With 5:02 left in the third quarter Monday night, Philip Rivers threw incomplete to Dante Rosario on second and eight. Maybe this drive would stall, but the Chargers held a 24-7 lead and the time to pull together a comeback appeared to be running out on the Broncos. Denver held just a 0.03 win probability, after all.
Of course, on the next play Elvis Dumervil strip-sacked Rivers, Tony Carter picked up the loose ball and 32 yards later and an extra point later it was 24-7 Chargers. Seemingly just as soon it was 24-14, and 24-21, and 28-24, and 35-24. And then game over. How did the Broncos, so utterly dominated in the games first 40 minutes, come back to take home the victory (and with it, the top spot in our efficiency ratings)?
STEP 1: TURNOVERS
It starts with a bit of help. Philip Rivers obliged. All five turnovers (four in the second half) were his responsibility. Neither could turn the tide alone -- the game-sealing Chris Harris interception for a touchdown had the biggest impact at +0.23 WPA for Denver, the others all between +0.10 and +0.15 -- including the game-sealing Tony Carter interception Zach Sanders covered earlier.
But San Diego wasn't even the team hurt most by its turnovers:
STEP 3: DEFENSE
Of course, the Chargers were the worst second-half offense. Still, San Diego was failing to move the ball in the second half even before the turnovers checked in. The running game was tame, picking up just 42 yards on 11 carries and managing just three successful plays (27.2%).
The passing game was no better. On Rivers's 21 non-interception second-half passes, the Chargers gained just 111 yards. He took four sacks for -25 yards, giving him 25 non-interception total attempts amassing just 86 yards -- 3.44 yards per attempt.
So it's no surprise all four second-half turnovers came on passing downs -- 2nd and 6, 3rd and 7, 3rd and 8, 3rd and 8 again. Credit the Broncos defense not only for creating the turnovers, but for creating the situations most likely to generate them as well.
STEP 4: VICTORY
The Broncos may be just 3-3 with the win, but only two teams are ahead of them in the entire AFC (Houston and Baltimore, both 5-1). They sit tied with San Diego atop the AFC West but own the tiebreaker and have played clearly the best football of any of their challengers to date.
At 2-4 -- and with San Diego at 4-2 -- the odds would have been stacked against a Peyton Manning return to the playoffs. Thanks to one of the biggest comebacks of Mannings's venerable career, his new team has the inside track at a division title.