SAN DIEGO --Sometimes, pressure can break a man.
Late in Sunday's 17-3 win over the Chargers, the Broncos' pressure appeared to finally break San Diego's productive quarterback, Philip Rivers.
Not literally, of course; he walked away to fight another day for a team that he has carried on his back at times during 10 seasons as a starter. But when the vocal quarterback jawed with Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller as the Broncos' four-sack, 11-hit and one-pick-six masterpiece wound down it provided a picture that encapsulated the Broncos' current mastery over their longtime rivals.
"I don't think he was happy with the cologne I was wearing," Miller deadpanned. "I was wearing a lot of it and I guess he wasn't happy with it. I mean I was on him at the end of the game. Everybody doesn't like my smell."
Whether it was the odor of an afternoon of exertion or an enchanting musk, the Broncos' defense has rarely smelled sweeter than it did Sunday. A 51-yard Josh Lambo field goal was all that separated the Broncos from their first shutout in a decade.
Miller has sacked no quarterback more often than Rivers: 10 times in nine career regular-season games, including one in which he tore a ligament in his thumb. He broke up a pass. He had two tackles for losses. He stripped running back Melvin Gordon of the football, halting a potential third-quarter scoring drive at the Denver 42-yard-line.
For five seasons now, Rivers and the Chargers have brought out the best in Miller and the Broncos defense.
The dominance began with an overtime win on Nov. 27, 2011. In the fourth quarter, Miller had a crucial sack that helped set up a game-tying drive. In overtime, he knocked Mike Tolbert back four yards, which proved crucial as Nick Novak missed a potential game-winning 53-yard field goal on the next play, setting the Broncos up for the game-winning march.
Including the postseason, that started a run of nine wins in the last 10 games -- one of which Miller missed because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. That 8-1 run has finally allowed the Broncos to even the score with the Rivers-led Chargers, who went 9-2 at Denver's expense from November 2006 through October 2011.
The frustration Rivers felt was about more than Sunday, really. It's about a team that once won four consecutive AFC West titles being unable to stop the Broncos from moving one step closer to a potential fifth consecutive crown of their own.
Exacerbating matters are an inefficient offense that has just six points in its last two division games, an injury-wrecked season and rumblings about a potential relocation. That conspired to turn the Chargers' home stadium into Mile High West, with Broncos fans appearing to outnumber Chargers backers.
Faced with a boiling stew of frustration that the Broncos were only too happy to stir, Rivers grew frustrated with himself, his team and the circumstances that were spiraling out of his control.
"It's one of those things when you've got somebody flustered, pouting and stuff, you just want to make sure you keep him on that level, because he's not thinking about other things," DE Malik Jackson said.
Sunday, the Broncos' defense was a perfect storm. Their man-to-man coverage was so tight that Rivers had no deep and outside options; his wide receivers caught just four passes for 60 yards, and Stevie Johnson was covered so tightly he was never targeted.
"We feel like if we can take Philip's first read away, our D-line can get there," CB Chris Harris Jr. said.
"We're the No. 1 defense for a reason," he added. "We're the No. 1 pass defense for a reason. That's what we do every time we play somebody."
And by the end of the game, they were doing it without five key players: safeties T.J. Ward and David Bruton Jr., linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Danny Trevathan, and nose tackle Sylvester Williams. Bruton and Trevathan were injured during Sunday's physical clash; Ware, Williams and Ward were all inactive.
"We haven't even played our best yet," Harris said. "Once D-Ware gets back, we play our real football, and it's going to be nasty."
But even that injury-riddled lineup was enough to confound the Chargers. It's a testament to the Broncos depth, as well as their top three cornerbacks: Harris, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby. Because they can cover their foes man-to-man and be left on islands, the safeties and linebackers have more freedom to attack.
"They trust us that we're going to give them two or three seconds to get back there [and pressure the QB]," Harris said. "That's what we're able to do. We're able to shut down."
And by the end of the game, that meant Rivers and the Chargers had shut down emotionally, as well. The offense and its Pro Bowl quarterback were beaten in every way possible: tactically, physically and mentally.
"It's all competitive nature, it's all fun and games, but you want to get in his head," Jackson said. "We did that today."