Some of the most exciting games in team history have been intradivision clashes with AFC West foes. It is an NFL adage that division games count as two because of playoff implications and tiebreakers in the race for a division title. Going 2-0 against a division opponent on the season is the mark of a truly dominant team. Most division games are scrappy and hard-fought, however, and series splits often tell a better story of the animosity between rivals that meet twice a year or more. Here is the first in a three-part series where we’ll recap one memorable game of a split series from each of the Broncos’ three division rivalries in the 2000’s, while looking forward to a brand new decade of AFC West battles starting in 2011…
2008 Series Series: Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers
Week 2: Chargers (0-1) at Broncos (1-0)
INVESCO Field at Mile High reeked of excitement in the home opener of 2008. Jay Cutler had had a remarkable preseason and the Broncos, coming off an impressive 41-14 Week One Monday night victory in Oakland (minus Brandon Marshall, no less), had the defending division champs in their own backyard. Rookies Eddie Royal and Ryan Clady looked phenomenal. When asked earlier in the week about the Broncos’ prospects for 2008, head coach Mike Shanahan had stood at the podium and asserted “Talk is cheap.” And big Brandon Marshall was back from his one-game suspension. In a big way.
Marshall amassed a then-Broncos single game record 18 catches working against the San Diego secondary. He finished with 166 receiving yards and a score, as Cutler went at him again and again. Marshall and Royal demanded attention in coverage that freed up Tony Scheffler for two second-quarter touchdown catches. Marshall’s 6-yard score before halftime extended Denver’s lead to 31-17 at the intermission. In a microcosm of the Broncos and Chargers in recent seasons, though, the Broncos’ early lead in the game did not guarantee victory, as the Chargers came storming back furiously in the second half.
This game was memorable in part because of the two teams’ combined offensive explosion. 77 points scored in total. 942 yards of total offense. Two of the league’s young gunslingers in Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers taking turns shredding the opposing secondary. Despite these numbers, the Broncos’ 31 first-half points, and the final outcome, Mike Shanahan’s offense was shut out for the entire second half–except for what transpired inside the incredible final minute. The Broncos’ offense was doomed by several three-and-outs, as well as an ill-advised Jay Cutler throw from inside the Chargers’ five-yard line that got picked off. Meanwhile, Rivers rallied the Chargers to a 7-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
When the Broncos needed Cutler in the clutch, however, he delivered…sort of. Down 7 with 4:22 remaining in regulation, the Broncos marched methodically down the field with mostly short passes. They were soon set up for a second-and-goal at the Chargers’ 1-yard line with 1:17 remaining. Instead of running it up the gut, Shanahan called a roll-out play-action pass, prefaced by center Casey Wiegmann going in motion to line up as an off-set fullback. From the Chargers’ 1, the play was designed to look like a power run call. Cutler faked the handoff, though, rolled to his right, and egregiously put the football on the ground in an attempt to hit Michael Pittman out of the backfield. Ruled an incompletion and later a fumble, the Broncos were suddenly looking at third-and-goal from the 10.
In a brilliant move, Shanahan called a Selvin Young run play to better position the Broncos to score on fourth-and-goal. Had he taken a shot from the 10 on third down and missed, the offense would be forced to convert an unlikely 10 yards. Instead, Young rumbled for 6 yards and set the stage for an epic fourth-and-goal from the 4 with just 29 seconds left on the clock. With the game on the line, the Broncos called a timeout to regroup and pick the perfect play. Cutler then easily hit Eddie Royal on a jerk route in mismatched coverage. The stands went bonkers. With the scoreboard reading 37-38 and less than 30 seconds on the clock, it seemed a sure thing that the upcoming Matt Prater extra point would escort the game into overtime.
…Except the special teams never trotted out onto the field. Fans who watched from home will remember the camera panning to Shanahan holding up two fingers, letting everyone know that there would be no overtime. They were going for the win. Shanahan called a variation on the previous fourth-down play, although Ron Rivera’s defense was clearly better prepared for Royal’s sneaky route-running across the middle. Cutler took the snap, backpedaled in the face of several white Chargers jerseys, and rifled a pass through coverage off his back foot–again into the middle of the field. And again, Eddie Royal popped up with the ball, congratulated in ecstasy by his teammates. The scoreboard now read 38-39 with 24 seconds remaining. Philip Rivers’ hail mary attempts fell incomplete, and the 2-0 Broncos had finally knocked off the almighty Chargers.
This game had a ridiculous number of storylines: Brandon Marshall’s return from a suspension and 18-catch breakout, the Chargers’ big plays, Ed Hochuli, Eddie Royal on fourth down, the 2-point gamble. Overall, though, the game had the feel of a division rivalry title fight, with two quarterbacks and teams that did not and still do not like each other. The Broncos came out on top this time–one chapter in a long history that will continue to fuel the Broncos-Chargers rivalry moving forward into the 2010s.