Amid the frivolity of a winning locker room, the Chargers could joke about the moment of slapstick comedy that free safety Jahleel Addae and slot cornerback Desmond King produced in the second quarter of Sunday’s regular-season-ending 23-9 victory over the Denver Broncos.
“That’s a play we can definitely look back at after the season and say, ‘What the hell were you doing?’” King said after the Chargers forced four turnovers, returned a fumble for a touchdown and ran an interception back 101 yards for a two-point conversion. “We’ll look back on it and laugh.”
It was not so funny at the time, as the scowl on the face of Chargers coach Anthony Lynn would suggest.
Lynn was not thrilled by Addae’s ill-advised lateral to King on an interception return deep in Chargers territory, a gaffe that nearly allowed the Broncos to tie the score.
“That was not a smart move, and Jahleel is one of the smartest football players,” Lynn said. “I’m surprised he did that. I don’t think you’ll see that again.”
In a sluggish first half in which quarterback Philip Rivers threw two interceptions and the Chargers ran only 24 plays compared to the Broncos’ 43 plays, it was the Chargers defense that generated the first points in Broncos Stadium at Mile High.
On a first-and-30 from his own 26-yard line late in the second quarter, Denver quarterback Case Keenum stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure and threw a backward pass into the left flat that was too low for running back Royce Freeman to catch.
As Freeman tried to corral the ball he was hit from above and smothered by King. Linebacker Kyle Emanuel scooped up the fumble and rumbled 18 yards for his first career touchdown and a 7-0 lead, holding on to the ball as Broncos lineman Billy Turner tried to knock it out with a vicious chop as Emanuel crossed the goal line.
“I was an old high school running back, like half this team was, so I know a little bit about ball security,” Emanuel said. “It was all Des, really. He did the hard part. I think he knocked it out. It was one of those things where you see the ball on the ground, you go pick it up.”
The Broncos drove from their own 10-yard line to the Chargers six on their next possession, the key play a 44-yard pass that River Cracraft caught between Addae and cornerback Michael Davis.
On third-and-goal from the six, Keenum threw a pass over the middle that caromed off tight end Matt LaCosse and into the arms of Addae in the end zone. Addae returned the pick 19 yards, and as he was hit, he tried to lateral to King.
The ball bounced off King’s facemask and was recovered by offensive lineman Elijah Wilkinson at the 20. The turnover led to Brandon McManus’ 28-yard field goal that cut the Chargers’ lead to 7-3 just before halftime.
“I was trying to make a play,” Addae said. “I heard a teammate say, ‘Pitch it.’ I shouldn’t have pitched it. It was a bad play on my part. I’ve got to be smarter next time.”
Asked who told him to pitch the ball, Addae said, “I know, but I’m not gonna say.”
It did not take much to pry the answer out of King.
“Yeah, I said something, it was me,” King said. “I probably shouldn’t have, though. I didn’t think he’d really do it, but hey, stuff happens. … He’s got the ball. He doesn’t have to pitch it. I know I wouldn’t pitch it.”
So why did he tell Addae to? “I don’t know,” King said. “At some point, I thought he was going to keep running, so I was trying to get a block in. Then I seen the ball hit me in my face.”
That was one of the few pockmarks of a solid defensive effort that the Chargers hope carries over into Sunday’s AFC wild-card playoff game at Baltimore.
Safety Adrian Phillips led the team with 12 combined tackles, two pass breakups and a forced fumble, stripping the ball from the arms of receiver Tim Patrick after a third-quarter catch.
Defensive end Joey Bosa recovered the fumble at the Broncos 16-yard line, and four plays later, Rivers hit Mike Williams with a three-yard touchdown pass that gave the Chargers a 14-3 lead with 3 minutes 46 seconds left in the third.
“Everything we preach from the defensive side is to get the ball back,” Phillips said. “Tackles are great, pass breakups are great, but we want to get the ball. We want to force fumbles and get interceptions.”
Denver cut the lead to 14-9 early in the fourth quarter when Keenum threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Andy Janovich, but on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, cornerback Casey Hayward picked off Keenum’s pass intended for Courtland Sutton and raced 101 yards for a 16-9 lead.
“That was a little momentum-builder for us,” Hayward said. “It definitely helped. The lead went from five to seven, so they had to score a touchdown to tie.”
The Chargers entered Sunday with a plus-one turnover margin. That figure remained the same on Sunday because the Chargers lost two fumbles and had two passes intercepted, but two of the Chargers’ takeaways and Hayward’s two-point pick led directly to 16 points.
Davis had nine tackles and two pass breakups, linebacker Hayes Pullard, playing in place of the injured Jatavis Brown, had eight tackles, and Bosa had one sack and one tackle for a loss.