Keenan Allen gave San Diego a big jumpstart in the first half. (Joe Amon/Getty Images)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has said that Denver is his favorite road city in which to play, and his warm feelings about the Mile High City only grew warmer after Rivers' Chargers posted a 27-20 upset of the Denver Broncos on Thursday night despite the chilly temperatures. The win keeps the 7-7 chargers in the AFC playoff hunt, and takes a bit of the air out of the 11-3 Broncos after their 51-28 win over the Tennessee Titans last Sunday.
Rivers was efficient when he had to be, but he didn't have to be too often -- he completed just 12 of 20 passes for 166 yards, but there were two touchdowns in that equation, both to rookie receiver Keenan Allen in the first half. The most impressive play by Allen (and the most impressive play in the game) came with 9:46 left in the first half. Allen took a drag route catch from Rivers from the Denver 19-yard line, moved past a confused Denver secondary, hurtled cornerback Kayvon Webster, and ran right through safety Mike Adams for the score.
(GIF courtesy Kissing Suzy Kolber)
That touchdown ended a 13-play drive that went 80 yards and took 6:36 off the game clock -- and that was the real story behind the Chargers' win. Head coach Mike McCoy, who came to San Diego after excelling as Denver's offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2012, seemed to understand that if he set his team up to match Manning in explosive plays, it would be a losing battle. Instead, the Chargers went decidedly old-school, gaining 178 rushing yards on 44 ground plays, and winning the time of possession battle, 38:49 to 21:11.
"It says a lot about the coaches and players -- how hard they've worked," McCoy told the NFL Network's Alex Flanagan after the game. "We knew we had a tough game coming down here, but Ryan and everybody stepped up. We ran the football extremely well, and it was a team effort."
The star in that regard was running back Ryan Mathews, the previously disappointing former first-round pick who has found new footing under McCoy. Selected with the 12th overall pick in 2010, Mathews had five 100-yard games coming into this season, and with his 128-yard performance against Denver, he's got five in the 2013 season alone. For the second straight game, Mathews took the ball a career-high 29 times out of the backfield.
"It was great to see," McCoy said of Mathews. "He's worked extremely hard, he's had a great year, he's bought into what we're doing, and we're going to let him ride."
Mathews has struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness, but his ability to coalesce in the system run by McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has been a revelation.
"Yeah, it's fun," Matthews said after the game. "The big guys up front did a great job opening up holes, and there were a lot of tough yards out there. Everyone did their own job ... [the offensive line] always plays good. Coach D does a great job of getting the guys ready every week. We knew it was going to be a battle, and we just had to come up here and play our game."
Indeed, the big guys up front did a great job -- San Diego's offensive linemen were often seen blasting Denver defenders 15 or 20 yards downfield. Not what you'd expect of pure maulers like left tackle King Dunlap and right tackle D.J. Fluker, but this was a night for the unexpected.
A Chargers defense that ranked dead last against both the run and pass coming into this game was not tested nearly as often as it would have been in a shootout.
"The defense did a great job overall," McCoy said. "The coaches had a great plan. Very proud of [defensive coordinator] John Pagano and the whole coaching staff."
Among the most surprising Chargers this season has been Allen, who was a relative steal in the third round of the 2013 draft and scored two touchdowns for the second straight game. Allen was downgraded pre-draft by NFL teams due to injuries -- a PCL injury cut him down and limited his postseason workouts before the draft -- but he's outpaced all other first-year receivers, and has placed himself firmly in contention for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
"Keenan Allen's two big plays ... I mean, we're third down-and-6, third down-and-8, and he catches two touchdowns," Rivers said. "Some receivers know how to get in the end zone, and there was no way he wasn't getting in the end zone on that [first] one. He just knows how to score, and he's playing unbelievably."
Rivers' mood changed as the game changed. Early on, he was spitting nails at the officials and his own teammates, especially when Allen ran the wrong routes on two incomplete passes. But after the game was over, he was all smiles, hitting the NFL Network postgame set in a suede jacket, bolo tie, and snakeskin boots -- looking like an extra in the movie "Casino."
"We knew nobody gave us a chance, and nobody should have given us a chance either, if you were outside our locker room," Rivers concluded. "We had a lot of confidence -- we had won five of the last seven here -- and we said, 'Let's go play our best game and get another one. Let's stay alive and see what happens.'"
The final result was even more unexpected because the Broncos were hot out of the box, leading San Diego 10-3 in the first quarter and looking early on like they'd down the Chargers as they had so many other teams. But things changed quickly after that -- Manning couldn't fight the dual challenges of time and field position.
In the second quarter, Denver had drives starting at their own 10, their own 6, and their own 23-yard lines, and they went three-and-out each time. Manning did bring the Broncos back on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that made the score 24-17 with 10:05 remaining, but on Denver's next drive, defensive lineman Corey Liuget hit the quarterback as he threw, and linebacker Thomas Keiser came down with an interception of the errant throw. That was all she wrote, though there was still over five minutes left in the game, because the Chargers kept their game of "keep-away" going until the end.
Manning said during the week that he did not like the short turnaround from Sunday to Thursday, and there were times when it seemed to be in the Broncos' heads. Denver's defense committed several coverage and tackling lapses, and without the injured Wes Welker, the passing offense seemed unusually limited. Unheralded receiver Andrew Caldwell caught a career-high two touchdown passes, but outside of that feat. the Broncos had little to brag about.
“Probably can pinpoint first and second down – we weren’t good enough," Manning said when asked what went wrong. "Got some third-and-longs and never got into much of a flow. Often times when we’re playing well, we’re getting first down, second down back to first down. That’s kind of how it was that first drive. And then when you get a third down, you have some rhythm. We had some three-and-outs backed up, didn’t do a good enough job changing field position. As a result, gave their offense better field position. I think 1-of-7 on third down tonight – that’s not good enough. There’s not many third downs, but like I said, the ones we have, we have to try to convert them.”
The ramifications for the Broncos could be sobering. Once thought to be a lead-pipe lock for the top seed in the AFC playoffs, Denver's three losses matches them with the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. Manning's team only has a tiebreaker advantage against Kansas City, because they lost to the Patriots in Week 12.
As for the Chargers, they're still alive for the sixth seed. Now, they must wait to see what the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins do this weekend ... and hope they can win out from here. It's a tough road, but far more appealing than the alternative that awaited them had this game gone as expected.