The Denver Broncos overcame multiple first-half miscues to become the second team since 1993 to erase a 24-point second-half deficit, tying an NFL record for the largest comeback win for a road team in NFL history and forcing a tie atop the AFC West standings with a 35-24 win over the equally 3-3 San Diego Chargers on Monday night.
San Diego took advantage of a pair of special teams turnovers to jump out to a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter. Broncos punt returner Trindon Holliday, acquired off waivers from the Houston Texans last week, muffed a punt that was recovered by Chargers tight end Dante Rosario, leading to a 32-yard field goal field by Nick Novak. The Broncos replaced Holliday with rookie cornerback Omar Bolden on the ensuing kickoff, which Bolden promptly fumbled. Two plays later, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers connected with Antonio Gates for a 15-yard touchdown.
The Chargers built upon their lead when Broncos wide receiver Matt Willis failed to adjust his route against the blitz as Peyton Manning's pass was intercepted by cornerback Quentin Jammer and returned 80 yards for a touchdown. A few plays earlier, Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker appeared to be on his way for an 85-yard touchdown, but tripped and fell after 55 yards. Following a three-and-out by the Broncos, Rivers led the Chargers on a 10-play, 66-yard drive that ended when he and Gates connected for a second touchdown, this one from 11 yards out that gave the Chargers a 24-0 lead at the half.
After the break, Manning and the Broncos defense took over.
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Manning took the Broncos 85 yards in eight plays, hooking up with Demaryius Thomas, who beat Jammer on a corner-post route to get the Broncos on the scoreboard. The Chargers appeared to respond with a lengthy drive, even benefiting from some "fumble luck" when a Randy McMichael fumble on third down could not be corralled by Broncos safety Jim Leonhard and actually resulted in a first down for the Chargers. Three plays later, defensive end Elvis Dumervil would hit Rivers, forcing a fumble that was scooped up by cornerback Tony Carter and returned 65 yards for a touchdown that sucked the air out of Qualcomm Stadium.
Following a Chargers three-and-out, and a 12-yard punt return by Holliday, Manning efficiently directed a nine-play, 55-yard drive that was capped off by a bruising, 7-yard catch-and-run by Decker to trim the Chargers' lead to just three points. On the Chargers' following possession, Rivers' pass deep down the left seam was intercepted by Carter, who returned the ball to midfield. Manning again led a quick scoring drive, calling an audible at the line and hitting Brandon Stokley for a 21-yard score to put the Broncos ahead, 28-24 with 9:09 to play.
Rivers drove the Chargers down to the Denver 41-yard line, but was intercepted by second-year cornerback Chris Harris, who out-muscled wide receiver and former Bronco Eddie Royal for position on the turnover. On San Diego's next possession, Harris would again step in front of a Rivers' pass intended for Royal, returning the ball 46 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.
For Manning, it was his 37th fourth-quarter comeback win, which is an NFL record. It was the largest margin a Manning-led team had ever overcome, exceeding the 21-point deficit the Indianapolis Colts rallied back from against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in October 2003. In the process, the 36-year-old Manning completed 24-of-30 pass attempts for 309 yards and three touchdowns. Manning was 13 of 14 for 167 yards and three touchdowns in the final 30 minutes. On the season, Manning is now completing 67.8 percent of his 227 pass attempts, ranks second in the NFL with 1,808 yards, is tied for second with 14 touchdown passes and is second behind Aaron Rodgers with a 105.0 passer rating (Rodgers is at 105.4).
Immediately following the game, Manning discussed Monday night's comeback with ESPN's Lisa Salters.
"Well we have been there before, unfortunately," Manning said. "It was not the start that we wanted — once again we had those self-inflicted wounds that put us in a hole. But we have shown the ability to come back, and offense and defense really did it together there in the second half. We had a great first drive and our defense got us some turnovers."
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