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Three Keys Unlocked: Broncos 27, Chargers 20

DENVER --You don't often turn the football over five times and live to tell about a victory.

It had been 15 years since the Broncos were able to say that, and that game only went their way because it was against a Chargers team doomed for a 1-15 finish and featuring one of the game's all-time busts at quarterback, the much-maligned Ryan Leaf.

Sunday's game dripped with storylines: Peyton Manning relieving Brock Osweiler in the third quarter, the running game saving its most productive performance of the regular season for last, the defense again getting a late-game takeaway to set up the game-winning touchdown, the clinching of the No. 1 seed.

But few teams can withstand five giveaways to win. According to pro-football-reference.com, the Broncos became just the 14th team in the last 10 seasons to win with five turnovers -- improving the record of teams with that many giveaways to just 14-156 -- an .082 winning percentage that is a near death-sentence.

There was a time when victories like the Broncos' was a sign of a champion's resilience; 14 of the first 28 Super Bowl winners won at least one game with five or more turnovers en route to taking home the trophy. But it's been 22 years since the last team that did that: the 1993 Dallas Cowboys.

The Broncos survived yet another brush with generosity, which pushed their season-long giveaway total to 31. But this can't repeat itself. Although other teams in recent decades have made the Super Bowl with at least 30 turnovers -- 12 in the previous 20 seasons -- many of those had high-powered offenses, like the 2013 Broncos, 2001 and 1999 Rams and 1997 Packers.

Denver needs a low-mistake offense to pair with its top-ranked defense. In the last 20 minutes of the game, the Broncos got that, and outscored the Chargers 20-7 to escape and claim a game that shouldn't have been that close to begin with.

"All we had to do was cut the giveaways, and we had them," said running back Ronnie Hillman. "It should have been 28-3 before the half.

It shouldn't have even been a fight like this. When we turn the ball over, it just makes it a tough fight."

And how good can the Broncos be if they put together a complete game?

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"Fifty-five points and a win?" Hillman replied. "The sky's the limit. We just don't know what we could do. But I know that we could put up a lot of points if we all just get in there, buckle down and focus."

"It can be real good," added Anderson. "I mean, it's good and it's putting together 30 mistake-free minutes. Fifteen mistake-free minutes. A drive of mistake-free minutes! And we still find a way to be good. But we can be really good.

"We know what's at stake. We've just got to come out and play. I'm not saying everybody let up, but we just can't let up. We've got to come out here and play hard every day."

A look back at how the three keys to the game turned out:

1. Play a good game from start to finish.

Even when you gain 279 yards by halftime, you cannot, by any definition of the term, play a good first half when you turn the football over four times, as the Broncos did. Their spate of giveaways kept the Chargers in a game that would have otherwise been nearly decided by halftime.

The offense found a groove in the second half, and the ground game cranked up late, particularly after Manning replaced Osweiler. Six of the eight plays on his first drive were handoffs, including three that were called touchdowns on the field -- although just one stood after the first two were corrected by instant replay.

Still, it begs the question: What could this team do if it ever put together a complete, low-mistake game? The only example of that so far came in Week 8 against the Packers, and the 29-10 final score barely reflected the dominance as the Broncos outgained the Pack by over a three-to-one margin.

If the Broncos can channel that sort of performance again ...

"We could be prolific," said tight end Virgil Green. "We've got to definitely get that in the playoffs."

If they can't, they might be sitting in the same locker room in two or three weeks, lamenting an opportunity they let slip away.

2. Make Philip Rivers uncomfortable.

As they did on Dec. 6, Denver's pass rush harassed Rivers, forcing him into hurried throws and times where he had to escape the pocket. The Broncos got to him three times for sacks, and one of the pressures led to a high throw that skipped through the hands of intended receiver Tyrell Williams and into the grasp of Shiloh Keo, whose 22-yard interception return set up the game-winning touchdown run by Hillman on the next snap.

But Rivers is one of the game's best at making plays under duress, and perhaps the most dramatic example of this was on third-and-15 with two minutes to go, when he escaped the inside rush from Von Miller and kept the Chargers' final drive alive with a 9-yard completion to Dontrelle Inman.

3. Protect Brock Osweiler.

Pressure led directly to two of the Broncos' five turnovers. One was an interception that came when Melvin Ingram burst past Michael Schofield to get to Osweiler as he threw; the other happened after a strip-sack fumble forced by Steve Williams on a corner blitz. Schofield also took another holding penalty trying to contain Ingram; that scuttled another series late in the first half.

Once Manning and Tyler Polumbus entered at quarterback and right tackle, respectively, the Broncos' ground game hit fifth gear and prevented the Chargers from teeing off on a regular basis, although defensive lineman Damion Square lived up to his surname and hit Manning square in the chest in the fourth quarter.

The Broncos clinched the AFC West and the No. 1 seed in the conference. Here are the top shots of the win.

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