ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Two days after the Broncos withstood the late surge from the San Diego Chargers, we can look back at the game and see the value of it beyond the win itself: it was a game the offense won with steadiness, an ability to create third-and-short situations and its ability to keep San Diego off-balance and prevent their pass rushers from having much of an impact.
The final statistical numbers were not vintage for the passing game -- at least, not relative to its performance in a record-breaking regular season. But Peyton Manning's adeptness at diagnosing the Chargers' intentions represented the future Hall of Famer at his best.
One example came on the first play of the Broncos' second possession of the third quarter, with 6:19 remaining.
San Diego blitzes with Donald Butler and Eric Weddle -- neither of whom showed any intention to blitz before the snap. With Weddle blitzing, Manning recognizes there will be a gap downfield, since Jahleel Addae is the only safety remaining in coverage, and is already turning back toward the middle of the field. That means he's turning away from Eric Decker, who sprints 11 yards up the right sideline, then cuts inside to receive the pass.
This began a series in which Manning and the Broncos drove into field-goal range by keeping the Chargers off-kilter. Two of the Chargers' five pre-snap penalties came on this possession, which only ended when Corey Liuget bounced off Zane Beadles on a third-and-1 from the San Diego 28 to stop Knowshon Moreno for a 1-yard loss, but the overall tenor of this drive revealed just how discombobulated San Diego's defense had become by this point.
This bore out on the crucial third-and-17 play a quarter later, which resulted in a 21-yard pass to Julius Thomas. This connection did more than any other play in the last seven minutes to sink the Chargers' comeback hopes, and happened because the Chargers didn't play the situation properly and didn't adjust.
In this situation, the line to gain is everything for San Diego. If there was a time to gamble on safeties playing at an intermediate range, this was it. But San Diego's safeties both dropped back, and as Manning looked to throw, neither of them was in position.
Meanwhile, Thomas had broken outside. Linebacker Bront Bird, who was in coverage near the line of scrimmage, released Thomas into the open field. Only one defender was behind Bird toward the west sideline, and that defender, cornerback Shareece Wright, was occupied with Demaryius Thomas, who had sprinted to the numbers and was headed down the seam.
The Broncos had not tested the Chargers deep all day, and weren't about to on this play. But leaving their safeties back showed that the Broncos' work on deep passes down the seam had done its job; the Chargers had to take seriously the threat in that range, and were going to leave a gap in coverage with five viable targets in play. Thomas exploited it, and you know the rest of the story.
The entire regular season is a prologue to this moment, and in 16 games, the Broncos showed that they could move the ball on the ground, with dinks and dunks and through explosive plays down the seam -- and did all of that from any personnel grouping.
There is so much variance on tape, and so much trust in every skill-position player, that it will be difficult for any defense to consistently contain it, as long as Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball all remain healthy.
Each of them has carried the offense on his back at some point this season. And each has the trust of Manning. With continued good health, this offense should continue to pose more questions than even a terrific defense can adequately answer.