History is written by key incendiary moments that are benchmarks to progress and regression. In a football context, namely a Denver Broncos context, think of John Elway forcing a trade to the Broncos in 1983, “The Drive,” or even Tebow to Thomas in last year’s playoff game. There is one moment, or rather, one game that stands out in the recent history of the Denver Broncos as an altering moment. The November 19, 2006 game versus the San Diego Chargers.
Prior to this game, there wasn’t really much of a rivalry to speak of. The Broncos had owned the Chargers in the post-Elway era to a tune of 10-4 over the course of seven seasons. Most of the matchups weren’t even close, with the Broncos’ dominance at home leading (5-0 from 2001-2005) Chargers’ radio commentator Josh Lewin to refer to Mile High as a “house of horrors.” Until the middle of the third quarter of this 2006 game, it appeared this trend would continue.
The Broncos expanded their lead to 24-7 on a Darrent Williams 31-yard interception return for a touchdown with 9:25 left in the third quarter. At that point, the Chargers’ drives were going like this: punt, interception, touchdown, punt, punt, halftime, interception. They were going nowhere, as the stifling Broncos’ defense was containing LaDainian Tomlinson and pressuring Philip Rivers into mistakes, which was seemingly typical of games against the Chargers. Tomlinson only averaged 53-yards in each of his games in Denver and the Broncos looked to be bottling him up again. This is when the game plan changed and the bottle was shattered.
On the first play after the interception, Rivers set the tone for the rest of the night by dumping the ball off to Tomlinson for a gain of 14 yards. He continued using short routes on a suddenly soft Denver defense and capped the drive off by handing the ball off to Tomlinson for a 3-yard touchdown run. By far, it was the most successful drive of the night after seeing six of their seven drives end with no points.
Denver’s offense did itself no favors with three straight Jake Plummer incompletions that took all of 29 seconds off the clock.
The Chargers faced 3rd and 3 on their next possession when the momentum swung rapidly in the direction of the visitors. Tomlinson sprinted out of the backfield, past the defensive lineman assigned to cover him (in the mismatch of the century), and with no safety over the top, sprinted 51-yards into the endzone. In the course of 1:15, the Chargers cut the 17-point deficit to just a field goal.
The Broncos would not be able to recover as offensive miscues would result in only 3 points over their next three drives, while Tomlinson and the Chargers would score touchdowns on four straight possessions to complete the 35-27 comeback victory. They knocked the Broncos out of first place in the AFC West, and the Broncos would finish the season on a 2-5 run to miss the playoffs after starting 7-2.
Here’s the interesting part of this third quarter pendulum swing: it directly led to the recent history of Denver Broncos football:
Quarterbacks – Jake Plummer, who was essentially on the hot seat before each and every game, came under intense scrutiny for blowing a three touchdown lead with his mistake-prone play. This escalated calls to put first-round pick Jay Culter into the mix and after a truly dismal Thanksgiving night showing against the Chiefs, Mike Shanahan brought an end to the Jake Plummer era.
Collapse – As mentioned, the Broncos started the 2006 season 7-2 and finished 9-7. This was the inaugural meltdown of what has become many to follow, to wit:
2006: Started 7-2, finished 2-5.
2007: Started 5-5, finished 2-4.
2008: Started 8-5, finished 0-3.
2009: Started 6-0, finished 2-8.
2010: Started 2-2, finished 2-10, though it is probably more accurate to label this entire season a collapse.
2011: Started 8-5, finished 0-3.
While last year’s finish was tempered by a playoff victory, perhaps the most perplexing part of this tradition is that it still haunts the Broncos.
Coaching and Everything Else – Remember when Mike Shanahan was the mastermind, the guru, the genius? Remember when he was Pat Bowlen‘s coach for life? Losing changes everything. Follow me if you will: the Broncos lose a comfortable lead to the Chargers putting Plummer on the hot seat. He has another bad game and the Broncos make the switch to Cutler. The Broncos collapse again in 2008 and fire Shanahan. Enter Josh McDaniels, who can’t keep his ego out of conflict with the prolific foundation on offense already established and begins to dismantle it starting with Cutler. Somehow he sees success with Kyle Orton to the tune of a shocking 6-0 start only to see the team fall apart down the stretch yet again. Endure a brutal offseason defined by odd personnel moves and questionable draft picks including enigmatic Tim Tebow. Poor decision after poor decision catches up with McDaniels and he’s unceremoniously fired and the Broncos hire John Fox as coach and legend John Elway to be the team’s Vice President of Football Operations. Meanwhile, Tebow-mania sweeps up Broncos’ fans and reaches critical mass in the 5th game of the 2011 season against (who else) the San Diego Chargers. Tebow’s story of his penchant for winning games against insurmountable odds reaches its thrilling climax against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he connects on an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in overtime. But if there aren’t enough bizarre plot twists, the free agent of the century Peyton Manning is set free by the Colts and is lured to Denver exclusively because of its exemplary organizational structure.
It’s been quite the soap opera, hasn’t it? And to think, it all began with a seemingly easy win on Sunday Night Football in 2006 against the Chargers.