One by one they fell to the AT&T Stadium turf Thursday, five Dallas Cowboys defenders in all, tumbling to the ground as if they were pins and Chargers receiver Keenan Allen was a human bowling ball.
Four of the five got a hand on Allen — one grabbed a shoulder, one an ankle, one a rib cage, one a thigh. Another grasped at air as Allen juked his way down the left sideline for a 42-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that sealed the Chargers’ 28-6 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Cowboys.
Allen’s shake-and-bake catch-and-run highlighted another huge day. This time he caught 11 passes from Philip Rivers for a career-best 172 yards and a touchdown to help the Chargers win for the fifth time in seven games and vault themselves into a crowded AFC playoff picture.
“I used to be a running back,” Allen said with a chuckle, when asked where he got those kinds of moves. “I can’t wait to get on the plane and watch the replay. Once you cross the goal line, it was like, ‘Whew, I made it!’ It felt great.”
Through nine games this season, Allen — who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first week of 2016 — had 44 catches for 596 yards and one touchdown. In two games over the last five days, Allen has 23 catches for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
“That’s crazy,” Allen said of his two-game output. “I just have a lot of confidence, and our offense is making things happen. [Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt] and Phil are calling the right plays, the line is doing a great job, Phil is throwing the ball great, and the receivers are doing a good job of finishing routes.”
Rivers got excellent protection this week — he was sacked once in the last two games — and he has done a better job of getting the ball to his playmakers in space.
Several of Allen’s big plays came after short passes, with most of his yards coming after the catch. Tight end Hunter Henry, who disappeared from the playbook far too often this season, caught five passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.
Henry, on a third-and-four from the Cowboys 29-yard line, caught a short pass over the middle and turned it into a 22-yard gain to set up a Chargers field goal and a 3-0 lead just before halftime.
Midway through the third quarter, Henry slipped a double-team in the middle of the end zone and caught a three-yard scoring pass from Rivers, who had initially looked toward Austin Ekeler in the left corner.
“He’s a big guy, a big threat in the red zone, for sure,” Allen said of Henry, whose score gave them a 9-0 lead. “He has good hands and runs good routes. It’s great to get him involved. … We’re just getting it to our dogs, going out there and executing it and making it happen. Today, when we got out there, it was like we were going to score every time.”
Rivers also found speedster Travis Benjamin for a 46-yard bomb in the first quarter. Tyrell Williams caught two passes for 58 yards, including a 27-yard reception on a go route that gave the Chargers a 16-0 lead. Running backs Melvin Gordon and Ekeler combined for six catches for 78 yards, and the Chargers had eight pass plays of 20 yards or more.
“We have a lot of threats,” Allen said. “It’s hard to double somebody. It’s hard to match up with somebody. Travis and Tyrell are burning downfield, Hunter and I going intermediate, so pick your poison, which one do you want to guard?”
Allen’s touchdown came less than three minutes after Dallas had scored to trim the Chargers’ lead to 16-6 early in the fourth.
Running a corner route out of the left slot, Allen caught the pass over his left shoulder at about the 32-yard line and broke the tackle of Dallas cornerback Orlando Scandrick at the 28.
Allen cut back inside between free safety Byron Jones and nickel back Xavier Wood at the 10-yard line — both defenders made contact with Allen but were unable to bring him down — and avoided cornerback Anthony Brown’s thigh tackle at the five-yard line before reaching the end zone.
That gave the Chargers a 22-6 lead with 9:58 to play.
“I’ve had plays like that in high school, but never in the NFL,” Allen said. “It was a great play call, and Phil threw a great ball. I knew the safety was coming, and once I broke out and felt him, I knew I had to get up the field fast. After that, it was just making guys miss and getting to the end zone.”
Gordon was on the sideline for Allen’s touchdown, a play that impressed but did not awe him.
“That’s what he does — it’s not like you’re shocked,” Gordon said. “He’s a tough guy to tackle, and he’s very shifty. He can’t really be stopped. I don’t think he’s been stopped all year.