DENVER -- Trevor Siemian wore a casual gray suit jacket, black pants and white-walled shoes as he strolled into the stadium Monday afternoon. Fans leaned over the silver railing, screaming his name, fingers crossed for an autograph. If Von Miller inspires fashion designers, Siemian looks made for flip flops, a worn Cubs ballcap and a pair of Dockers.
Lost in his calm demeanor -- his Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told me Siemian is "cool like Luke Bryan" -- rages a competitive inferno. Siemian was not thrilled he had to win his job again, even if he never conceded frustration publicly. He lapped Paxton Lynch, securing the starting spot for the second straight summer in a competition tilted against him.
Yet, doubt remained. Is Siemian an in-between? A quarterback who can win you eight games, but not steer a team into the playoffs. The best thing to winning a job is showing growth in it. Extending plays and showing a willingness to scramble Siemian caffeinated the offense in a 24-21 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers that became uncomfortably close because of multiple fourth-quarter miscues.
Defensive end Shelby Harris, who forced himself onto the roster with a strong training camp, blocked Younghoe Koo's 44-yard field goal attempt to preserve the triumph. It came after Koo made his first attempt, but it was nullified by coach Vance Joseph's timeout.
"I wasn't going home with them in my pocket," said Joseph, received the game ball from Von Miller after his first career victory.
Harris benefited from intel provided by Derek Wolfe. Tired as he worked back into game shape and frustrated by going through three pairs of cleats, Wolfe gutted out the final moments. On Koo's first try, Wolfe nearly deflected it. He relayed this info to Harris.
"He said the guard was probably going to lean on him to prevent that so I would have an opportunity to get in there," said Harris, who blocked the kick with two fingers on his right hand. "It worked."
There are many things the Broncos do well: winning in Denver is one of them. The Broncos have won 17 of their last 18 home openers, including six straight. Monday could not be fairly called a must-win, but it felt like a game the Broncos could not lose after last week's victories by the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.
Not that Denver didn't try. Two turnovers led to a pair of Chargers touchdowns in the fourth quarter as they sliced the lead to 24-21 with 7 minutes remaining. With a chance to secure the win following a 44-yard reception by tight end Virgil Green, the Broncos fizzled. Right tackle Menelik Watson allowed one of multiple sacks, and Brandon McManus missed wide right on a 50-yard field goal.
"We have to finish better," cornerback Aqib Talib said.
The Broncos produced one critical defensive stop with no T.J. Ward (in Tampa Bay) or Darian Stewart (injured leg, but will be fine for the Cowboys game this week). But after a three-and-out, needed another in the waning moments. The Chargers moved into field goal range after a questionable pass interference on Bradley Roby before Harris' block. For the second straight season, the home opener came down to a missed field goal.
"This was a must-win game," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "You have to win every game at home."
The loser of Monday's game plummeted into the AFC West basement, no place for a contender in an octagon-worthy division. The Broncos are projected to reside there with national media outlets predicting a 6-10 record. Central to the sour forecast was the uncertainty at quarterback.
For one night, Siemian had the "Time of His Life -- right Sergio Dipp?" -- leading the Broncos to a 14-7 lead they never relinquished. He showed zip on his passes and delivered his first rushing touchdown.
"It feels good to win and beat a divisional opponent," said Siemian, who finished 17 of 28 for 217 yards, and 19 yards on the ground, "and then go back and say, 'Hey, we can clean up things too.' "
The Chargers, as they do in Denver, sprinkled a little luck into the equation, settling Siemian down. The second-year quarterback threw a gift-wrapped pick-six to Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward. Usually sticky-fingered Hayward dropped the pass in the flat. Siemian shook off the mistake, and began a methodical march. Converting on multiple third downs -- the defining marker in Monday's outing -- Siemian finished a 13-play, 70-yard drive with a 5-yard pass to Bennie Fowler, the first of his two scores.
Los Angeles, aided by a Bradley Roby interference call, knotted the score at 7-all in the second quarter on Philip Rivers' 11-yard strike to Melvin Gordon, who beat linebacker Todd Davis and flipped into the end zone on Justin Simmons' tackle. What appeared a night where mistakes would be amplified pivoted because of the offense.
Yes, the defense was terrific until the fourth quarter. The Chargers had 115 total yards and eight first downs through the first 45 minutes. But the offense put the Chargers on notice. Siemian's evolution was televised (an historic broadcast with Beth Mowins terrific as the first woman to call an NFL game in 30 years). He shoved Denver ahead in the second quarter with a 1-yard run that featured spread option concepts. It represented Siemian's first rushing touchdown, and widened the lens on his ability. He scrambled for yards. He sidestepped rushers -- and the pressure was real as right tackle Menelik Watson struggled and right guard Ron Leary left with a concussion -- and threw into tight windows. In a week where Alex Smith outplayed Tom Brady and Dak Prescott skunked Eli Manning, Siemian was better than Rivers, a Hall of Fame candidate.
"I've learned pretty quickly nothing is certain," Siemian said, "especially when you're playing Philip Rivers."
The Broncos opened a 24-7 lead through three quarters, gorging 8:16 minutes off the clock on a 14-play march that concluded with Brandon McManus' 20-yard field goal.
The margin felt bigger because the field continued to shrink on the Chargers. Roby intercepted Rivers. Shaquil Barrett, who showed no problems with his left hip after missing the preseason, delivered a sack. Todd Davis smashed into Melvin Gordon on fourth down with the night's biggest not produced by the Rockies' Nolan Arenado.
A funky interception by Siemian gave the Chargers' hope, setting in motion a greasy series of events. Fowler was pulled down as Chargers safety Adrian Phillips intercepted the pass. Rivers went to work. Six players later, the Chargers were in the end zone on his connection to Keenan Allen, shaving the deficit to 24-14 with 8:10 remaining. It marked the first time the No Fly Zone missed Ward. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. clearly thought he had help. Jamaal Charles fumbled on the next possession. Rivers, who has nearly two dozen come-from-behind-wins, connected on a 38-yard score to Travis Benjamin. Stewart was late tracking Benjamin, and then exited with an injury.
The Broncos needed an unlikely star to emerge. Harris' paw allowed the Broncos to clench the victory in their fist.
Wolfe was not injured when he left the game. He was gassed, and had issues with his shoes. He went through three pairs of cleats. ... Former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg, who looks like he could step into the ring, hung out with defensive line coach Bill Kollar before the game. Goldberg head butted a few players, and motivated a few others, including center Matt Paradis. ... Right guard Ron Leary left with a concussion and did not return. Connor McGovern replaced him. ... Cornerback Brendan Langley left with a knee injury. ... The Broncos insist they are not concerned with the play of right tackle Menelik Watson. His struggles in the preseason continued Monday night. Joseph said part of the issue was simple: The Broncos were facing premier pass rushers. ... Left tackle Garett Bolles played with emotion and relentless effort. He left the stadium with a wrap on his right wrist. ... "It feels amazing. To get two touchdowns, I had two in my career coming into this game," Fowler said.