CARSON, Calif. -- As Case Keenum spiked the football down at the Los Angeles 18-yard line with four seconds remaining Sunday, his teammates and coaches exploded in delirium on StubHub Center's east sideline.
The Broncos had not yet won, of course; they needed one smooth swing of Brandon McManus' right leg to cement the club's first successful trip to Los Angeles since 1987. But McManus came into Sunday having hit 34 of his last 35 field-goal attempts from 30 to 39 yards.
Thanks to a 76-yard drive propelled by two Case Keenum passes of 38 and 30 yards to Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton, McManus had his chance to power down the Chargers and give the Broncos the win over a playoff contender that narrowly eluded them in losses to the Chiefs, Rams and Texans during their pre-bye run of six defeats in seven weeks.
Snap, spot, kick -- and jubilation from the sideline and from the thousands of orange-and-blue clad supporters who turned the Chargers' home into a home away from home for the Broncos once again. Unlike last year, their support was rewarded with a 23-22 win.
With a win by the narrowest of margins, the Broncos kept their hopes of a turnaround alive. With a 76-yard drive in the dying moments with no timeouts remaining in the shadow of Hollywood, they evoked a quote from a "Star Trek" movie shot in the area three decades ago -- they "turned death into a fighting chance to live."
They did so by finishing the job that was left agonizingly incomplete in last-minute home losses to the Chiefs and Texans, when last-minute drives fell agonizingly short.
"I think we flowed really, really well in that two-minute situation, and it shows that we don't crack under pressure," said Sutton, who averaged 26.0 yards per catch on three receptions in the win.
Their celebration was as much about previous games as Sunday's. It was cathartic. And it gave the Broncos a chance to turn the flicker of hope into a burning flame if they can replicate their work next Sunday against Pittsburgh.
"This team deserves a win, man," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "Guys put so much work [in], fighting every week. We're just ignoring the noise and staying together. We deserved the win today."
So why did the Broncos snap their seven-game road division losing streak Sunday?
Because the defense rallied for a late-game stand
When Philip Rivers hit Antonio Gates for a 25-yard catch on third-and-6 with 3:40 remaining in regulation, the game was not yet lost for the Broncos. But they were down to their last stand, with just one timeout and the two-minute warning left with which to stop the clock.
Los Angeles had the football at its 49-yard line, in need of just one more first down to seal the game. Considering that the Chargers had averaged one first down every 3.0 plays to that point in the game, the odds were in their favor.
"I tried to tell the boys after that first down, 'Keep your eyes focused; stay focused,'" Harris said. "We knew the game wasn't over, [that] we could still get a stop and be able to win the game."
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon gained a quick 7 yards on first-and-10, and Denver used its final timeout with 2:39 remaining. Four more yards, and the game was over. Even an offsides penalty would have crushed the Broncos.
Down to their final strike, the defense struck back, discombobulating the Chargers offense. After a 4-yard loss on second-and-3, Rivers threw on third-and-7 -- and threw low and incomplete. Not only did the Broncos get the stop, but the incompletion saved at least 40 precious seconds that proved valuable as the offense drove from its 8-yard line to the Los Angeles 16-yard line to set up the game-winning points.
Because Von Miller read a screen pass perfectly
With the Broncos trailing 19-7 in the third quarter and the Chargers driving for a score that could have put the game nearly out of reach, Miller dropped into space, anticipated Rivers' pass to Travis Benjamin and jumped in front of it, returning the football 42 yards to the Los Angeles 18-yard line. The Broncos scored three plays later on a 3-yard Royce Freeman run to trim Los Angeles' lead to five points.
"That was good awareness. I think I taught him that, man," Harris said, smiling. "When it's a screen, you see a screen, jump back and fall out and go pick it off. I'm glad he made that play, man."
Miller and Harris' interceptions proved crucial in keeping the Broncos' hopes alive, as they represented the only two stops the defense recorded in the first 40 minutes of the game. After that, the defense forced punts on two of the Chargers' final three possessions.
"When you see one of your best leaders doing something like that, the whole team wants to go out there and reciprocate that same energy," outside linebacker Bradley Chubb said.
Because the Chargers immolated themselves with penalties
Los Angeles' penalty proclivity kept the Broncos alive in the first half. Referee Pete Morelli and his crew whistled the Chargers for 85 yards on 10 penalties before halftime, including four inside the Denver 30-yard line on two separate drives.
Those infractions helped force the Chargers into third-and-21 situations on both possessions. They failed to convert either of them, leading Los Angeles to settle for a pair of Michael Badgley field goals instead of touchdowns. The failure to convert even one of those drives into a touchdown proved decisive.
According to pro-football-reference.com, the Chargers racked up their highest penalty-yardage total in just over a decade. Their 120 yards in infractions is the highest total since they had 134 yards in a 37-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints in London on Oct. 26, 2008,.
Because Colby Wadman's fake punt turned the game around
Denver had the momentum of a tree stump early in the second quarter when Wadman stepped out to punt after its third consecutive drive to open the game had stalled in Broncos territory. But with only five yards needed to reach the line to gain, it was a perfect chance to call on Wadman, who had not thrown a pass since his junior year in high school.
"We had a fake punt where I caught it and just tossed it out to the end," recalled Wadman, who also played tight end and defensive line in those days. "Recess ball, I played some quarterback, but not in any real games."
But he had practiced throwing -- and he did well enough that Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon called for the fake punt, which he executed perfectly, hitting Andy Janovich for a 12-yard gain that swung the entire contest.
"Every single time we ran it, we were completing it," Wadman said. "So going into it, I was super confident and coaches were confident about it -- and we felt really good about it going into the game."
You might think that a fake punt would cause an adrenaline rush in Wadman when the play call was made. But that wasn't the case.
"There's really no adrenaline at all, because I knew it would work. It had worked all week in practice," Wadman said. "So going in, I was pretty confident in it and prepared for it."
One play later, Lindsay galloped 41 yards for a score, and after the ensuing extra point, the Broncos led for the first time.
It all could not have gone any better for Wadman and the Broncos.
Because Rivers 'woke up the sleeping giant'
That's how Harris described what Rivers did when the talkative quarterback began yapping at the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback early in the game.
"Man, Philip came out on like the first play -- I guess he got that first third down on me -- he was, like, screaming at me, talking so much [trash] to me. I was like 'OK, you want to wake up the dog today? OK, you woke up the sleeping giant, now I've got to get you.' So, hey, that's what happened.
"He came out there talking [garbage] to me. Now I've got to make him pay."
He did, picking off Rivers in the second quarter.
"I had to talk [trash] to their whole sideline," Harris said. "I'm telling you, man, he started it with me. He started talking [nonsense] to me. Then everybody on the D-line and all the linebackers looked at me like, 'Is he really talking to you like this?'"
Of course, as Harris noted, Rivers did not curse.
"I'm going to have to go back to N.C. State and talk to some of the people, because I didn't know [Rivers] had a mouth on him like that!" Chubb said.
Photos from the Broncos' Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center.