How bad was it in the first half of this game?
Eric Decker got tackled by air.
Wide open down the right side midway through the second quarter, with no San Diego defender within 10 yards of him, the wide receiver grabbed a pass from Peyton Manning ... then lost his balance as he turned upfield and tumbled to the ground at the San Diego 30.
It could have been a game-breaking 85-yard touchdown that brought the Broncos back within 10-7. Instead, it became a 14-point swing when Quentin Jammer stepped in front of Manning's pass to Matt Willis three plays later and returned it 80 yards for the touchdown and a 17-0 Chargers lead.
The carnage wasn't complete; by halftime, the Broncos trailed 24-0. In front of televisions near and far, Broncos Country had a collective conniption. The Broncos came into the game 2-3, and looked doomed for 2-4. Some even felt that the offseason signing of Manning was a mistake. To wit:
What few outside the Broncos locker room suspected was that a comeback that would truly kickstart the Manning Era in Denver was about to begin.
"We thought, 'We have 30 minutes,'" Manning said after the game.
It was 30 minutes that became years of dominance. The Broncos were headed back to the league's penthouse — even if no one could see the elevator awaiting them.
Beginning with the second half against the Chargers and continuing through a win at Oakland in 2014, Manning would rack up a 112.0 quarterback rating while completing 68.3 percent of his passes for 11,240 yards and 107 touchdowns with just 24 interceptions in 35 regular-season games.
It was the NFL's all-time leader in yardage and touchdown passes at his apex, and it was brilliance Broncos fans were privileged to witness week in and week out.
But that Monday night in San Diego, it wasn't just Manning blistering the Chargers with a virtually flawless second half -- 13-of-14 passing for 167 yards and three touchdowns. It was the defense building off the momentum Manning and the offense established starting with an eight-play, 85-yard sprint to a Manning-to-Demaryius Thomas touchdown pass that opened the second half.
The Chargers quickly drove into field-goal range, but on third-and-8 from the Denver 33, Elvis Dumervil sacked Philip Rivers, jarring the football loose. Tony Carter picked it up and sprinted 65 yards for the touchdown, and the comeback was on.
A Derek Wolfe sack of Rivers ended San Diego's next drive. A Tony Carter interception ended the one that followed. A Chris Harris Jr. interception stifled the Chargers' subsequent drive. Meanwhile, Manning dissected San Diego's defense, and with 9:09 left in regulation, he dropped a perfectly-placed pass to Brandon Stokley on a fade route to put the Broncos in front to stay.
Finally, Harris ended it with a 46-yard pick-six off Rivers, completing a 35-point rampage through the befuddled Chargers. Seven of Rivers' final 24 pass plays would end in either a sack or an interception.
That the Broncos came back shouldn't have been a surprise. In the three games they'd lost early in 2012, they'd nearly rallied from three scores down in the second half each time -- and all of those near-rallies came against teams that were among the five best in the regular season that year.
But in Qualcomm Stadium, they finished the job. They wouldn't lose again for nearly three months. The win started a three-and-a-half-year run in which the Broncos went 53-14 -- an average of 13 wins per 16 games -- and won two AFC championships and a Super Bowl.
This isn't just the best comeback in Broncos history. It's one of the key turning points for the club, as well.