SAN DIEGO -- Peyton Manning walked off the field surrounded by a cocoon of media. As he approached the tunnel entrance to the Broncos locker room, he pumped his right fist and gave a thumbs-up to the fans hanging over the railing. Before disappearing beneath Qualcomm Stadium, he pulled off his white cotton right wrist band and tossed it into the crowd. Then he pulled off his left one and did the same. Lastly, he pulled a towel out of his waistband and whistled it at a young girl being held by her father.
Like just about every other thing he threw after halftime, the towel landed safely and securely in his target's hands.
We have become accustomed to seeing the sublime from Manning, but his performance in leading the Broncos back from a 24-0 halftime deficit Monday night in Qualcomm Stadium was downright ridiculous. Over the final two quarters he completed 13 of 14 passes for 167 yards and three touchdowns, rallying Denver to a much-needed 35-24 victory over the shell-shocked Chargers.
It was just the fifth time in NFL history a team overcame a 24-point halftime deficit, according to the Broncos, but should we really be surprised? They say the best predictor to future behavior is past behavior, and just last week the Chargers squandered a double-digit second-half lead before losing at New Orleans.
When the comeback was complete, when Chargers fans had made their way to the exits, leaving the lower rows for ecstatic Broncos supporters, wide receiver Brandon Stokley paused in the locker room and pondered whether he had just witnessed the finest performance in Manning's illustrious career. Stokley was with Manning from 2003-06. He was even on the receiving end when Manning broke Dan Marino's long-standing record of 48 touchdown passes in a season. He has perspective on the matter.
"Regular-season game, I think it is the best," he said. "This is unbelievable. We needed this win big time, and to come out and perform like he did, it was awesome."
Philip Rivers was on the other end of the quarterback spectrum. He threw a career-high four interceptions, including three in the second half, a first in his career. He also lost two fumbles. Just as a week ago he had a chance to put his team on his back and close out a game with a double-digit second-half lead, and just as a week ago he could not meet the challenge.
"It was mostly just poor throws," Rivers said afterward. "I wasn't fooled out there once today. The first interception, I didn't see exactly how it ended. I knew I gave (Antonio) Gates a chance down there and they ended up with it. The other ones were bad throws. There's really no other reason for them."
How did the game get away from San Diego, which converted three first-half takeaways into 17 points and a 24-0 lead? Start with the defense, which after shutting out the Broncos through two quarters surrendered touchdown drives of 85, 70 and 45 yards on its opening three series in the second half. The Broncos also scored on 65-yard fumble return by defensive back Tony Carter.
Then move to the offense, which after surrendering no sacks in the first half gave up four in the second half. It also converted on just 3 of 8 third downs and saw each of its six possessions end as follows: fumble, punt, interception, interception, interception, fumble.
Perhaps the ending was a fait accompli. The Broncos had outscored opponents 58-6 in the fourth quarter coming into the game, while the Chargers had been outscored 32-30.
At halftime coach John Fox told his Broncos to just believe. They had fallen behind big against Houston and Atlanta and staged late rallies that came up short. It was just a matter of time before they got over the hump. And when they took the second-half kickoff and went 85 yards, with Manning finding Demaryius Thomas for a 29-yard score, the climb was on.
"We just knew what we had to do, and we just came in as a team and said it was put up or stop talking," said Thomas. "That's what we did. We got momentum going and things were just clicking. We played as a team, and it was amazing. Peyton started clicking and seeing everything. It was like clockwork."
But scoring means nothing without defensive stops, and the Broncos got them. The unit simply needed a spark, a sign that the improbable was still possible. And when the offense scored quickly, the flame of hope burned brightly.
"That was a statement," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "The pressure from our guys up front was the difference. I love those guys. Without them, we wouldn't be (crap) back there in the secondary."
Denver got two sacks from Elvis Dumervil, who had just three on the season. It also got one each from Derek Wolfe and Von Miller, who pushed his team lead to six overall.
Then there was Manning. His biggest completion came on the first play of the third quarter, with the Broncos facing a third-and-16 from midfield. Denver was still down 10 points when he patted his feet in the shotgun and lofted a perfectly placed ball down the left sideline for tight end Jacob Tamme for 25 yards.
You could almost feel the stadium deflate with the completion. Four plays later Manning found Eric Decker for a 7-yard scored. And his 21-yard strike to Stokley to put the Broncos ahead 28-24 one series later was so on point he couldn't have walked the ball down the field and handed it to Stokley with greater accuracy.
"Great throw," Stokley said.
The win improved the Broncos to 3-3 heading into their bye. It was critical not only because they now hold the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Chargers, who fell to 3-3, but they go into their bye week on a high note. A loss would've dropped them two games back.
The Chargers are not unfamiliar with their current situation. Last year they were cruising along in early October with only one one loss when they went to the Jets, blew a double-digit second-half lead and lost. Then they returned home for a Monday night game against the defending AFC West champ (Kansas City) and lost again, triggering a run of six consecutive defeats.
Two weeks ago they were cruising along in early October with only one loss when they went to New Orleans, blew a double-digit second-half lead and lost. Then they returned home to face the defending AFC West champ (Denver) on Monday night and lost again.
It has been said the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. That not is accurate not only with the Chargers, but with Manning, who tied Marino with his 47th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. It also was the biggest comeback of his career, surpassing the 21-point rally against the Bucs in 2003 when he was with the Colts.
"It sure is special considering what was on the line at this early point in the season," Manning said during a TV interview. "It was a pivotal game and we can really build off this momentum. There's no speech that causes that turnaround," Manning said. "It's simply a matter of will.'
Once again, Manning was spot on with his delivery.