The biggest comeback in Broncos history did not begin with a touchdown. It began with a pre-game coin flip.
When the Broncos lost the toss that Monday night in Week 6 in San Diego, the Chargers opted to receive the opening kickoff. It would prove to be the turning point in the game -- if not the teams' seasons.
Trailing 24-0 at the time, the Broncos took the ball to open the second half and immediately drove 85 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. The score ignited a run of 35 consecutive points, giving them a 35-24 victory that was as improbable as it was emotional.
That comeback started Denver on a four-game winning streak, while San Diego has lost three of four, including that game, to fall two games behind the front-running Broncos in the AFC West. And while there were multiple big moments for the Broncos in the comeback, none was larger than the touchdown drive to start the third quarter.
"That was a statement," cornerback Champ Bailey said at the time.
Chargers coach Norv Turner likely would defer possession if he had it to do over again, not only because his offense failed to score on its opening possession, but also because it gave the Broncos a chance to make adjustments and generate momentum coming out of halftime.
Interestingly, NFL coaches are divided about the value of receiving the football to start a game. Through the 2007 season it was a virtual given that teams would accept the opening kickoff if they won the coin toss. But the decision became less clear-cut in '08, when the league adopted the college-style format that allows the toss-winning club to defer possession until the start of the second half.
In the first year of the change, according to Massey-Peabody Analytics, 38 percent of NFL teams deferred. The figure inched up to 41.8 percent last season, and through last Sunday's games it was at 51.3 percent.
The difference of opinions could be traced to no direct correlation between the outcome of games and the decision on whether to receive the opening kickoff or defer. Since the start of the 2010 season, flip-winning clubs that have opted to receive first are 185-209 (.470), versus 140-115 (.549) for those deferring.
"Six and a half-dozen," said Broncos coach John Fox. "You don't know how it's going to go."
Football coaches often talk about "attention to detail," and one area to which that applies is the pre-game coin flip. Most coaches hold game management meetings with their coordinators and special teams coaches on Friday or Saturday to decide what to do if they win the toss. The discussion often revolves around whether they have a matchup advantage they want to exploit; either offensively or defensively; whether one team is stronger or weaker in a particular half; and whether wind, rain or snow could negatively impact passing games or field position.
The data is processed and a decision is made, although with some coaches the decision is a fait accompli even before the meeting. For instance, the Patriots have deferred each of the last 33 times they've won the coin toss under Bill Belichick. The last time they chose to receive the opening kickoff was 2008, in a game against Kansas City in which QB Tom Brady sustained a season-ending knee injury. Brady was hurt on the Patriots' second offensive series.
Then there's Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who, since taking over the Falcons, has accepted the ball on all but one of the 25 times his team has won the toss. "I will say that if there was foul weather that dictated a different decision we would probably go that direction and defer," Smith says. "But my thought on it is, possession of the football is nine-tenths of the game. You score more often on offense than defense."
Other coaches vacillate on what to do. For instance, Pete Carroll accepted the opening kickoff 16 of the 19 times the Seahawks won the toss the past two seasons. This year, however, he has deferred all three times. Jim Harbaugh deferred each of the 12 times he won the toss last year in his first season with the 49ers, this year he has done it only once in five opportunities. Philadelphia's Andy Reid accepted the ball each of the 19 times he won the toss the past two seasons, but this year has done it just three of five times. Even the Broncos' Fox has done an about-face.
In 2011, with the notoriously slow-starting Tim Tebow as his starting QB, he deferred the final six times he won the coin flip, including the postseason. However this year, with accomplished passer Peyton Manning running the offense, he accepted the ball each of the first four times his team won the toss -- although, since the big comeback against the Chargers, he has deferred both times he has won the coin flip.
"There are two principals that apply to coaching," Fox says. "One is, If it ain't broke don't fix it. Two is, Don't get caught up in the same old stuff."
Because the Broncos have scored touchdowns three of the last four games after receiving the second-half kickoff, look for Fox to stay with the same old stuff and not fix what ain't broke.
Through Nov. 11 the Chargers, Chiefs, Jaguars, Lions, Saints and Texans had received each time they had won the toss in 2012. Normally you'd guess such teams had strong offenses and wanted to get off to a quick start, but three of them rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring, including Jacksonville (32nd) and Kansas City (30th).
Seven others -- the Bears, Bengals, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Patriots, Redskins and Seahawks -- had deferred each time they won the toss, which you'd assume means they're strong on defense. But four of the clubs rank 13th or lower in points allowed, including Washington at 27th, and Cincinnati at 25th.
Those in the "defer" camp believe there's a great advantage to waiting to receive the ball. For one, if you score to end the first half, you have a chance to build on it to start the third quarter. And if you struggled in the first half, you have halftime to make adjustments and apply them to start the second half.
"I'm not aware of any game so impacted by the first drive of the game compared to the first drive of the second half," said on AFC executive.
The Broncos' comeback against the Chargers is the most notable example this year. There's no way to know if the victory would've occurred had the Chargers deferred, but Denver players pointed to the score to open the second half as setting the tone for the rally.
"There's no rhyme or reason for choosing one way over the other," said Chicago's Lovie Smith, who generally prefers to defer on the road and take the ball at home, depending on the weather. "I know statistics probably don't say why one is better than the other, so it's a feel as much as anything that you get on that day."