The Denver Broncos were humiliating the San Diego Chargers on Sunday as the sun set to the west, the wind blew from the east.
They were on top 17-0 after a time-consuming 6-minute opening drive of the second half.
That 17-zip could have been and should have been at least 27-zilch.
Bronco tight end Julius Thomas lost a fumble in Chargers territory in the second quarter.
Eric Decker, playing the role of punt returner, broke free and had a sure touchdown late in the same quarter, only to stumble and fall in the open field at the Charger 30.
Moments later, Peyton Manning was picked off after a pass bounced off Decker’s chest in the Charger end zone with just seconds remaining in the first half.
Midway through the third quarter, a second Matt Prater field goal attempt was swept far to the left by the wind. No good.
Still, it was 17-0 and the Broncos were dominating.
This has been a wonderful season indeed for the Broncos, mostly because Manning has been the best quarterback in the history of the league through the regular season, and, yes, now a playoff win.
And all this came to be despite a virtually unheard of rash of injuries:
All-Pro offensive tackle Ryan Clady went down to a foot injury after just two games.
Von Miller, maybe the most dominant rush linebacker in the league, missed the first six games of the season due to suspension, then the last part of the season with a knee injury.
Champ Bailey, one of the best cover cornerbacks in the history of the league, missed the majority of the season with that same foot injury suffered by Clady and is only now starting to come back.
Starting safety Rahim Moore suffered a lower leg injury that required emergency surgery during Week 11. He was slated to come back this week, but suffered a setback in recovery and now is likely to miss the rest of the season.
Starting defensive linemen Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe both went down in Week 12, Vickerson to a dislocated hip, Wolfe to a mysterious illness that is still being diagnosed and/or treated.
Rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster had played in place of Bailey much of the season, but had thumb surgery after Week 16. He played only one play Sunday against the Chargers.
Now, the New England Patriots are coming to Denver for the AFC Title Game. The Patriots, as you surely know, are pretty good – better than the Chargers because they have a quarterback that simply does not, cannot be rattled. A fellow named Tom Brady.
And Brady will surely be told, as someone told Chargers QB Philip Rivers late in the third quarter on Sunday, Denver cornerback Chris Harris is missing.
I didn’t hear one peep about No. 25 being sidelined from the announcers, but as the fourth quarter started to unfold, I started noticing something odd: Quentin Jammer was covering – or trying to cover – Charger wide receivers. He hadn’t been there before and the Chargers hadn’t even really tried to attack the right side of the field.
But Charger receivers Jammer was trying to cover were starting to catch passes.
Just like that, the Chargers were getting back in the game.
Harris had played three-quarters of the game and Rivers had tried three passes in his direction, completing two for a total of 5 yards. That’s it: 5 yards.
Harris, however, went down late in that third quarter to a knee injury that will end his season and Jammer was forced into action.
Jammer gave up three catches for 95 yards and one touchdown. Rivers had a quarterback rating of 143.8 against Jammer. It was 70.1 going against Harris.
Yes, the Broncos held on to win 24-17, barely overcoming a successful on-side kick attempt that allowed the Chargers to scare the bejesus out of every Bronco fan in existence.
Now, however, Mr. Brady and the Patriots will invade New Mile High on Sunday afternoon.
You can bet they will have a plan in place to quickly test Jammer … or Bailey … or Webster … or Tony Carter or anyone else who can be pulled out of the cornerback hat.
It’s a scary thought that the knee injury to Harris might be the straw that finally broke the Broncos’ back.