- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- This is why he came back.
This is why the Denver Broncos gambled hard and changed the direction of their franchise.
Through six weeks of the 2012 season, credit Peyton Manning for providing the signature moment of the NFL season. His sixth game as a Bronco became an instant “Monday Night Football” classic, and it changed the landscape of the AFC West race.
In a stunning 30-minute whirlwind, Manning (who thrust himself into the MVP race Monday night) and his improving Broncos scored 35 unanswered points to shock San Diego, which led 24-0 at halftime. Manning completed his first 13 passes of the second half, three of which went for touchdowns. In the end, the scoreboard read: Denver 35, San Diego 24.
But it means so much more.
“You’ll see a lot of things in this league,” one longtime Denver official said in a jubilant locker room after the game. “You’ll never see anything like this again.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, entering this game, 442 teams had led by 24 or more points in the Super Bowl era. Only three teams had ever blown such a lead. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers’ win probability percentage was 98.5 at halftime.
In real-life terms, this was bananas.
“Never seen anything like it,” Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. “But Peyton led us.”
This was the type of night the Broncos envisioned when they signed Manning, 36, to a five-year, $90 million deal in March even though he missed all of last season with a neck injury that required four surgeries to repair.
Several Denver fans cheered Manning as he left the field Monday night after a game the team hopes will provide a spark following a lackluster 2-3 start to his Denver career. In the locker room, Manning yukked it up with glory-days Denver hero Terrell Davis. On the night the Broncos tied the biggest comeback in team history, everyone was soaking it in.
“When you have Peyton, you always have a chance,” said Denver receiver Brandon Stokley, who made a remarkable leaping 21-yard touchdown catch on a perfect pass from Manning, giving the Broncos a 28-24 lead with 9:03 remaining.
When this division shakes out, I have a feeling we will turn back to this Monday night and look at it as a turning point in the race. The final 10 games for these teams will be defined by the events of this night. San Diego can recover, but right now, you’d have to think Denver will be the team that is positively affected by this outcome.
“That’s obviously as tough as it gets,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said.
Added 15-year veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes: “This is bad.”
What else can the Chargers say? Especially when you consider the fact that this is the second double-digit lead they have blown in as many weeks. The Chargers lost 31-24 at New Orleans in Week 5 after enjoying a 24-14 lead in the second half.
Had the Chargers not blown those two leads, they’d be 5-1 and looking pretty in not only the AFC West, but in the AFC, where only Houston and Baltimore have winning records. Instead, the Chargers and Broncos head to their bye weeks at 3-3. Oakland is 1-4 and Kansas City is 1-5.
At this point, the race is between Denver and the Chargers, and the Broncos have to like their chances.
Two reasons Denver should feel good about itself: The Broncos, who have the second-toughest schedule in the NFL, will see their schedule lighten some after the bye, and they finally learned how to complete a comeback Monday.
In Denver’s three losses, it had wild but unsuccessful big comeback attempts. On Monday night, Denver kicked the comeback door down.
“Finally, we finished,” Stokley said. “That’s big for this team.”
Added Bailey: “I think those three previous comeback tries helped us tonight. We knew if we just stuck with it, we’d finally break through.”
The difference between Monday's epic comeback success and the failures against Atlanta, Houston and New England was Manning's help. Yes, he was brilliant as he shredded the Chargers in the second half. He went 13-of-14 passing for 167 yards and three touchdown passes in the half. By the way, Manning has thrown for 984 yards and nine touchdowns passes in his past three games.
On Monday night, though, his teammates blossomed along with him. Terrific catches were made. Key first downs were converted. Huge defensive stops were made.
“Total team effort,” Bailey said. “That’s how these types of comebacks are made.”
As Manning and his teammates took over the game, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers collapsed.
Given the chance for a two-game lead in the division, Rivers couldn’t respond. In the end, he threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles. All but one came in the second half, and two directly resulted in Denver defensive scores.
On Monday night, there was a shift of power in this division. Manning showed San Diego why he is the best player in the AFC West, and the Broncos showed the Chargers they have more fight when it counts.
Will it result in a division title for Denver?
“We will see, but we hope we can build on this,” Stokley said. “You don’t forget about games like this.”
1dEric D. Williams