Casey Hayward was all over the play.
The Chargers cornerback saw where Trevor Siemian was going with the football. As the Denver quarterback wound up to throw to C.J. Anderson on the sideline, Hayward broke on the ball with the instincts that helped him lead the NFL with seven interceptions a year ago.
But in what turned out to be the first big miscue on a night with a handful of them, Hayward had the ball — and an almost sure touchdown — slip right out of his hands.
It was the start the Chargers needed, a proclamation they were ready to be players in Los Angeles, ready to challenge in the AFC West. Instead, it was the same almost-good-enough stuff that defined their final season in San Diego.
Whether it was nerves, too much excitement or more worrisome causes, the Chargers’ opening act as an L.A. team was a near-dud, redeemed only by a fourth-quarter comeback that came up just short. Rookie kicker Younghoe Koo’s 44-yard field-goal attempt was deflected by Denver defensive end Shelby Harris, allowing the Broncos to hang on for a 24-21 win.
“I don’t know how it got blocked,” Koo said. “It felt good off the foot.”
Koo made what the Chargers thought was a game-tying kick, but it was waved off after the officials ruled Denver had called timeout.
“It stung a little bit,” first-year Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said of the finish.
The Chargers’ chance to force overtime or pull out a win came after they forced a pair of turnovers that led to two fourth-quarter touchdowns. But like Hayward, the Chargers were close — but not good enough.
“He makes those plays all the time. He just didn’t in the game,” Lynn said of Hayward. “You only get so many opportunities like that in a ballgame and when it comes your way, you have to take advantage of it.”
Hayward’s mistake — not the only one he or the team would make — seemed to allow Siemian to regroup early, with the former seventh-round draft pick making the Chargers pay in different ways.
Denver coach Vance Joseph had said he was worried Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers would “cut up” the Denver defense. For the first three quarters Monday night, Siemian was the only one with scissors.
If Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa pressured into the backfield, Siemian either slid away for a gain or took the hit and bounced back up. He connected with Benny Fowler III for a pair of touchdowns — one coming after Hayward’s botched interception. And in the open field, Siemian eluded Bosa with a juke move for a rushing touchdown of his own.
Siemian controlled the game and his team better than the Chargers’ star did.
Rivers, starting on the 11-year anniversary of his first start in the NFL, never looked comfortable with Denver’s defensive alignments, milking the play clock to its final seconds as he frantically pointed to his helmet to alter the Chargers’ play.
With the stadium rattling thanks to the roar of nearly 75,000 people, Rivers and the Chargers trudged through a fairly conservative game plan that included no passing plays of 15 yards until late in the game. With Denver’s top-notch secondary controlling Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams, the Chargers couldn’t find Antonio Gates or Hunter Henry, with the tight end tandem getting only a single target in the game’s first three quarters.
“We have to get those guys more targets as coaches,” Lynn said. “Now, they were double teaming Antonio some early, but we have to find those guys. . . . They’re too good of players to not get targeted. That’s on us.”
Melvin Gordon, who looked like he was on his way to a big game after 41 yards rushing in the first quarter and an 11-yard touchdown catch in the second, gained just seven yards in his next seven carries.
A year ago, the Chargers would’ve collapsed late in the game, but in their 2017 opener, they were the better team in the final quarter.
The comeback got its boost from Adrian Phillips’ interception early in the fourth quarter. Phillips grabbed a deflected ball after rookie cornerback Desmond King smothered Fowler with very physical coverage.
Rivers looked as comfortable as he did all night on the following drive, finally connecting with Gates before finding Allen for a five-yard touchdown.
The Chargers got the ball right back when linebacker Korey Toomer forced a Jamaal Charles fumble. On the next play, Rivers hit Travis Benjamin for a 38-yard score to bring the Chargers to within a field goal.
“In the [defensive] huddle we were saying all we need is momentum and we got it,” Bosa said. “Kind of bothers me, because I feel we should have been playing like that the entire game.”
After Siemian hit tight end Vernon Davis to get deep into Chargers territory, Bosa and Ingram got Siemian for a sack, then Ingram got him again. That pushed Denver kicker Brandon McManus back and he missed a 50-yard field-goal attempt wide right.
An empty Chargers possession forced them to punt, but the defense held once again, forcing a three and out to set up one last chance — with the win again bouncing off some hands.
“This one hurts,” Rivers said, “but shoot, we’ve got a long way to go.”