On Monday, May 25, the NFL aired the Broncos' 2012 comeback against the then San Diego Chargers on YouTube. In honor of the 24-point comeback, we relived the epic game with former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley. The current radio host on 104.3 The Fan caught the go-ahead touchdown in Denver's eventual 35-24 win. You can watch highlights of the game above, and find the full game later in this story.
The following is a look back at that game, which spurred the Broncos to a memorable finish to the 2012 season.
The Broncos entered their Week 6 "Monday Night Football" game against the Chargers with just a 2-3 record. While Denver won its season opener in its first year with Peyton Manning under center, the Broncos then struggled over the next four weeks. The Broncos lost one-score games to the Falcons and Texans before losing by double digits in New England. When they traveled to San Diego for the prime-time contest, they had yet to win a game on the road.
"When you look at all the changes that that team had had from the previous year, it takes time," Stokley said last week. "We put a lot of work in and we were working really hard at it, but it still takes time. It just doesn't happen overnight."
Early in the Week 6 game, the Broncos appeared to be headed for another loss and destined to slip to 2-4 on the year. In the first half, the Broncos punted four times, fumbled a kickoff that led to a Chargers touchdown, turned the ball over on a muffed punt and gave up an 80-yard pick-six. They entered the locker room at Qualcomm Stadium down 24-0.
"It was pretty depressing," Stokley said. "There's not many times you come back from a 24-0 deficit on the road. It was one possession at a time. We [were] getting the ball to open the second half. I think the mood was and the vibe was, 'Let's go out there and put together a scoring drive and put some points on the board and take it one possession at a time. Obviously, you can't score 24 points in one possession, but let's go out there and put some good drives together. We've still got a lot of football left.' It wasn't over by any means. We knew we had our work cut out for us and we had to play really good football on both sides of the ball. We had to start scoring some points."
Seven years earlier, Manning and Stokley had faced a similar situation. In a 2005 "Monday Night Football" game between the Colts and Rams, the duo's undefeated Colts fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter. Manning, Stokley and Indianapolis rallied, though, to earn a 45-28 win.
"This one felt a lot more daunting," Stokley said of the Broncos' deficit to the Chargers. "That one we were at home, this one we were on the road. And we were playing a really good Chargers team with Philip Rivers as their quarterback. He's as tough as it gets. He's going to fight and claw and he wasn't going to go down without a fight. This one on the road was more difficult than that one [in Indianapolis]. Nothing was going our way. But we just knew we needed to come out and put together a good drive and start putting some points on the board and then you just don't know what's going to happen. There was still a lot of football left."
The Broncos struck quickly after halftime, as Manning directed an 85-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. He found Demaryius Thomas for a 29-yard touchdown, and the Broncos cut the lead to 24-7 with 10:56 to play in the third quarter. On the ensuing Chargers drive, Philip Rivers led San Diego all the way to the Broncos' 33-yard line. And that's where momentum shifted. Former Broncos pass rusher Elvis Dumervil strip-sacked Rivers and defensive back Tony Carter scooped up the loose ball. Carter returned the fumble for a 65-yard touchdown, and the Broncos were suddenly within 10 points.
"I think after the fumble recovery by Tony Carter and the touchdown there, all of a sudden you look and you're like, 'We're only down 10. And we've still got a lot of football left. We're right back in this thing,'" Stokley said. "And then the pressure shifts. Momentum shifts to us, and then the pressure shifts to them. All of sudden, they start tightening up a little bit, like, 'Oh my goodness.' … Trust me, opposing teams realize who the other team's quarterback is. 'This team with Peyton Manning is only 10 down now?' They start feeling that pressure. Obviously coming out there, that touchdown pass to D.T. was huge to get us going and then the fumble touchdown by Tony Carter just shifted everything to us and started putting the pressure on them."
The Chargers didn't score a single point in the second half. Following Carter's touchdown, the Chargers' drives resulted in a punt, three interceptions — including one for a touchdown by Chris Harris Jr. — and a fumble. The Broncos took the lead for good on a 21-yard touchdown to Stokley with just over nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
"I put my Super Bowl touchdown at one and then the [game-winning] Bengals catch at two, and [this catch] might be at three," Stokley said. "I just remember the play clock was winding down. Peyton was trying to change the play and the protection and get everything situated. We had the perfect look for the play he wanted to go to, and I just remember looking at the play clock and it was at 1, and I was like, 'Hike the ball, please hike the ball. We've got the perfect play call for their defense here.' We just got the snap off, and he just made a great throw. I just went up there and the ball stuck to my hands somehow someway.
"Certainly, a memorable catch for me. … It was a celebration of all celebrations. I was so excited. To be able to make that catch on a prime-time stage, and to be able to take the lead there, it was awesome. I remember my teammates, [Joel] Dreessen, Orlando [Franklin] and everybody just celebrating in that end zone. And Broncos Country always shows out for that game. We always had a lot of fans that went to San Diego. It was rocking and rolling. That was a special moment for me."
The Broncos secured a 35-24 win to improve to 3-3 on the season and headed into their bye week with momentum. Denver did not lose again in the regular season as they posted a 13-3 mark in the regular season.
"When you look at that football game, being down 24-0, what happened in the second half there, that kind of propelled us forward the rest of the season," Stokley said. "We weren't lacking confidence, but it just helped. It helped everything out to let us know that we are a good football team and when we are firing on all cylinders and doing the right things, both offensively and defensively, we're going to be really difficult to beat."