DENVER — Peyton Manning wanted more rest. He got plenty Thursday night thanks to Philip Rivers and a San Diego defense that slowed down Manning and handed the Broncos an unexpected and harmful loss.
Rivers threw two touchdown passes to Keenan Allen and kept the Chargers' offense on the field for nearly 39 minutes in a 27-20 stunner over the Broncos, whose easy road to the AFC West title and top seeding in the conference got an unexpected jolt.
Disorganized on defense and never able to crank things up on offense, the Broncos gained 13 yards on the 13 plays they ran after taking a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter. That covered four fruitless drives during which they went three-and-out three times and picked up a total of one first down.
By that time, San Diego led 24-10, and though the Broncos (11-3) had overcome double-digit deficits four times this season to win, it wasn't happening this time.
They pulled within seven and Manning got the ball on the Denver 3 with 5:50 left. He moved the Broncos 30 yards in two plays with the help of a penalty. But the Chargers' maligned defense produced some pass rush and forced a bad throw, which linebacker Thomas Keiser picked off at the Denver 33.
The Chargers (7-7) got a field goal to go up 10. Denver answered with a field goal but couldn't recover the onside kick and the Broncos lost to an AFC West foe for the first time in 11 games.
Manning's final numbers were decent — 27 for 41 for 289 yards and two touchdowns — but padded during desperation time.
As most veterans do, especially this time of year, he griped about the short turnaround between a Sunday and Thursday game, the likes of which every team has to make at least once every season.
Now, he'll get 10 days to rest and chew on this loss — the first regular-season defeat at home for Denver in 14 tries, dating to last September against Houston, back when Manning was still getting his footing in Denver and the Texans, who happen to be Denver's next opponent, were still good.
The short week didn't bother the Chargers, who gained some confidence when they scored the final 14 points in a 28-20 loss to the Broncos last month. Doesn't hurt that they're coached by Manning's former offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, who won the opening coin toss and boldly deferred, giving the Manning the ball first.
Manning used to say that he always felt on the same page with McCoy and nothing really changed this time. Normally, it's Manning dissecting an opposing defense, standing at the line and figuring out what it's planning on doing before it does it. This time, it was the other way around, certainly in part because McCoy knows how Manning likes to do things.
Chargers defensive backs knocked down two Manning passes at the line of scrimmage, they wrapped up on Denver's receivers, holding those much-coveted yards after catch to a minimum after so many of Manning's typically short timing routes. Not having to worry about Wes Welker, out with a concussion, they blanketed the other receivers and turned fourth-stringer Bubba Caldwell into Manning's prime target.
A good bet. Caldwell led Denver with six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns, while none of the other Denver receivers did much harm.
Denver's previous low in scoring was 27 points against the Chiefs.
The defense, meanwhile, was poor once again — not Super Bowl material on this night.
The most telling sequence came in the third quarter when Rivers moved the Chargers from their 1 to midfield over 13 plays. Denver committed two costly penalties — an offside when San Diego had the punt team out on fourth-and-4, then a 12-men-on-the-field that set up first-and-5 and allowed the Chargers to burn more clock. Though they didn't score, they ate 8:20 off the clock and flipped the field.
The Broncos never recovered and now, they must sweat out the race in the AFC.
Their three losses are now equal with New England and Kansas City. Denver owns the tiebreaker against the Chiefs but not against the Patriots. Their next two games are against Houston and Oakland — combined record 6-20 — but after a home loss to another losing team, suddenly anything seems possible.