The Chargers had the Denver Broncos pinned at their eight-yard line with 1 minute 51 seconds remaining and no timeouts, a two-point lead ostensibly in the hands of a stingy defense that had saved two victories during a six-game win streak with last-second stops.
How would the Chargers assess their chances of winning given the situation?
“One hundred percent,” rookie safety Derwin James said. “We’ve got to win that game. It don’t matter what happened before then, but a minute and something left, no timeouts, the ball at the eight-yard line … we’ve got to [man] up.”
The Chargers did not. Their bend-but-don’t-break defense finally broke, collapsing like a pile of Jenga blocks in Sunday’s 23-22 loss in StubHub Center.
There was no tipped pass in the end zone like the ones that secured a 20-19 victory over Tennessee and a 25-17 win at Seattle. There was no wild celebration as the final gun sounded.
This time there was dejection and disbelief after long Case Keenum passes to Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton moved the Broncos into position for Brandon McManus to kick a 34-yard field goal as time expired.
“I’m always gonna bet on us in that situation, no matter how much time is left, but today we fell short,” Chargers defensive back Adrian Phillips said. “We played our normal defense; we just messed up the coverage, and they made a play. They out-executed us.”
The Broncos’ final possession started routinely enough, with Keenum hitting tight end Jeff Heuerman with a five-yard pass, taking 23 seconds off the clock.
From the 13-yard line, Keenum looked right before firing a pass to his left that Sanders caught between Chargers linebacker Jatavis Brown and defensive back Desmond King at the 30-yard line.
Jahleel Addae closed from his free safety position and lunged at Sanders’ shins, but Sanders cut quickly to the right, jumped over Addae and continued another 21 yards, the 38-yard reception moving the ball to the Chargers’ 49.
Keenum hit Devontae Booker with a four-yard pass with one minute left, but tight end Tim Patrick was called for pass interference on an 11-yard catch, pushing the ball back to the Broncos’ 45.
Keenum threw nine yards to Matt LaCosse and, from the Chargers 46, rifled a pass to Sutton that the Denver receiver caught on a seam route between four Chargers for a 30-yard gain.
“He made some big throws, especially the one up the seam to Sutton,” James said of Keenum. “That was a good pass. He zipped it in there. He made some big plays.”
The Broncos scrambled down the field after Sutton’s catch, and Keenum spiked the ball to stop the clock with four seconds left. After a last-second Chargers timeout nullified McManus’ apparent game-winner, the Broncos kicker sent another field goal through the uprights.
“It’s pretty indescribable,” Keenum said of the feeling he got watching the kick from the sideline. “I tell people that’s a high you can’t buy, and it feels good.”
The Chargers hadn’t experienced this kind of low since their last loss, to the Rams on Sept. 23. A defense that welcomed the return of star edge rusher Joey Bosa from a foot injury that sidelined him the first nine games was unable to sack Keenum or force a turnover.
The Chargers thought they forced a fumble and intercepted a pass on Denver’s second-to-last possession, but the fumble was overturned by instant replay, and the interception was nullified by Addae’s holding penalty, one of 14 flags that flew at the Chargers on Sunday.
Michael Badgley’s 30-yard field goal gave the Chargers a 22-20 lead with 6:47 left, and Booker returned the ensuing kickoff to the Denver 26. Keenum rolled right on first down and tossed a short pass to Sanders, who was flashing toward the right sideline on a crossing route.
Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward left Sutton, the receiver he was covering near the sideline, and slammed his right shoulder into Sanders’ arms, causing a fumble. Brown, who teamed with fellow linebacker Kyle Emanuel on a key fourth-down stop in the second quarter, recovered for the Chargers.
Upon further review, officials determined that Sanders never gained possession of the ball before Hayward’s hit. The pass was ruled incomplete and the Broncos retained possession.
Four plays later, on third and four from the 47, Keenum threw long down the middle toward Sanders. Phillips intercepted the overthrown pass, but Addae’s holding penalty nullified the pick. The Chargers eventually forced a punt, but were unable to run out the clock.