DENVER -- This game required no embellishment. No dressing required, though many arrived in costume at Sports Authority (For Now) Field to celebrate an early Halloween.
It provided a fitting backdrop to a frighteningly ugly, yet ultimately satisfying Sunday.
The Broncos won 27-19 over the San Diego Chargers, setting up a wicked first-place cagematch at Oakland a week from today.
"It's going to be a playoff atmosphere," cornerback Chris Harris said. "I can't wait."
The Broncos lost a coach again in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips when he was transported to a local hospital following a sideline collision with Chargers running back Melvin Gordon. Phillips was alert and moving all extremities after leaving the field on a backboard and a strapped down with a neck brace. He was treated and released from a local hospital and is expected back to work on Monday.
Phillips prides himself on being a survivor, a competitor. The Broncos defense played in his image, producing takeaways until the offense finally gained traction in the fourth quarter. Yet, it wasn’t until cornerback Lorenzo Doss batted down a pass in the end zone with 2:36 remaining that the Broncos could exhale.
"It's the Chargers. Our games are always close with them," linebacker Von Miller said. "Today you saw it. That's the type of defense we play. There's enough to go around for everybody."
Let’s be clear, the Broncos’ best offense remains their defense. Denver’s defenders are like hitters at Coors Field. They are always in scoring position. The Broncos intercepted three passes through three quarters and finished with four sacks, the difference in a cover-the-eyes, hide-the-kids afternoon.
White-knuckling a 10-7 cushion, the Broncos grabbed the game by the nape of the neck or quarterback Philip Rivers by his bolo tie, whichever you prefer. Deep in his own territory, Rivers attempted to slip a pass to receiver Travis Benjamin. Doss, playing because of injuries to Aqib Talib and Kayvon Webster, couldn’t handle the pass, but tipped it into safety Darian Stewart’s hands.
"It wasn't my best game," Rivers said. "My turnovers were the key."
The Broncos’ lethargic offense capitalized as rookie Devontae Booker ran outside to the pylon for a 4-yard score, shoving the Broncos ahead 17-7 with 12:45 remaining in the third quarter.
It was a sliver of optimism for a run game that faded to black, clomping for 57 yards on 25 carries.
"It was non-existent," said coach Gary Kubiak, whose team rushed for 24 yards in 13 first down attempts. "I have to figure it out, I know that. We got totally out of whack in what we trying to do (with 16 passes to four runs early). We made enough mistakes to probably lose two or three games in all honesty. But we battled and found a way to win."
A chance to plant a stake in the Chargers – hey it’s almost Halloween – arrived moments later. Safety T.J. Ward, the Broncos’ best defender the past two weeks, intercepted Rivers. He scampered to the 7-yard line. At that point, the Broncos had 97 interception return yards and 170 yards of offense. Same as it ever was, right?
"I mean you look at their team and they feed off turnovers," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. "They get after the quarterback."
What should have been the finishing score turned sour as Booker inexplicably tried to stretch the football over the goal line from the 2-yard line. He fumbled, providing sprays of graffiti onto this canvas. The Broncos left arguably 10 points on the field with red zone turnovers by Booker and quarterback Trevor Siemian.
The Chargers, as they are wont to do, responded to their new life after Booker’s miscue. Rivers marched them 98 yards, culminating in an acrobatic, one-handed, 14-yard touchdown catch by Benjamin. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett preserved a four-point lead, blocking Josh Lambo’s extra point.
Denver’s most impressive offensive drive of the season followed. The Broncos stopped sputtering and fizzling, and galloped 75 yards on 13 plays over 6 minutes, 30 seconds. The key play came on a penalty. Chargers star rookie defensive end Joey Bosa turned a third-and-6 into a one-yard conversion with an offside penalty. Booker followed by breaking two tackles on an 18-yard burst to the 8-yard line. Moments later, Juwan Thompson, activated Sunday with C.J. Anderson (knee) on injured reserved, bulled in from 1-yard to give the Broncos a 27-13 advantage.
Because nothing comes easily, the Broncos reeled San Diego back in. On a day when Siemian could have had multiple picks, a pass that wasn’t his fault cost him. The football sailed through Jordan Norwood’s hands for a 24-yard pick six by Casey Hayward, ending Siemian’s streak of 166 passes without an interception.
"A lot of inconsistences across the board," said Siemian, who finished 20-for-38 for 276 yards. "I have a lot of room to get better."
Given another crowbar to take to the Chargers’ shins in a later drive, the Broncos couldn’t crumple them. Denver settled for a 22-yard field goal with 5:24 remaining, providing a 27-19 lead.
For too much of the first half, the Broncos offense looked like a team masquerading as a contender. Denver began Sunday by driving 65 yards on nine plays on its opening possession – all through the air -- as Siemian went 5-for-7. The success spoiled the Broncos, making them too quick to abandon the run.
The Broncos have only scored 16 points in the opening quarter. The drive felt empty with Brandon McManus putting it to bed with a 28-yard field goal. The Broncos collected three first downs, which is one more than they had in the first half in their previous loss at San Diego.
The inability to reach the end zone haunted Denver on San Diego’s first possession. On a broken play, the defense missed stalwarts Talib and linebacker Brandon Marshall. Talib, whose back tightened up, and Marshall, predictably out with a strained left hamstring, watched as fullback Derek Watt sneaked into the flat. Best known as J.J.’s little brother, Watt took the pass and raced 53 yards down the sideline. It set up Rivers’ long-established connection with Antonio Gates on a 7-yard score. It marked his 80th touchdown from Rivers, the most in NFL history between quarterback and tight end.
The Broncos have allowed 38 points on opening drives, worst in the NFL. The impossible then became probable. The Broncos lost their balance – again -- throwing 16 of their first 20 plays. After their first drive, the Broncos next four possessions included third downs requiring a minimum of 8 yards to convert.
Denver’s road to nowhere featured an off ramp to hope because of the defense. Starting for Talib, Bradley Roby made his biggest play of the season. Showing his basketball skills, Roby went over the top on a pick, putting him in position to a secure Rivers’ tipped pass by receiver Tyrell Williams. Roby, doing his best Talib impersonation, raced 49 yards for the touchdown, shoving Denver ahead 10-7 with 9:10 remaining in the half.
Roby tossed the ball from his first pick six into the crowd.
"It's all right," he told Denver7, "I will get another (pick six)."
The play lost its steam because of a sideline collision. As Phillips watched Roby run for the score, Gordon, bumped off his passing route, ran head-on into the coach. Phillips fell, his head violently striking the turf. He remained down for several minutes as medical personnel attended to him. Coach Gary Kubiak spoke with Phillips, who waved his finger to defensive players as he exited. Gordon was apologetic, even though it was an accident. Phillips was treated and released from a local hospital and will return to work Monday.
"He's a great coach. We love playing for him," said defensive end Jared Crick, who finished with a sack and two pass deflections. "To find out he was all right just gave us even more confidence to go finish."
A choppy first half included Siemian lacking awareness in the red zone. Melvin Ingram raced past left tackle Russell Okung, who continues to slump, and stripped Siemian. Tenny Palepoi recovered the ball, thwarting a promising drive that included a breathtaking 37-yard diving reception by Emmanuel Sanders.
Mistakes crush dreams and other teams. For the Broncos they are seen as excuses for the defense to continue to make memories. The Broncos remain in first place. Oakland awaits. The Black Hole vs. the defending champs. Scary indeed.
"We know we are better than the Chargers," Harris said. "This week is big. If you want to reach your goals, it starts with winning the AFC West."
Captain O’ Captain
DeMarcus Ware told Denver7 after Sunday's win he was encouraged by the progress of his broken right arm. It held up in practice better than expected, and felt good as the Broncos defensive captain played for the first time since Sept. 18. The Broncos used him primarily on passing downs. Ware had a sack in the second quarter, pulling down Rivers with his left arm on a ball ruled a fumble. The call was overturned, but Ware provided a jolt to the defense.
"I still need to get more acclimated with my strength. I need to be able to practice my moves and then take them into the game. I feel good, though," Ware told Denver7. "I am sure I will be sore (Monday). But I will be even better (against the Raiders)."
Added Von Miller, "He has a legendary presence when he's on the football field. He was all over the place today."
Ward of the house
Last week, coach Gary Kubiak referred to T.J. Ward as a “special player.” Ward’s versatility allows Denver to tweak its defense because he can play in run support and in coverage. Ward produced a sack and a pick on Sunday, and led the team with 10 tackles. Ward owns 8.5 sacks, and has 20 tackles for a loss since 2013, fourth most among NFL defensive backs.
"A dog. Just a relentless player," safety Darian Stewart said. "He was special tonight."
Coach Gary Kubiak, when lamenting the problems in the run game, said penalties continue to undermine the Broncos. He also indicated that fullback Andy Janovich playing with a brace on his injured hand, might have had an impact as well.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe showed chivalry is not dead, helping up Philip Rivers after hit that was potentially late. "It's good karma." Wolfe loves playing against Rivers because "I just don't like him."
Kubiak on linebackers coach Reggie Herring filling in for Wade Phillips. "He has done that before. When Wade was in Houston, I lost Wade for a couple of games. When Wade (got hurt) I got on the headset a couple of times and Reggie told me to shut the hell up. I am really proud of him. I gave him a game ball."
The Broncos' slow starts remain a thing. They have been outscored 54-16 in the first quarter.
Receiver Cody Latimer finds himself in the doghouse. He was a healthy scratch for the second straight week. Latimer made contributions the past two seasons on special teams, but has been a disappointment as a receiver.
Joining Latimer as non-injured inactives were: Austin Davis, Connor McGovern, Billy Turner, and newly-acquired tight end A.J. Derby. Derby is expected to be active at Oakland.
Of the absences, Talib’s represented the biggest surprise. He felt he was going to play despite a lower back injury, but was scratched when his back tightened on Saturday. It would be a surprise if Talib and Brandon Marshall don't return of the Raiders game.
With the trade deadline this week, the Broncos are exploring options. Like most teams, they'd like to add offensive line depth, but a run stopper at defensive end might be more realistic. Said Wolfe on being 6-2 at the halfway point. "It's decent. But we have areas where we need to improve. Our run defense has to get better."
Punter Riley Dixon unleashed his best boot of the season, a critical 68-yarder late in the fourth quarter.
Demaryius Thomas produced his biggest catch since a touchdown at Cincinnati, hauling in a 40-yard pass in the fourth to set up a field goal. Thomas finished with five catches for 79 yards.
Virgil Green made some critical plays in the passing game. The tight end finished with four catches for 55 yards. It wouldn't be a surprise to see newly-acquired A.J. Derby active against the Raiders at the expense of Jeff Heuerman.
Fun with numbers when projecting them at the halfway point: Trevor Siemian would finish with 16 touchdowns, eight picks and 2,974 yards. Thomas would total 84 catches for 1,070 yards. Emmanuel Sanders' would counter with 88 receptions for 1,134 yards.