Shelby Harris saves Broncos in 24-21 defeat of Chargers

DENVER - It was late, really late, and Shelby Harris figured the game would get later.

Los Angeles Chargers' kicker Younghoe Koo, in his NFL debut, had just made a 44-yard field goal to tie the score, 24-24, and send the season opener thriller with Harris' Denver Broncos into overtime.

BUT WAIT! Time out. Hold on. Just before Koo kicked, Broncos' head coach Vance Joseph pulled a Gary Kubiak and called a timeout. Koo would have to kick it again. The score went back to 24-21 Broncos with 5 seconds left.

"No clue he called timeout,'' said Harris, a journeyman defensive end who went from player least expected to make the Broncos' season-opening, 53-man roster to unexpected season-opening hero. "No clue at all.I figure the game's tied. The next thing you know they're waving us back and I was like, "was there a flag? We called time? All right, cool.''

Koo kicked it again and this time Harris got deep penetration and his right hand on the ball.

"Right hand is the smart hand,'' Harris said.

He and fellow defensive end Derek Wolfe were lined up across from the Chargers' right guard, rookie Dan Feeney.

"Me and Wolfe got a great push, we both blew that man up, it hit my three fingers. Where did it fall?'' Harris asked his teammates Wolfe and Adam Gotsis.

Even with Harris' paw on the ball, the kick travelled some, but only got to the end line. Harris' block secured the Broncos' 24-21 win and averted what might have been one of the most spectacular single-game collapses in franchise history.

Thanks to the stellar play of quarterback Trevor Siemian and the Denver defense, the Broncos were leading 24-7 with less than 11 minutes remaining. The only way the Broncos could lose was if they self-destructed. They tried. A Siemian interception on a missed pass-interference play and a Jamaal Charles fumble -- both turnover occured on the Chargers' side of the field -- were followed by back-to-back touchdown throws by Chargers' quarterback Philip Rivers.

In a 70-second span, it went from 24-7 Broncos to 24-21.

"We got too comfortable,'' Wolfe said. "That's what happens when you get too comfortable. We were thinking, 'we've got this,'' and then all the sudden you see turnovers. If we don't have those turnovers it's a blowout. That's how quick things can turn in the NFL. It's so hard to put your foot on the throat in this league. Especially, Philip Rivers. He don't give up.''

The Broncos had a chance to put the game away one more time when a 44-yard completion from Siemian to tight end Virgil Green, followed by a tacked on, roughing-the-passer penalty gave Denver the ball at the Chargers' 16-yard line, first and 10, with 6 minutes and 24 seconds left.

But then Siemian was sacked on back-to-back plays for combined losses of 19 yards. Instead of McManus kicking a gimme field goal, he missed from 50.

At the 2-minute warning, Rivers drove his team from his own 38 to the Broncos' 26, setting up Koo's game-tying field-goal attempt.

Joseph came up with a final-second strategy, much as his mentor Kubiak did for the Broncos in the opener last year.

Call a timeout just before the fateful field goal. Kick it over again. Celebrate victory. Kubiak did it as Graham Gano was making a winning field goal for Carolina, only to be negated by the timeout. Gano then missed his next kick.

The Chargers thought they rallied for overtime as Koo booted a 44-yard field goal as time expired. But Joseph, the Broncos' first-year head coach, called timeout just before the kick.

"I had two timeouts,'' Joseph said. "I didn't want to leave with those two in my pocket. Just iced the kid and see how he reacted.''

Koo reacted fine. Harris just got enough fingers on the ball.

The late-arriving crowd of 74,892 at eventually-to-be-renamed Sports Authority Field at Mile High went bonkers. Late because the game kicked off at 8:21 p.m. Denver time. It ended at 11:15 p.m. But Harris made sure it didn't carry on towards midnight.

"We can't let it get like that,'' said Broncos' linebacker Brandon Marshall. "We'll take the win, but that can't happen again.''

Perhaps, The Great Quarterback Competition steeled Siemian more than most.

After battling with Paxton Lynch for seven months before winning the No. 1 quarterback job, Siemian was ready for the season opener Monday night against the Chargers.

Ready and lucky. After an early pick six was dropped by Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward, Siemian regrouped and led the Broncos to victory.

Siemian threw two touchdown passes to Bennie Fowler III and scored another on a 1-yard run. The Broncos were up 24-7 in the fourth quarter but then turned the ball over twice. Siemian was picked off on a botched screen pass intended for Fowler and Jamaal Charles fumbled.

Siemian completed 17 of 28  for 219 yards and two touchdowns. He also scrambled 19 yards rushing. Rivers was 22 of 33 for 192 yards but with three touchdown throws and an interception.

Football can be a funny game. After both teams exchanged punts to finish their first series, Siemian started the Broncos’ second possession by throwing a sideline pass – right to Chargers’ cornerback Casey Hayward. The ball landed in Hayward’s arms as he was clear of intended receiver C.J. Anderson.

Hayward dropped it. Flat out dropped a pick six.

"He sat on it and, yeah, got lucky there,'' Siemian said. "Got unlucky on the screen late so you're going to get yours either way.''

Siemian not only survived the Hayward scare, he led the Broncos on a 70-yard march. A mix of Anderson runs – he had six carries for 29 yards on the drive – and Siemian passes – he completed 4 of 7 for 41 yards – allowed the Broncos to score their first offensive touchdown of the season.

It was capped when Siemian first drew Chargers' defensive end Joey Bosa offside, then with a free play rolled right and threw a perfect pass to Bennie Fowler III, who broke off into a scramble route, in the back of the end zone.

Instead of 7-0 Chargers on the Hayward pick six, it was 7-0 Broncos on the Siemian pass to Fowler. A 14-point, first-quarter swing.

"Yes, a pick six,'' said Chargers' first-year head coach Anthony Lynn. "Casey makes those plays all the time. He just did not make it in the game.''

Rivers led the Chargers back on their next possession. The big play came on third-and-8 from the Chargers’ 39 when Rivers threw a deep pass to Keenan Allen, who was well-covered by Broncos’ nickelback Bradley Roby. Only Roby tackled Allen before the ball arrived and was flagged for a 40-yard pass interference penalty.

With the ball at the 21, Chargers’ running back Melvin Gordon rushed for 10 yards and then after flipping the field with the change of quarters, caught an 11-yard pass from Rivers for a game-tying touchdown.

The Broncos’ go-ahead score was set up by speedy rookie Isaiah McKenzie’s 31-punt return. With the ball at the Broncos’ 47, Siemian converted a third-and-7 with a 9-yard completion to tight end A.J. Derby.

Anderson then ran for 18 yards and the Broncos were in business at the Chargers’ 26. Charles had a couple nice runs – his first action in a Broncos’ uniform after nine seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs – and then Derby caught a 13-yard strike to the 1.

Siemian rolled right and decided to run it in for the go-ahead score.

To start the second half, Roby atoned for his early penalty by intercepting a Rivers' pass across the middle intended for Allen. The turnover was caused by a safety blitz. Justin Simmons hurried Rivers into his errant throw. Rivers heatedly complained Roby held up Allen on the play but it wasn't called and the Broncos had the ball at the Chargers' 43.

One play after Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas dropped an easy pass from Siemian, he made a difficult catch down the right sideline for a 29-yard gain setting up first and goal at the 10. Siemian made it 3 of 3 in red-zone conversions by throwing a 6-yard touchdown to Fowler, their second scoring hookup in the game.

The Broncos were up 21-7 early in the third quarter. After driving down to first-and-goal at the 1, the Broncos couldn't put the game away, settling instead for a short Brandon McManus field goal. Earlier in the day, McManus and the Broncos agreed on a three-year contract extension that included a $5 million signing bonus.

The only the Broncos could lose a 24-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter was if they gave it away. On third down, Siemian attempted a screen pass into coverage. Fowler was thrown down on the before the pass got to him but there was no call. The ball bounced in the air and safety Adrian Phillips intercepted.

Rivers finished the short-field drive with a touchdown pass to Allen. On the next series, Charles fumbled after a 4-yard run. On the next play, Rivers hit Travis Benjamin for a 38-yard touchdown pass and it was suddenly 24-21 with 7:07 remaining.

Bronco Bits

Broncos star Von Miller awarded Joseph with the game ball for his first head coaching win. ... 

Right guard Ron Leary left in the second half with a concussion. He was replaced by Connor McGovern. ...

rookie cornerback Brendan Langley suffered a right knee injury during Cody Latimer's 36kickoff return. ...

Safety Darian Stewart strained his left groin in the fourth quarter. ...

Charles had 10 carries for 40 yards but his fourth quarter fumble nearly marred his Broncos' debut. ...

Anderson finished with 81 yards on 20 carries in a solid performance coming back from last year's season-ending knee surgery.

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RELATED: 9NEWS hosts a live game chat and blog during each Broncos game. 

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