Denver converted nine of its 13 third-down attempts against San Diego – none bigger than a trio of conversions on third down on the team’s final drive of the game, which allowed the Broncos to run out the game’s 3:53 and secure a victory.
Just as crucial, however, was the performance on the other side of the ball.
Against a Chargers offense that finished the regular season with a league-high 49.0 percent third-down efficiency – an offense that converted on half of its third down attempts in San Diego’s Week 15 win over Denver – the Broncos defense stifled San Diego on third down on Sunday, as the Chargers finished just 4-for-12.
“We knew it was going to be a big part of the game tonight – our third-down conversions both ways, defensively and offensively,” Head Coach John Fox said. “It was a little bit of a bugaboo last time we met the Chargers.”
This time, the bugaboo became a booster – particularly with the game on the line, when Manning converted on situations of third-and-17 and third-and-6 with a pair of passes to tight end
“Great play call by (Offensive Coordinator) Adam (Gase). Really was a big-time play call,” Manning said regarding the third-and-17 conversion. “Got them in the right look and a good catch by Julius Thomas. The second one was another good route by Julius. I thought you saw that all game, Adam putting different guys in different positions. Certainly two huge third-down conversions, which were the difference in the ball game.”
And perhaps no one was happier with the manner in which Manning and the offense executed in converting the game’s final three third-downs than Fox.
“It’s huge,” Fox said. “In crunch time, that’s what you needed to do. I think he’s done that for a long time, and he did another superb job tonight.”
Ultimately, Manning noted that the Broncos’ third-down efficiency was the product of execution throughout the game that set the offense up – with the third-and-17 marking perhaps the lone exception – with favorable third-down situations.
“We were good on third down because we were good on first and second down,” Manning said. “That was the point of emphasis all week, and we carried that from practice field to the playing field. It was good to see that pay off. A mix of some runs and some short passes to keep moving the chains.”
Defensively, it was the same formula – tenacity on first and second down, with three of the Broncos’ four sacks of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers coming on those downs, that forced San Diego into more difficult third down situations.
“We had a good rush game plan and guys were pretty hungry,” defensive end
Knighton Rallies the Troops
‘Hungry’ was a fitting description for a defense that allowed just 13 total first downs and kept the Chargers off the scoreboard for three quarters.
San Diego possessed the ball for nearly 39 minutes in the Chargers’ December victory at Sports Authority Field at Mile High – and the outside reaction pinning the blame on the loss on the Broncos’ defense was not lost on defensive tackle
“I was tired of it,” Knighton said. “That's it. I was tired of it."
Any evidence of the Broncos’ motivation on Sunday could be found in Knighton’s fiery pregame speech to his teammates – and that liveliness quickly translated onto the field.
"We came out with a lot of energy,” Knighton said. “We fed off the crowd and we just knew what they were going to try to come in and do. We just wanted to eliminate their run game — not let (RB Ryan) Mathews kill us, not let (RB Danny) Woodhead kill us — and make them throw the ball. We did a good job of that the first three quarters."
It’s the type of intensity that Knighton noted the defense will now need to replicate when they face another opponent that defeated them in the regular season – a rematch with the Patriots, this time with an AFC championship on the line.
"This is what we play for. The opportunity is right in front of us,” Knighton said. “This is what we talked about all OTAs, all of camp. When the time comes, it's just like last week — we'll have to conserve our energy during the week, try not to get too excited and be ready to play Sunday."
Moreno, Offense Grind Out Victory
The Broncos may not have been in that position if it wasn’t for the gritty play of the offense on the final 11-play, 40-yard drive.
“We were able to move the ball and get those first downs when we really needed it,” running back
Moreno carried the ball 23 times for 83 yards – with his 3-yard touchdown run with 8:12 remaining providing the game’s decisive score – and the running back pointed to the offense’s poise down the stretch in putting away the Chargers.
“Composed,” Moreno said. “Everyone was poised and just wanted to get as many yards as we can to see if we could convert.”
One of those conversions was Moreno’s 5-yard run on the Broncos’ final third-down of the game that allowed Denver to run out the clock. It was just another instance – the Broncos rushed for 133 yards on the day – where the ground game pulled through with a key play, something that Moreno chalked up to execution.
“Especially in the postseason, this next season, stats and those things don’t matter,” Moreno said. “It’s whoever executes the offense and puts points on the board to come out with the win and we were able to do that today.”