This should have been easy for the Denver Broncos. And mostly, it was for three quarters. The problem began with an untimely injury, and the fact that football games are four quarters long.
A close win is still a win. Horseshoes, hand grenades, something something. But after the Broncos beat the San Diego Chargers 24-17 in their divisional round game after leading 17-0 at halftime, we’re left wanting more, and wondering. And the Broncos are left hoping for Chris Harris.
Harris left in the second half with knee and ankle injuries. At that point, he and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had done more than just shut down the Chargers’ passing game. They had erased its known existence.
A Chargers wide receiver didn’t have a reception until Keenan Allen’s first at the 8:17 mark of the third quarter. Prior to that completion Rivers had all of 41 passing yards. There are many words we can use to describe that, but I’ll go with putrid.
Then Harris left, and in came Quentin Jammer, who has lost at least a step or eight since the last time he was considere an above average cornerback, if that time ever really existed. Allen then had all of his 142 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the second half, becoming the first rookie with over 100 yards and two scores in a playoff game.
Jammer was trailing Allen for one of those touchdowns (Michael Huff was late filling the hole in a zone on the other), and he was in the same grass eating position on Allen’s massive 49-yard fourth-down catch midway through the final quarter. Before that, he whiffed and was flailing while being beat deep by Eddie Royal on a 30-yard completion.
All of those were either scoring plays, or plays that led to scoring plays. On just the chunky receptions by Allen and Royal, Jammer was scorched for 79 yards, which was over a third of Rivers’ total passing yards. That’s not a good look heading into the AFC Championship game against a quarterback and a head coach who are arguably(?) the best tandem in the league when they’re given a weakness to highlight and exploit.
Though the secondary concerns are very real, Peyton Manning proved yet again that if it’s a shootout you want, he’ll happily oblige. Denver was able to withstand a 17-point Chargers fourth quarter aided by an onside kick recovery because they had a boom of their own, scoring 14 points over their first three drives, a stretch when Manning had 75 of his 230 passing yards.
But even then in the non-TD drive there was the sort of mistake that would threaten to keep the Manning playoff narrative alive when Julius Thomas fumbled. He later redeemed himself on the game-clinching fourth-quarter drive, with easily the most crucial coming on third-and-17 when Manning climbed the pocket to buy time before finding Thomas wide open near the sideline for 21 yards. A few plays later there was another third-down conversion to Thomas on a nine-yard pass, and the kept time ticking moving.
That was the sort of clock massaging, tough throwing late fourth-quarter drive we’ve come to know and love from Manning, and not so much the forced throws to the back of the end zone which end in an interception. Though in fairness, that throw did hit Eric Decker between the numbers, and in even more fairness, it was Manning’s first red-zone interception of the season…and in even more fairness, it was a ridiculous play by Donald Butler.
We can quite reasonably trust that the former Manning — the good one, and the pinpoint one, and the one that prolonged drives to give the Broncos a time of possession advantage that added up to over 11 minutes — will show up against the Patriots in the AFC title game, as will Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball, and a running game that outpaced San Diego on the ground 133-65. But if Harris is out or limited, bad things could be forthcoming when Manning is helpless and watching.
And he’ll get blamed again.
As per usual, Chris Harris will have an MRI on his knee tomorrow morning. I heard it wasn’t too swollen tonight, for whatever that’s worth.
— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) January 13, 2014