Throwing for two touchdowns and leading methodical, clock-eating drives to keep the ball away from Denver's explosive offense, Rivers coolly led San Diego to a 27-20 upset over Denver.
Rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen caught touchdown passes of 19 and 10 yards from Rivers, who completed 12 of 19 passes for 166 yards passing in helping San Diego (7-7) keep alive its hopes for a playoff berth.
"We converted third downs when we had to," Rivers said. "We didn't make any unbelievable plays, but we made the plays we had to make. It's just kind of how the game went."
San Diego's Ryan Mathews ran for 128 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. He became the first running back to surpass 100 yards rushing against Denver's defense this season.
"That's an awesome team," San Diego wide receiver Vincent Brown said of the Broncos. "They've already proven what they can do. For us to come in here and do what we did says a lot about us."
Manning, Denver's quarterback, completed 27 of 41 passes for 289 yards passing with touchdown throws of 15 yards and 5 yards to wide receiver Andre Caldwell. However, the Broncos' league-leading offense was held to a season low in points.
On the surface, part of the plan was keeping the ball away from Manning and an offense that, coming in, scored at least 25 points in 18 consecutive games, including three games this season in which Denver topped 50 points.
San Diego averaged just under 10 plays in each of its first four scoring drives and finished with a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession (38:49 to 21:11).
Rivers insisted the Chargers didn't set out to control the clock. That was just the way it worked out.
"I can promise you, we didn't mention one word about time of possession this week," he said. "We mentioned we've got to score. We've got to score touchdowns and not field goals. We didn't do it every time, but we did it a couple of times that were key. We scored 14 points without their offense playing, other than three or four plays before the half."
The Broncos (11-3) saw their 10-game winning streak against fellow AFC West teams end. They also lost for the first time in five meetings with the Chargers.
"We just weren't as sharp as we needed to be," Manning said. "We didn't have the ball that much, and when we did, we didn't do enough with it. Give San Diego credit. It's a division loss. It's disappointing that we got beat by a team that played better than us today."
San Diego stretched its lead to 24-10 when Mathews shook free on a run around left end and bolted 23 yards for a touchdown with 11:06 remaining in the third quarter.
Manning finally got Denver's stalled offense moving, converting a fourth-and-6 play with a 15-yard completion to Caldwell that advanced the ball to the San Diego 16-yard line. Three plays later, Manning connected with Caldwell for their second score of the night, a 5-yard touchdown with 10:25 remaining.
Denver's defense, though, again struggled to get off the field. A third-down pass-interference call against safety Duke Ihenacho, in which he grabbed wide receiver Ladarius Green's jersey, helped extend a San Diego drive.
Earlier in the game, with the Chargers punting out of their end zone, the Broncos committed a neutral-zone infraction to give San Diego a first down. Denver later extended that possession again after being called for having 12 men on the field.
The Broncos got the ball back with 5:50 remaining, but three plays into the possession, Manning was hit as he threw, and the pass was picked off by linebacker Thomas Keiser at the Denver 33-yard line.
The Chargers marched within field-goal range, and Nick Novak kicked his second field goal of the night, a 35-yarder with 2:36 left to play.
Denver added a field goal by Matt Prater with 29 seconds left, but Prater's onside kick failed to travel 10 yards. The Chargers took over and ran out the final few seconds for the win.
San Diego took a 17-10 halftime lead, snapping a tie when Rivers hit Allen for their second touchdown connection of the game with 1:05 remaining in the second quarter. The Broncos failed to get a first down in the second quarter and ended the first half with three consecutive three-and-outs.
Allen, running a fade pattern to the left side of the end zone, gave the Chargers their first lead when he outfought cornerback Kayvon Webster for the pass from Rivers.
Rivers and Allen also teamed up earlier in the second quarter. Allen caught a pass over the middle, and the wideout hurdled Webster inside the 5 and fended off safety Mike Adams' attempted goal-line tackle just enough to cross the goal line.
Before bogging down, Denver moved the ball smartly on its opening possession, with Manning connecting with Caldwell on 15-yard touchdown pass. The teams also traded field goals in first quarter, with Novak kicking a 38-yarder for San Diego and Prater kicking a 32-yarder for Denver.
-- WR Keenan Allen, from Cal-Berkeley, was the 10th wide receiver and 76th player selected overall in the 2013 draft, but leads all NFL rookies with 63 catches.
-- Denver WR Andre Caldwell is the younger brother of former Chargers WR Reche Caldwell. ...
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We can't control the rest of the league. All we can do here in the San Diego Chargers' organization is play our best football week in, week out, try to improve, and then, hey, everything else will take care of itself at the end of the road." -- Coach Mike McCoy, on the team's playoff prospects.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
What we learned:
Despite uneven play that included a three-game losing streak in early November, the Chargers are showing signs lately that they are a playoff-worthy team. The 27-20 upset of high-powered Denver was San Diego's third win in four games. The Chargers also own wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts, both playoff-caliber teams.
"We know we need help," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "We obviously know we've got to win the next two and need some help, but we've just got to keep it one game at a time and enjoy the heck out of the turn we've made and see if we can keep it going."
Wide receiver Keenan Allen, the Chargers' third-round draft pick, is staking a claim on Offensive Rookie of the Year. He scored four touchdowns on his past five catches, including two scores Thursday. His 63 receptions on the season leads all rookies. Allen is becoming the go-receiver for Rivers.
"I don't know that there's another rookie receiver playing better than he is or has the numbers he has," Rivers said. "He just has the knack for playing. It's not too big for him. He has the swagger and the confidence you want in a wide receiver, but yet the eagerness and the humbleness to know, 'I'm a rookie and I've got to learn a lot and I want to learn a lot.' And then he just makes plays."
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