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'[It] probably changed the outcome of the game': Early fourth-down stand provides momentum boost, helps key Broncos' win vs. Chargers

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — As the minutes ticked down in the Broncos' 24-7 win over the Los Angeles Chargers that pushed Denver's record back above .500, there was little doubt about the outcome.

Denver put together a stifling defense performance, won the takeaway battle and found needed explosive plays on offense.

The win was convincing — and it also hung in the balance early in the game.

Before the Broncos put the clamps on the Chargers (5-8), they gave them life. After an opening Chargers three-and-out, the Broncos' offense took over at its own 9-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, Russell Wilson looked to his right and fired a quick pass to Marvin Mims Jr.

Except Mims never fully gained possession, and Michael Davis ripped the ball away for an interception that gave the Chargers the ball at the Denver 13-yard line.

The play gave the Chargers an exceptionally favorable opportunity and added to Denver's turnover woes from the previous week in Houston. But then, instead of crumbling, the Broncos came up big in a potentially pivotal moment.

Outside linebacker Nik Bonitto tackled Austin Ekeler in the backfield for a loss of two yards on first down, and after a 9-yard gain on second down, Justin Herbert fired incomplete to Quentin Johnston on third-and-3. Rather than take the points, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley left his offense on the field for fourth down.

On fourth down, Herbert hung in the pocket before lofting a pass to tight end Gerald Everett, who cut across the end zone with P.J. Locke in pursuit. Everett got his hands on the pass, but he could not haul the pass in with Locke in close coverage.

"We knew that they were going to go for it more often than not," Head Coach Sean Payton said. "… I was pleased. It was a big turn there to come away with no points given up."

Denver took over on downs and avoided falling in an early hole after the turnover.

"Obviously when you're down there, we pride ourselves on red-zone defense," defensive end Zach Allen said. "Especially if they're not going to kick the [field goal for] three [points], you want to be able to win downs like that. Fourth downs are basically like turnovers if you get them. Definitely was good execution, and it was good for us."

While the Broncos did not score on their ensuing drive, they flipped the field. That, in turn, set up a Broncos takeaway as Jonathon Cooper intercepted a Herbert pass that Baron Browning deflected at the line of scrimmage. Denver, unlike the Chargers, was able to convert the takeaway into points — and the Broncos took a 7-0 lead that they never relinquished.

"That's how good teams win," Cooper said. "That's how you win in this league. The defense helps the offense."

The tone and tenor of the game, though, changed as the pass slipped through Everett's fingers.

"It's monstrous," tackle Mike McGlinchey said of Denver's defensive stop. "To come away with zero points when [they] get the ball inside your own 15[-yard line], it's dominant, is what it is. It probably [was] the reason why the game went as though it did today. Not only is it dominating for us, but it's very, very, very deflating for the opposing team and a huge four plays right there, and [it] probably changed the outcome of the game in terms of the way the flow of it went."

From there, the Broncos didn't look back. The Javonte Williams touchdown after Cooper's interception gave Denver the lead, and they pushed the advantage to 10-0 by halftime.

Defensively, the Broncos smothered the Chargers. Los Angeles did not convert any of its 12 third-down attempts and was held to 1-of-6 on fourth down after being halted on its first four attempts. An early fourth-quarter Chargers touchdown drive, fueled by a deep pass to Johnston, was the only thing that prevented Denver from its first road shutout in more than 30 years.

And while Herbert left the game late in the first half, the Chargers did not move the ball even before their starting quarterback exited the game. In six Herbert-led drives, the Chargers mustered six first downs and 90 yards. In those six opportunities, Denver forced two turnovers on downs, an interception and three punts. Herbert was sacked four times and posted a 45.2 quarterback rating before he was forced from the game with a finger injury.

Across 60 minutes, the Broncos' defense recorded six sacks by six different players and also added seven tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits and a pair of forced fumbles.

"Our defense has been amazing the last seven weeks-plus," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "They've been unstoppable. They've gotten turnovers, they're making plays. We're playing together."

In a critical moment, the defense made yet another play — and it set the tone for a dominant Broncos victory.

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