ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the Broncos needed Case Keenum's best on Sunday against the Chargers, he delivered.
Denver struggled to move the ball for the majority of the first three quarters as Keenum posted quarterback ratings of 50.3, 66.7 and 70.1 in the first, second and third quarters, respectively.
The Chargers, to that point, had dominated time of possession (30:25 to 14:35) and total yards (382 to 161).
But with Keenum at the helm, the Broncos' offense moved the ball when it mattered most.
Beginning after Von Miller's interception with 3:55 to play in the third quarter, Keenum helped engineer scoring drives on three of the Broncos' last four possessions.
Two of those drives culminated in touchdowns, while the final, last-minute drive set up Brandon McManus' game-winning 34-yard field goal.
Keenum didn't attempt a pass on the first of three second-half scoring drives — Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman ran well enough that he didn't need to — but was effective throughout the fourth quarter.
He fired tight passes to Courtland Sutton for 39 yards, Emmanuel Sanders for 38 yards and again to Sutton for 30 more yards to help the Broncos complete their 12-point comeback. And that doesn't include a tight-window throw to Tim Patrick that was called back due to an offensive pass interference call.
Keenum went 8-for-12 with 146 yards and a 108.3 quarterback rating in the fourth quarter
And Keenum's late-game success isn't an outlier.
In three of the Broncos' four wins, they've required a game-winning drive. And Keenum's responded by raising his game. Against Seattle and Oakland — and in a near-comeback against the Rams — Keenum's fourth-quarter passer rating has been higher than his passer rating in the preceding three quarters.
"He likes the challenge of bringing our team back," Head Coach Vance Joseph said Monday. "I think the looks are cleaner from a defensive perspective. He's always been that way, from college to his NFL career. He's been a gamer. He's played his best football in the critical moments. Our team expects that from Case, and he's been good at it."
The Broncos, as a team, have found ways to exploit defenses during those time-crunched situations.
"It's so different for defenses when you're playing just normal football," Joseph said. "You get more looks. So when you're in a two-minute offense and you're going fast, the looks become a little clearer, because obviously you're going fast and they're in two-minute mode. So you get more four-man rush, more single-high [safety coverage], more shell [coverage]. It's really clean looks."
Through the first 11 weeks of the season, only Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson and Andy Dalton have more game-winning drives than Keenum among NFL quarterbacks.
As the Broncos look to get back in the playoff race, there's a good chance Keenum could add to that number.
LOOKING FOR CLARITY
With 12:20 to play in the game, the Broncos left their offense on the field after scoring a go-ahead touchdown to attempt a two-point conversion and try to push the lead to three points.
Keenum took the snap from an empty set, hesitated for a moment and then rushed forward. It appeared to be a similar play to one the Broncos ran against the Seahawks, but this time Keenum came up short.
Well, we think.
The officials ruled Keenum down short of the goal line, and without a clear angle in the coaches' box, Joseph elected not to challenge.
Locked in a tight game, he couldn't afford to lose a timeout if the challenge failed. That's why, as Joseph explained Monday, he hopes the officials err on the side of making a ruling that can trigger a booth-initiated review.
"I couldn't risk the timeout without clear evidence from our guys upstairs if it was a score or not," Joseph said. "Case was told by the official, 'You guys should challenge this because it's fairly close.' I would prefer [the officials] to call it a score so if it's looked at, we can get it right without risking [a timeout] from me. [The referee] has no risk, it's built in to get it right. If it's close, they should call it a score so we can look it. Without anybody losing anything, we just simply get it right. For me to get it right, [there are] consequences. That make sense?"
FIXING THIRD DOWNS
The Broncos earned a 23-22 divisional win, but Joseph was far from pleased with the team's third-down defense. Denver did make a big third-down stop to get the ball back for its offense with just under two minutes remaining, but on many occasions, Philip Rivers and Co. found ways to convert.
"That team came in averaging 7.6 yards a clip on first down," Joseph said. "We kind of squashed that, hitting the run game, hitting the pass game also. Their average third down was third-and-8-plus. All of their big plays came through their third downs, which is rare for our football team. They came in like ranked 25th in third downs and we were top 10. That was embarrassing how we played third downs, honestly. It was embarrassing."
Joseph said some improvement must come in execution and the rest must come in play-calling.
"It's all of us," Joseph said. "We've got to fix that. You can't be that bad on third downs vs. a team like that when you force this team to be in third-and-longs like that. To give up 9-for-15, that's not good enough for us."
A week after losing both Matt Paradis and Max Garcia to season-ending injuries, the Broncos emerged relatively healthy from their game against the Chargers.
DaeSean Hamilton exited after reaggravating a knee injury he suffered in Week 7, but Joseph said his prognosis was good after being reevaluated on Monday.
"DaeSean Hamilton looks pretty good this morning, so we're lucky there," Joseph said.
Cornerback Bradley Roby could be the Broncos' only lingering concern as he enters the concussion protocol.
"We'll see about Roby as the week progresses," Joseph said. "Obviously his health is the most important thing."