’s defense entered the game ranked dead last in overall efficiency according to Advanced NFL Stats, but they held Denver’s record-breaking offense to its lowest output of the season, in terms of both points and yards (295).

Their previous lows had been 27 points against KC in Week 11, and 397 yards against these same Chargers in Week 10.

Denver's playoff destiny is now out of their hands, as the loss gives New England a chance to control home field advantage in the AFC.

San Diego won the opening toss and deferred, and after a nice 33-yard return from Trindon Holliday, Peyton Manning gladly took over from there.

Knowshon Moreno carried twice for 11 yards, and the other 56 yards were all Peyton, including a 15-yard toss to a wide open Andre Caldwell, for his second touchdown catch of the season.

Although they faced one third down on the drive, it was about as easy as a possession could be.

The Chargers got as close as the Denver 19 on their first drive, but ultimately settled for a 38-yard field goal from Nick Novak. Toward the end of the possession, Sly Williams notched the first sack of his career. 

Denver’s ensuing possession also stalled after 60 yards, and Matt Prater’s 32-yarder put them up 10-3.

San Diego responded in fine fashion, motoring 80 yards in 13 plays, with Keenan Allen scoring on a 19-yard catch, run, and hurdle (over Kayvon Webster) to even the score at 10.

Holliday’s return only made it as far as the 10-yard line, and after the teams traded three-and-outs, he inexplicably fair caught a punt at the Denver six, with plenty of room to run.

After the first sack of Manning in three weeks, San Diego was in business at the Denver 43, and they took full advantage. Seven plays later, Philip Rivers again hit Allen, this time from 10 yards out, putting the Chargers ahead 17-10.

That gave Manning & Co. a chance with 58 seconds left, but a third consecutive three-and-out sent them into the locker room facing a seven-point deficit, and having to kick off to start the second half.

Denver had been held to a season-low 121 first-half yards, with only seven first downs, 11 minutes of possession, and seven points.

But the bigger problem was that the Broncos defense couldn’t stop the Chargers, and that did not change after halftime.

San Diego needed only eight plays and 3:54 to take the second-half kickoff back 80 yards and stretch their advantage to 24-10 with a 23-yard run by Ryan Mathews.

After Novak gifted the Broncos prime field position by sending his kickoff out of bounds, they were unable to capitalize, although they did pin the Chargers at their one-yard line thanks to a fine punt by Britton Colquitt and some fancy footwork from Bubba Caldwell.

Finally, the defense held, but incredibly, Nate Irving jumped offsides on fourth down with the Chargers ready to punt, handing them a fresh set of downs.

Shortly thereafter, another mental error - Denver’s second 12-men-on-the-field infraction - turned what would have been a 2nd-and-14 into a 1st-and-5.

Those two gaffes would help the Chargers burn nearly seven minutes of game clock, which is just what the doctor orders when trying to beat Peyton Manning-led teams.

Eventually, the defense forced a punt, and Eric Decker took Holliday’s place to make a fair catch at the 11-yard line.

12 plays, 6:07, and one fourth-down conversion later, Manning hit Caldwell for a five-yard bubble screen touchdown, bringing Denver back to within 24-17.

San Diego would reach the 35-yard line, but after Ryan Mathews was stuffed for a two-yard loss, Mike McCoy took a page out of the John Fox playbook, foolishly punting from the 37.

The kick from Mike Scifres was downed at the three-yard line, and Manning had 5:50 with which to operate, down just one score.

Perfect setup for a dramatic comeback, right?

It wasn’t to be, as Corey Liuget hit Peyton’s arm on a first-down throw, and Thomas Keiser brought the game-sealing interception to the Denver 33.

2.5 minutes later, Novak put through a 35-yard field goal, and Denver’s grip on home field advantage was halfway gone.

Their last-minute drive ended with a 42-yard kick by Prater, whose onside kick attempt failed to travel the requisite ten yards.

The Broncos now have 10 days to marinate on their loss, before heading to Houston and Oakland to round out the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots can equal Denver’s 11-3 record with a win at Miami on Sunday, and of course, their Week 12 comeback win gives New England the head-to-head tiebreaker.

If not then, Denver will need to win out and have the Patriots to lose at Baltimore next week, or to Buffalo in Week 17, to regain home field advantage.

Key Numbers

  • San Diego dominated TOP, with a 38:49-21:11 advantage
  • The Chargers outgained the Broncos on the ground by a whopping 177-18 margin
  • Denver managed only one rushing first down
  • The Broncos' 19 first downs are also a season low; San Diego had also held them to their previous low, 22 in Week 10
  • Manning now has 47 touchdown passes on the season, three shy of Tom Brady's single-season record


Doug is IAOFM’s resident newsman and spelling czar. Follow him on Twitter @IAOFM

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