This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
The Broncos, in the middle of their most important game of the young 2012 season, found themselves down 24-0 at halftime.
In the first half, nothing worked for Denver. Newly signed return man Trindon Holliday muffed San Diego’s first punt, and Omar Bolden fumbled their first kickoff, handing the Chargers 10 points. When Peyton Manning connected with Eric Decker on a wide open pass play, the receiver tripped and tackled himself instead of cruising to the end zone for a touchdown that would have made the game 10-7 San Diego. Instead, two plays later, a miscommunication between Manning and Matt Willis led to a pick-six, and a commanding 17-0 Chargers lead in their home Qualcomm Stadium. To end the half, they ran the ball down Denver’s throat, setting up a Phillip Rivers to Antonio Gates touchdown to create that nearly insurmountable 24-point lead.
While being down that much at the break was disheartening, there was no panic in the Broncos.
If anyone could mount a comeback that massive, it would be Manning. And really, while the rest of his team struggled early, the quarterback was on top of his game.
He stepped it up to an otherworldly level when the Broncos needed it most.
Manning stormed out of the locker room and lit a fire under his teammates, leading them 85 yards down the field in a flurry. His 29-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on a post route energized the team, and it could be seen on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Denver’s D was getting manhandled following the Broncos’ first TD, but on a big third-and-eight they sent an overload blitz and Elvis Dumervil got to Rivers and stripped the ball. It rolled around on the ground and another Denver player batted it in Tony Carter’s direction. The young cornerback picked up the ball and took it to the house.
The Broncos now had all the momentum on both sides of the ball, forcing a three-and-out after the fumble-touchdown.
When Manning got the ball back, he played exclusively from the shotgun, but intelligently mixed the run back into the offense and caught the Chargers off guard. The 14-year veteran is undoubtedly at his best when he gets to the line, diagnoses the defense and calls a play from there. He did so to perfection, and the play he made to start the fourth quarter was legendary. On a third-and-16, multiple rushers were crashing in on Manning, he dodged one and jumped over another, throwing a strike to Jacob Tamme down the sideline for the crucial first down. Four plays later, he hit Decker on a short route and the receiver pushed into the endzone to bring the score to 24-21 San Diego.
Carter intercepted a pass and Manning took all of four plays to take the go-ahead score, a precise pass to the outstretched hands of his old friend Brandon Stokley. Of course, the touchdown doesn’t happen if the quarterback doesn’t audible to that very play before the snap—Manning is masterful.
Another defensive score gave the Broncos the 35-24 comeback victory, and it certainly couldn’t have been accomplished without the defense’s deft play.
Nor could the historical comeback—it was the first time in Monday Night Football that a team came back from 24 points to win by double digits—have happened without Manning’s magnificent play. He went 13-14 in the second half and 24-30 (80 percent) in the game. His 309 yards were fantastic, and his three touchdown passes were all crucial. He broke down and exposed the Chargers’ defense while simultaneously teaching his team a bit about resolve and what it takes to win a critical contest.
Manning not only completed his biggest comeback and the 47th of his career, but he also instilled confidence into his new, young team.
These Broncos are growing into something great, game after game, and Manning is a major reason why.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist. You can follow Rich on twitter or facebook.