CARSON, Calif. — As Brandon McManus returned to his spot on the field to attempt the game-winning field goal at StubHub Center, the sideline was mostly still. A handful of players with nervous energy wandered aimlessly before perking their heads up to watch, but most players, coaches and staff members were stationary, frozen either alone or with teammates for the final game's piece of drama.
Case Keenum was stationed next to his position coach, Mike Sullivan, and backup quarterback Kevin Hogan. From their position at midfield, they all took a knee in a sort of reverence for the gravity of the moment. Keenum and Hogan were on either side of Sullivan, who placed an arm around each quarterback.
Keenum had watched McManus' Week 2 game-winner against Oakland alongside Sullivan, but the two weren't near each other when McManus attempted the potential game-winning kick vs. Houston. Keenum wouldn't make that mistake again.
Long snapper Casey Kreiter rifled the ball back to punter Colby Wadman, who set it perfectly for McManus. In one smooth motion, McManus stepped forward, his leg swung back, and he sent the ball up through the uprights for the 23-22 win.
The stillness of the sideline broke in waves. Among the quarterback group, Hogan leapt up first, leaving Keenum and Sullivan still on the sideline, getting up a little slower but with no less joy.
"It's pretty indescribable," Keenum said after the game, cracking a smile as he began to recount how he watched the field goal. "I tell people that's a high you can't buy. It feels good. … We were right next to each other, as close as we could possible get without making our wives jealous. We both kind of lost it there. It was a blast."
Two weeks ago, the Broncos had gone through a nearly identical ritual as McManus approached a shot at a game-winning field goal. That time, though, the kick had sailed wide right, and the Broncos again felt crushed as they dropped another close game to a team in playoff contention. But they made clear that that kick made absolutely no impact on their confidence in McManus, who had only missed one field goal in the eight games before that day.
"We all love B," safety Su'a Cravens said. "He had only missed one kick up to that kick, so he's a great kicker. We didn't get on him; it wasn't like he was shunned when he walked in. It was just a tough loss. We could have done things to make sure the game didn't have to come down to a field goal. We love B and he stepped up today and got the job done."
And the guys who have been around McManus since he arrived in Denver in 2014 and have seen him work day in and day out know exactly how kicks like the one he made to beat the Chargers are much more representative of the kind of kicker he is.
"I see him every day," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "He's on point, he's working hard and he's been a good friend with me — since I've been here and since he's been here. I just have great trust in him, and I knew the Houston game, that was a tough kick. I knew that if he got another chance, I knew he could bounce back and make it. Today we had all the confidence in the world that he was going to knock it down for us."
But even more than just what one kick means, it's how McManus responds to the rare misfire that defines him and why he succeeds as a kicker.
"Obviously I'd love to sit here and say that I've never missed a kick in my life, but that's just the percentages and the stats," an even-keel McManus said after Sunday's win. "… What I can do is come back the second time and try to make it — which, obviously, I was fortunate enough to do today. You want to make it back out there and make a big kick as soon as you can, so it's great for it to be the next game."
McManus' calm demeanor in the locker room of course did not reflect the madness that had engulfed everyone (or almost everyone — Josey Jewell and Todd Davis, clearly exhausted after chasing running back Melvin Gordon and Antonio Gates for much of the game, rested on the bench as their teammates went wild) on the Broncos' sideline when his kick had sailed between the goalposts.
Keenum embraced his position coach, with whom he's spent countless hours at UCHealth Training Center as they studied and prepared for each game. Courtland Sutton, waving his arms and leaping into the air, galloped across the field in an arc from one edge of their bench area out toward midfield and then back to the other edge of the bench.
Then, when finally everyone eventually spilled onto the field to shake hands with the Chargers before departing for the locker room, once again the sideline was still.