DENVER -- There have been games this year where the Broncos' offense was so efficient that the little things didn't matter. There's few better deodorants than a quarterback for whom a three-touchdown, 340-yard game is an average performance. Errors get overlooked by most onlookers when one part of the team is on a historic pace.
But an elite offense, prolific as it may be, is going to have an off day. And that leaves the burden on the rest of the team to not make mental mistakes. They didn't cost the Broncos before, but they were the difference in Thursday's 27-20 loss to San Diego.
Two 12-men-on-the-field penalties against the defense. An obvious pass-interference penalty against Duke Ihenacho that cost the Broncos a potential third-down stop, and allowed the Chargers to drain two minutes, 53 seconds more of precious clock time in the fourth quarter.
And worst of all, the neutral-zone infraction committed by Nate Irving on a punt from the San Diego 7-yard-line. The 5-yard march-off on fourth-and-4 was only the beginning; the Chargers advanced the football 43 more yards and drained six minutes, 47 seconds off the clock. Instead of the Broncos having first-and-10 at midfield with 8:19 left in the quarter, they were back at their 11-yard-line with 1:32 left.
San Diego's game plan was effective; they dialed up pressure from all angles, and decisively attacked the weak points on Denver's defense. But the Broncos were partners in their own demise.
"That is just beating ourselves -- dumb penalties like that," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "We've got to be a lot smarter. We can't have 12 men on the field in crucial times like that or have a dumb penalty on a punt return. Those plays really jump out, the dumb penalties.
"They didn't really make any dumb mistakes today. We made the careless mistakes and when you do that, that is when you usually lose."
And now, a look back at the three keys to the game.
1. PROTECT THE FOOTBALL -- AND KEEP THE CHARGERS FROM DOING THE SAME THING.
The Broncos did this, for the most part. They weren't messy on offense; their lone giveaway was not about an inability to protect the football, but a failure to contain San Diego's Corey Liuget, whose hit on quarterback Peyton Manning led to an interception.
But a lack of ball security isn't the only way in which sloppiness can undermine a team's chances. In the end, the Broncos' mistakes were mental. They weren't as obvious as a spate of turnovers, but they were just as costly.
2. BE PATIENT.
A lack of patience didn't matter. Execution did. The only time that the offense could have been considered impatient was on the third-and-11 attempt to Andre Caldwell up the right sideline with 8:56 remaining in the second quarter. But the coverage was similar to what the Broncos have gotten on those long passes up the sideline, and after a series of checkdowns, Denver needed to probe the Chargers defense to force it back and create some open running lanes. But at the time, the game was tied, and San Diego had not yet built the momentum it would carry later in the second and third quarters.
This was a loss that came from execution, not from impatience.
3. DON'T GET FLUSTERED BY THE SHORT WEEK.
The lack of preparation time was not the reason why the Broncos lost. If anything, a short week should have helped the team maintain its focus and edge -- both of which appeared to vanish at times Thursday.
It was unusual for a Manning-led team -- he had never lost a game as a starter on a short week until now. It is questionable whether a normal week would have allowed Wes Welker to heal from his concussion in time to play, but the fact that it was his second concussion in four weeks meant caution was in order, anyway, and may not have made a difference.
"Hey, Wes is a great player. We certainly knew it was going to be a challenge without him. But I thought guys were ready for that challenge, so I don't think it was a reason we didn't play as well on offense," said Manning. "We just weren't as sharp as we needed to be."