DENVER -- It's one thing to say you don’t like Thursday night games. It's another thing to play like you don’t like Thursday night games.
And the Denver Broncos, just four days after their 11th win of the season put them on the inside track for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, looked wobbly, tired and more than a little gassed in a 27-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
They looked, well, beatable. On their home field, no less. In a game they will -- should they have to make a January trip to Foxborough, Mass. -- not remember all that fondly.
"I’d say we didn’t have our best stuff. … They obviously did a better job getting ready on a short week than we did," Denver coach John Fox said.
But the Broncos aren't alone in the predicament they put themselves in Thursday night. The NFL record book is peppered with high-flying, throw-it-around offenses that have faced the same problem when it comes to getting into the trophy games: What happens when things don’t go exactly right?
When the timing isn’t there, when somebody else has a good plan, when the field isn’t in good shape, when it’s windy or somebody gets hurt. Even the best of the best touchdown producers through the years have needed a Plan B to pull them through at some point.
And, on a night when Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano (a Boulder, Colo., native) was able to finally slow the train that has been the Broncos’ offense, Denver did not have an alternative. The Broncos were a three-dimensional example of a one-dimensional attack, managing just 18 yards on 11 carries.
They had three-and-outs on three consecutive possessions in the second quarter. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker had three receptions combined in the second half, and Peyton Manning’s longest completion was for 22 yards. The Broncos had a season-low time of possession of 21:11, and a team that had averaged 27.9 first downs per game came up with only 19 against the Chargers.
"We didn’t have the ball much," Manning said, "and when we had it, though, we didn’t do enough with it. … We got beat by a team that played better than us."
The Broncos teased a little with 10 points on their first two possessions, including a touchdown on their first drive after Chargers coach Mike McCoy elected to give Manning the ball to open the night after San Diego won the coin toss. But, after those two scores, there was a 29-minute span of game time in which the Broncos gained all of 13 yards on 13 plays.
"From that standpoint, we had those three three-and-outs in a row, and that ended up, it was damaging enough to cost us the lead," Manning said. "And [we] were never able to recover from that."
For those who have wondered what the Broncos would look like if they didn’t have a pile of touchdowns along for the ride, the picture was not pretty. A defense that has largely been considered a ball-and-chain to the operation did not rise up, did not make a play when it was needed, did not pull the team through when it had an opportunity to do just that.
The Chargers were the 14th consecutive team to score at least 17 points against Denver this season. They rushed for 177 yards and converted six of 12 third downs. These numbers were just the latest addition to a somewhat alarming pile of issues for a Broncos defense still searching for answers in mid-December.
"They made a lot of plays on third down, and that’s the tale of this game, not getting off the field on third down," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "Thursday night or not, it shouldn’t matter. Any time you step out on that field, you have to put out your full effort, and [Thursday night] we fell short of that."
"We’ve got to get a lot better, we know that," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said.
The Broncos didn't get much out of the third phase, either. Returner Trindon Holliday made a couple of questionable decisions fielding the ball early in the game, and Nate Irving committed a comeback-crushing neutral-zone infraction in the third quarter that turned a much-needed stop into a San Diego first down. The Chargers kept the ball and ground seven more minutes off the clock, seven minutes the Broncos could have used before all was said and done.
"That penalty was a killer right there. … We didn’t stop the run; we didn’t stop the pass," cornerback Chris Harris said. "We have to get that right. We have the players in here to do it, but we have to get that done."
The Broncos are still 11-3, still in position to win their division and still in position, with a little help from somebody against the Patriots along the way, to gain home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Only the Texans and Raiders remain on the Broncos' schedule.
But, on a night when the offense reached out a hand because it needed some help, there was none to be found. And a team that has operated with so much confidence behind a historic offense came away with an uncomfortable feeling.
"We weren’t the best team on the field tonight," Woodyard said. "And it showed."