Anatomy of a Comeback: Denver Takes Down San Diego

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)?


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:

Each of Arizona's two interceptions were bigger than any thrown by Philip Rivers -- a Kevin Kolb interception with six minutes to go would have killed the Cardinals' chances if not for a 61-yard field goal by Jay Feely, and a John Skelton pick three minutes into overtime sealed the victory for Buffalo, combining for -0.70 WPA. And it was even worse for the Raiders against the Falcons. A Darren McFadden fumble in the first quarter ended a drive heading into Atlanta territory. A Carson Palmer fumble in the third gave the Falcons the ball at the two-yard line, leading to a game-tying field goal. With 2:40 to go, Palmer was intercepted by Asante Samuel for a 79-yard return touchdown. All told, the Raiders' turnovers cost them a staggering -1.04 WPA. The Chargers' total of -0.67 WPA (or +0.67 WPA from the Broncos perspective) is slightly tame, then. But it still allowed the Broncos to chip away at the lead without burning much clock, giving Peyton Manning and the Denver offense a chance to put points on the board in a hurry. STEP 2: OFFENSE Peyton Manning finished with an excellent overall line, completing 24 of 30 passes for 309 yards; a lone interception dragged his AYPA down to a still sharp 8.8. Most of that damage was done in the second half, as Manning shredded the Chargers defense to the tune of 13-for-14, 167 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers or sacks. On a night where the running game just wasn't producing -- Willis McGahee had a 43.5% success rate and picked up just 56 yards on 17 carries; Ronnie Hillman mustered just three yards on two carries -- Manning was forced to carry the offense. It took him nearly three quarters to kick into overdrive, but by the end of the game the Broncos had the most productive second-half offense of the week in terms of EPA:

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.


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.

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2 Responses to “Anatomy of a Comeback: Denver Takes Down San Diego”

  1. Trent McBride says:

    Just one minor error: Denver scored on their first offensive drive of the 3rd quarter. The fubble and recovery for TD made it 24-14.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sure the turnovers were important, but what your article is missing is why Denver had the opportunity/need for a big comeback in the first place. Denver turned the ball over on special teams twice in the first half and the Chargers were given the ball deep in Denver territory. It isn't right to say Denver was utterly dominated in the first 40 minutes. On the scoreboard they were, but in terms of moving the ball they were not. Aside from the single effective drive by the Chargers that led to the Gates TD, Denver's ability to move the ball down the field was better than the Chargers' in the first half. Going into the game, Denver was the better team in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency and that continued in the second half after the Denver turnovers in the first half gave the false appearance that they were being dominated.

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