DENVER --At 6-7, the San Diego Chargers' season was on the line Thursday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
They played like it.
"They came out here with the playoffs on their mind," linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "We didn't take this game lightly, they just came out here and they were the better team today. You hate to say that, but they were today."
The Broncos made a late comeback attempt, but ultimately fell 27-20 to move to 11-3 on the season. The Chargers, now 7-7, trail the 7-6 Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins by a half game in the race for the sixth AFC playoff spot.
"I'm not going to sit here and make excuses – they played better than we did," Head Coach John Fox said. "They executed better. We'll come back tomorrow and look at it, learn from it, correct it, have a couple of days off and then get ready for Houston. It kind of is what it is. Unfortunately, we came up on the short end. I give our guys credit – we battled back and played a little bit better in the second half, but it wasn't quite enough."
The game started promisingly enough for Denver, as the Broncos received the opening kickoff and proceeded to drive 67 yards in just seven plays. Wide receiver Andre Caldwell capped the drive with a 15-yard score -- hauling in quarterback Peyton Manning's 46th touchdown pass of the season.
The Chargers responded with a 38-yard field goal, and Manning once again drove the Broncos down the field on the ensuing drive. Matt Prater's 32-yard field goal gave Denver a 10-3 lead.
But 21 unanswered San Diego points -- and three consecutive three-and-outs for the Broncos offense -- swung the game decidedly in the Chargers' favor.
"We had a really good first drive. Second drive we were rolling along and had one negative run and got into a second-and-long we couldn't overcome, had to get the field goal," Manning said. "And then from that standpoint, after that, had those three three-and-outs in a row and that ended up, it was damaging enough to cost us the lead and were never able to recover from it."
Denver nearly did, though, despite losing the time-of-possession battle by nearly 19 minutes.
That time of possession deficit wasn't helped midway through the third quarter, when it seemed the Broncos were set to jump back into the game.
First, Caldwell raced down the field to field a punt and pin the Chargers at their own 1-yard line. The defense proceeded to force a three-and-out, potentially setting the offense up with great field position. Instead, the Broncos' special-teams unit was called for a neutral zone infraction on fourth-and-4, giving San Diego a free first down.
Even though the Chargers didn't score on the 12-play drive, it still took more than eight minutes of time off the game clock.
Still, the Broncos scored on their ensuing drive -- a 12-play, 89-yard series that was capped by Caldwell's second touchdown catch -- to pull to within seven points.
The defense then forced a punt from the Chargers and the Broncos got the ball back with 5:50 left in the fourth quarter. But on the third play of the drive, Manning's arm was hit by defensive lineman Corey Liuget and his pass intended for tight end Julius Thomas was intercepted by linebacker Thomas Keiser.
"Had my arm not been hit, it was going to be an incompletion or maybe a 2- or 3-yard gain," Manning said. "So that was certainly a play we'd like to have back."
After draining two-and-a-half more minutes off the clock, Nick Novak's 35-yard field goal made it a two-possession game.
Prater knocked home a 42-yard field goal to pull the score to 27-20, but the ensuing onside kick with 29 seconds left in the game was batted out of bounds by the Chargers, allowing quarterback Philip Rivers to take a knee and seal the win.
"Hey, it's our job to score points when we have the ball, no matter if we have it for 40 minutes or 20 minutes," Manning said. "We had it for 20 tonight; we didn't do a good enough job on offense and that's something that we have to correct."
The Chargers' offense was spurred on by the running of Ryan Mathews, who racked up 127 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He became the first running back to top the 100-yard mark against the Broncos this season.
"Absolutely, they controlled the game by us not getting off on third down," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "If you don't get off on third down, teams can run the ball on you. That's something that we have to continue to get better at. We can't let a team control the clock on us like that."
The other star of the game for San Diego was rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, who made his two catches count -- both finished in the end zone.
"We'll take this on the chin," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We'll watch the film and see what happened, but the leaders on this defense, we won't let this happen again. We'll come together tomorrow and see what we have to do to get this better. This was inexcusable, the way we played on defense. So we'll find something and we'll try to make sure it doesn't happen again."
At 11-3, the Broncos are a half-game ahead of the New England Patriots for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race. But a Patriots win on Sunday would give the teams the same record, and due to New England's head-to-head victory, the Patriots would hold the tiebreaker.
But the consensus in the locker room was that the team won't worry about what other teams are doing. The players and coaches will continue to focus on what they can control.
"We still have a good team," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "I mean, it's not the end of the world. You're going to take losses. It's definitely – I think it's good to be able to learn from this game, learn from not trying to beat ourselves. It kind of keeps everybody hungry. When you take a loss like this, it kind of wakes everybody up to step their game up another level. We'll definitely bounce back."