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Three Keys Unlocked: Broncos at Chargers

SAN DIEGO -- Early-afternoon results such as "Rams 38, Colts 8" stood as a stark reminder of what could happen if being a bit off-kilter mushroomed into something larger. But like the Chiefs in Buffalo last week, the Broncos flourished at their core competency when they needed to most, and then hung on for a 28-20 win over San Diego that allowed them to maintain pace.
In terms of milestones, it was a noteworthy win: Jack Del Rio's first as interim head coach; Pat Bowlen's 300 as Broncos owner. But it will be remembered in the short term more for the concern over Peyton Manning's ankle -- he said he'll have an MRI on it, but that he "plans to" play against the Chiefs next week -- and for the comeback the Chargers nearly executed at Denver's expense.
Turnovers were down -- Manning didn't throw an interception for the first time in four games; and the only fumble came when Manning lost the football after being sacked by San Diego's Tourek Williams, who beat Chris Clark around the left flank for the sack. But that didn't raise many eyebrows when it happened; the subsequent field position set up a San Diego touchdown that narrowed the Broncos' lead to 15 points, at 28-13, and no one seem particularly ruffled.
But the most hair-raising moment of the game belonged to Trindon Holliday, who muffed the attempted catch of a Mike Scifres punt with 3:32 left in regulation. His recovery of the loose football was perhaps the single most important play of the second half; by falling on the ball, the Broncos were able to run out the clock.
Holliday now has three fumbles this year, but his are just 15 percent of the 20 the Broncos have to this point. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase noted the fumbling trend Thursday, and after two bobbles, expect this to remain a point of emphasis.
Had the Broncos lost, it wouldn't have been because they were doomed by lengthy marches. San Diego had two drives of double-digit plays, and neither resulted in touchdowns, as the Broncos stiffened in the red zone both times. Instead, San Diego's touchdowns came on a drive that began at the Denver 11 following Manning's fumble and a a 60-yard march that was propelled by the old yardage-in-chunks style the Chargers had in previous years: gains of 30 and 24 yards.
Denver would have liked to have forced more three-and-outs than the two it mustered, but the Chargers' lengthy drives weren't a factor in the end.
As it turned out, the single biggest test of San Diego's cornerbacks came when Julius Thomas burst up the right sideline on the Broncos' third play from scrimmage. Derek Cox had the opportunity to push the tight end out of bounds, but didn't even come close, allowing Thomas to complete his 74-yard reception that put the Broncos in front to stay. Not long after the play, Cox was pulled, then re-inserted, but it illustrated the state of flux in which the Chargers' cornerback complement exists.
That makes it susceptible not only to simple go routes -- like the one that Eric Decker executed on a 34-yard catch to set up the Broncos' second touchdown -- but to receiver screen passes, in which San Diego's cornerbacks were repeatedly blocked out of the play by whichever Broncos wideout did not have the football. It is the most reliable element of the Broncos' passing game, and with the Broncos able to go short and long with equal effectiveness, it should remain an asset both in terms of the yardage it gains and its ability to force teams out of pressure mode.