DENVER -- Five weeks ago, the San Diego Chargers were 30 minutes away from a two-game lead in the AFC West.
Instead, the Broncos used a 35-point second half to take the first matchup of the season. On Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver held off a Chargers comeback to complete the season sweep with a 30-23 win.
"I've got to give the whole team a lot of credit -- we fought our butts off," cornerback Champ Bailey said of the team's fifth consecutive win. "We knew we had a team coming in here wanting to get a win. It took 60 minutes to get it done."
With the victory, the Broncos took a big step toward a second consecutive AFC West title. With six games left in the regular season, Denver (7-3) now holds a three-game lead over the second-place Chargers (4-6), plus the tiebreaker courtesy of the club's first sweep of the season series since 2005.
"We wanted it," said wide receiver Eric Decker, who on Sunday became the third player in team history to catch at least eight touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. "We made sure we fought until the end, pulled out the victory. Now having a nice lead is comfortable, but we need to get back at it and get better every week because we have bigger goals ahead of us."
The game got off to a decidedly pro-Chargers start, as quarterback Peyton Manning's pass was tipped at the line, intercepted and returned for a touchdown on the Broncos' second drive.
The early San Diego lead might have momentarily conjured visions of the 24-0 halftime deficit Denver faced the last time it squared off with San Diego. But the Denver offense -- and defense -- responded quickly.
Running back Willis McGahee -- who left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury -- helped power a six-play drive that spanned the first and second quarters, which Manning capped with a 13-yard, game-tying touchdown strike to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
It was the first of 17 unanswered points by the Broncos, uninterrupted in part due to the defense's remarkable streak of 26 consecutive third-down stops. The Denver defense didn't allow Cincinnati to convert on its final three third-down conversions in Week 9, then held Carolina without a third-down conversion on 12 attempts last week. On Sunday, San Diego started 0-for-11 in the category, ultimately finishing 3-for-16.
"It starts back in the secondary," said linebacker Von Miller, who notched three sacks and two forced fumbles in the game. "We've got guys that can cover and we're able to get off the field."
An interception by Wesley Woodyard -- his third of the season -- on the ensuing drive gave the Broncos the ball at the 8-yard line, but the offense settled for a 19-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead.
It was another big defensive play -- and an even bigger special-teams play -- that helped give the Broncos some breathing room.
Following two San Diego three-and-outs, the Chargers were threatening on their next drive with a third-and-4 at midfield. But Miller had other ideas, sacking quarterback Philip Rivers for a 14-yard loss. On the next play, linebacker Nate Irving raced into the backfield to block Mike Scifres' punt, giving Denver the ball at the San Diego 31-yard line.
"They made the game-changing plays," Rivers said.
It took Manning just one play to find paydirt, hooking up with wide receiver Brandon Stokley for a 31-yard touchdown and a 17-7 lead at halftime.
The pass, Manning said, was a "complementary play" off of a screen pass that the team had run a number of times earlier in the game. Manning froze the secondary with a pump-fake before finding Stokley in the end zone.
"It was well-executed and Brandon did a good job selling the screen, like he was going to block, and then going down the sideline," Manning said.
After halftime, the Chargers executed a surprise onside kick that they recovered, looking to jump back in the game. Though the drive resulted in a three-and-out -- thanks to a sack and forced fumble by Miller -- Scifres' punt was downed at the 2-yard line, pinning the Broncos in the shadow of their own end zone.
Two plays later, Manning was sacked by linebacker Shaun Phillips for a safety, and the Chargers were within eight.
But the defense continued its strong play, and another sack-fumble by Miller and a recovery by Woodyard gave Denver the ball back at the San Diego 25-yard line.
"Denver is an outstanding football team," Chargers Head Coach Norv Turner said. "They are probably as complete a team as we've played in terms of all three phases."
After an offsides penalty on San Diego, Manning dropped back to pass on third-and-5 from the 20-yard line. Running back Lance Ball made a key block in blitz pickup, buying Manning time to find Decker for a 20-yard catch-and-run touchdown and a 24-9 lead.
But the Broncos knew from their own experience five weeks ago not to count a team out.
"We were prepared — it was going to be a four-quarter, 60-minute game, and those guys have a lot of pride over there," Manning said.
San Diego pulled to within seven points late in the fourth quarter, but two fourth-quarter Prater field goals and a Broncos recovery of an onside kick left the Chargers with their backs against the wall, needing to drive 87 yards in 23 seconds to tie the game. Mirroring Denver's Week 6 win in San Diego, a sack-fumble courtesy of defensive end Elvis Dumervil ended the Chargers' final drive and sealed the win for Denver.
"It's a team thing," cornerback Chris Harris said. "As long as the offense keeps putting up points and we can get quarterbacks off the field and continue to force turnovers, the sky is the limit."
Though they now have a "comfortable lead" in the division, as Decker put it, the Broncos aren't ready to scoreboard watch quite yet.
Bailey said the team simply needs to worry about getting better every week. Anything else is just "a distraction."
With a trip to hostile Arrowhead Stadium against the Kansas City Chiefs coming up next Sunday, Denver is sticking to its one-game-at-a-time philosophy.
"I think this team that we have right now has the best chemistry and fire," said linebacker D.J. Williams, who saw his first game action since returning from a suspension. "It's still early in the season. It means nothing if you drop the ball late in the season, so we'll keep grinding."