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TNF Takeaways: Chargers Find A Way Not To Lose; Broncos Suddenly in Peril

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Through five weeks of the 2016 season, the San Diego Chargers seemed determined to invent new and tragic ways to lose football games, and for a little while on Thursday night, it appeared as though the same might be the case in Week 6.

But after botching an onside kick with just 30 seconds left that gave the Denver Broncos an unwarranted opportunity to tie a game that had been mostly dominated by San Diego, the Chargers held on to pick up their second win of the season, beating the Broncos 21-13. It was a sigh of relief moment for San Diego head coach Mike McCoy, who has been heavily rumored as potentially the first head coach to lose his job this season. A win over the defending champs should grant him at least a stay of execution.

It was also a relief for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who has put together a heck of a season thus far despite losing three of his best weapons in the passing game to season ending knee injuries, only to watch his team find new and embarrassing ways to lose down the stretch. Rivers deserves better than what the Chargers have given him to work with in 2016, and although he’s making the best of it that he can, he spoke like a guy who knew it to CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game.

“I was just afraid, ‘Gosh, are we about to find another way [to lose]? It’s been so long since we won a division game. We found a way to win,” Rivers said. “Our defense was awesome. We did enough offensively, we at least kept getting points. We didn’t turn it over. We’d like to get some touchdowns there. But winning a division game is big…we’re going to enjoy this win, it’s going to be a heck of a weekend.”

Indeed it was the San Diego defense that surprisingly led the way in this one. A unit that had become known for blowing leads early in the season and was allowing an average of more than 28 points per game, completely suffocated the Denver offense for the vast majority of the game. They made Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian, who returned to the lineup this week after missing last week with an injury, look no better than his fill-in Paxton Lynch. They also forced two fumbles, racked up a safety, and held Denver off the board but for a field goal, while building a lead that reached 21-3 early in the fourth.

That lead was built on some solid, if not complete, drives by Rivers and the offense. The veteran quarterback passed Dan Fouts to become the all-time leading passer in Chargers history early in the game, and continued to shine in what is shaping up to be one of his best individual seasons yet. He helped get the team off to a great start on the first drive of the game, completing 7-of-9 pass attempts on a 12-play, 75-yard opening drive that soaked up seven minutes of clock and ended with a five-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Hunter Henry.

But that was the last time the Chargers reached the end zone. Rivers led a series of short to medium drives over the next two quarters, but they always ended, at best, with field goals by Josh Lambo. But they did manage to kill clock, keep the defense fresh and off the field, and at the very least, continue to extend the lead.

However, ghastly mistakes coming in the strangest and most inconvenient times, which had plagued San Diego throughout the first five weeks of the season continued to show up on Thursday. This time, turnovers by the San Diego special teams unit, an incredible three in total, kept Denver in the game until the very end. One of those came after the Chargers picked up the safety that put them ahead 21-3 early in the fourth. San Diego was looking forward to the chance to kill clock and put the game away after the defense came up with the huge play. But the ensuing free kick was short and muffed by San Diego guard Kenny Wiggins, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time due to the short nature of the kick, but had no business trying to catch it and had it go off his hands right to the Broncos.

Denver turned that play into a touchdown drive that kept them alive. Later, with Denver driving again and inside the red zone, a holding call took away a 20-yard Broncos touchdown, which seemed to invigorate the San Diego defense. They came up with a big sack of Siemian on the next play and then forced a fumble from Demaryius Thomas on the play after that seemed likely to close the deal.

But a quick three-and-out, followed by a field goal drive by the Broncos and the botched onside kick by the Chargers gave Denver one more chance to breathe. However, the San Diego defense stood tall and finished off the win.

The victory showed some things about San Diego for sure. It proved their defense can play a complete game and hold onto a lead, even in the face of adversity that isn’t their own doing. That’s important given where that group started this season. It also continued to show that Rivers is the kind of elite level talent at quarterback that can get something out of a significantly weakened pack of weapons. But the lack of similarly elite talent around him is still quite alarming and will likely be the Chargers’ undoing for most of the rest of the season. The team also showed a propensity to continue shooting themselves in the foot one way or another that is almost certainly going to lead to a few more losses this season.

This victory by no means saved San Diego’s season as they’re still probably the weakest link in the AFC West. But it buoyed them a bit and offered a lifeline, and given that anything can and usually does happen in the NFL, that’s pretty much all they can ask for at this point.

BRONCOS IN PERIL?

Just five days ago, the Broncos were standing tall as one of the league’s last unbeaten teams with a seemingly unstoppable defense and getting just enough from their offense to keep winning.

But two losses in less than a week can alter the outlook significantly and that’s what’s happening in Denver right now. Suddenly, the Broncos are stunningly looking up at the Oakland Raiders in the AFC West standings and finally being forced to deal with the significant issue that is their situation at quarterback.

After Paxton Lynch looked the most rookie-like of all the five NFL rookie quarterbacks to start a game this season in last Sunday’s loss to the Falcons, the Broncos turned back to Trevor Siemian, who was recovering from a non-throwing shoulder injury last week, on Thursday night. Siemian had done just enough to help the Broncos win their first four games, but anyone that was expecting him to come back in and boost the Denver offense far beyond the limits of Lynch last week hasn’t been paying attention.

Siemian is the epitome of a game manager at quarterback and that was on full display on Thursday night. He just managed this game very poorly and didn’t get the help he’d been getting in weeks prior. Of Siemian’s 50 passes, maybe a handful went for more than a handful of yards in the air. Every pass he threw was short or intermediate at best and the Chargers figured out quickly that deep down the field wasn’t something they needed to worry about on Thursday night.

The mix of a short week, coming off an injury, and his head coach and noted quarterback guru Gary Kubiak not with the team due to a health scare, probably didn’t do Siemian any favors, but regardless of external factors, the Broncos are riding with a quarterback that has severe limitations and defenses are finally starting to catch on to how to defend him. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that took a while, there was essentially no tape on Siemian going into this season. Now that there’s a wealth of it, defenses are primed to pounce on him.

This could be a serious issue for Denver going forward. For many, the expectation was that Siemian would guide the Broncos for a few weeks until Lynch got his sea legs under him in the NFL and took over around midseason. But Lynch had his opportunity to take the job away last week and he botched it so badly that it’s hard to see Denver turning back to anytime soon and risking shattering his confidence if they have to bench him a second time.

So the Broncos will roll with Siemian for the foreseeable future, mostly because they have no choice, and hope that the combination of his continued healing injury, the return of his coach and more time to prepare gets him back to being the at least somewhat effective game manager he was in the first four weeks of the season. Fortunately for him, the Broncos have some winnable games coming up on the schedule, including a rematch with the Chargers in Denver in a couple weeks. But with the Raiders seemingly ahead of schedule and putting some pressure on them in the AFC West, those are also games Denver simply has to have and it will be on Siemian to make sure they get them.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys