He took a couple steps in and then hesitated, reading completely Philip Rivers’ intentions, right down to the finest print.
Von Miller reached up and snagged Rivers’ screen pass, his pickoff so profound that, in doing so, Denver’s Pro Bowl linebacker intercepted this entire Chargers season.
“I think the game would have been completely different,” offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said, “if we had made a play there.”
Instead, it was Miller who made the play, his subsequent 42-yard return setting into motion a late comeback that ended with the Broncos beating the Chargers 23-22 as time expired.
By Week 17, every NFL team can identify a handful of season-shaping plays, moments seized or squandered that meant the difference between heading into the postseason or careening into the offseason.
It is unreasonable to think that one play — out of some 1,900 snaps — determined the fate of a team.
But it is not ridiculous to suggest the Chargers’ fate swung dramatically when Miller dissected and devoured that third-down attempt Nov. 18 at StubHub Center.
“The guy’s a great player,” Whisenhunt said. “You don’'t see a lot of guys who can do that. He recognized something, took a chance and made a play.”
The Chargers were leading 19-7 at the time, had moved into Broncos territory and were looking to assume control as the third quarter entered its final four minutes.
A victory — accepting that the rest of the season unfolded just as it has — would have positioned the Chargers to secure the AFC’s top playoff seed Sunday with another win in the rematch with Denver.
Now, though, they find themselves even with Kansas City and in need of a victory here and a Chiefs loss or tie against Oakland at Arrowhead Stadium.
Otherwise, the Chargers will end up as the No. 5 seed and face a postseason of playing on the road, no matter how long they’re alive.
“To me, you gotta treat this game like a playoff,” tight end Virgil Green said. “You want to go into those playoff games with a full head of steam. Focus, be more detailed.
“If you’re spending an hour on film a day, get in an hour and 30 [minutes], two hours. Get into your playbook because, at this point, you got teams that are going to be doing a lot of different things to ensure a win.”
How big of a difference is being a No. 1 seed versus a No. 5, a division winner as opposed to a wild card?
In the 16 years since the NFL went to four divisions in each conference, only three of the 32 teams that advanced to the Super Bowl did so as wild-card entrants.
The encouraging news is that, once there, each won the championship. The 2007 New York Giants entered the postseason seeded fifth and the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers went in seeded sixth.
Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator of that Steelers team, which won road games at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver before beating Seattle at Ford Field in Detroit.
“I think there is a mentality with the team, a toughness that you have to have to do that,” Whisenhunt said. “There’s also got to be a closeness — a group of guys that really like each other and play well together…I sense a lot of that with our team.”
The 2018 Chargers already have won at Seattle, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. They won in London too, against a Tennessee club that still could make the playoffs.
They are 6-1 in one-score games and 6-1 away from home and have lost only twice since Sept. 23.
The success late in games and on the road has forged this team, those in and around the Chargers contend, producing a group that believes in itself as one and as individuals.
“Those are the kind of things that you can build on,” Whisenhunt said, “and know that if you get into a situation early in a playoff game and things maybe don't go quite your way, you know you can recover and make some plays.”
The Chargers have to win next at Broncos Stadium at Mile High, against an opponent that has dropped three in a row and is thinned by injury.
And they have to hope the Raiders can provide an unexpected jolt to the conference standings as a two-touchdown underdog.
The Chargers also have to show that they can take back here the game they say they gave away in Carson.
“That was definitely a learning experience,” Green said. “You’d rather something like that happen during the regular season than get into the playoffs and not be prepared for a situation like that.”