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Bridgewater, rookie Surtain lift Broncos past Chargers, 28-13

Teddy Bridgewater ran for one TD, returned from injury to throw another. Pat Surtain II had one INT in the end zone, and another returned to the other end zone.

DENVER — His courage questioned from one unfortunate decision he made in the previous game, Teddy became Blood and Guts Bridgewater in helping the Broncos stun the Los Angeles Chargers, 28-13, here Sunday on an unseasonably warm late-November afternoon at Empower Field at Mile High.

Bridgewater scrambled for a touchdown run in the first quarter, then returned from a lower leg injury to drill a touchdown pass to tight end Eric Saubert for another in the fourth quarter.

"I'm psyching myself (up), reassuring to myself that, 'Hey, you can get out there, you can do this,''' Bridgewater said about his second-half return from injury. "I just wanted to be out there for the guys. We worked so hard throughout the week, we get so little opportunities, it was just an opportunity for me to try and finish this game and help us come out with a win."

Meanwhile, Broncos head coach and defensive playcaller Vic Fangio seemed to confuse the Chargers' talented quarterback Justin Herbert. Not only was Herbert sacked three times, he threw two interceptions to Broncos rookie cornerback Pat Surtain II to thwart any chance of a Chargers second-half comeback.

Surtain's first interception came in his own end zone to kill a long drive early in the fourth quarter. On the Chargers' next series, Surtain corralled a ricocheted pass off running back Austin Ekeler and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown and a 28-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Surtain and his father, Pat Surtain Sr., are one of four father-son duos to both have a pick six in their careers, joining Gil and Jairus Byrd, Dave and David Grayson and Clay and Clay Matthews.

Surtain Sr.'s last pick six was against the Broncos' Brian Griese in a 2002 game in this same stadium (then called Invesco Field).

"I didn't know that. I've been hearing stats out of the blue, but yeah that's crazy,'' Surtain II said. "Having that same experience he had in his career, pick six, it's a special feeling."

On a 66-degree, cloudy day, a gathering of 66,239 (9,568 didn't show) became nervous early in the second quarter when Bridgewater was clobbered from the blindside by blitzing Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. 

Credit: Drew Litton for 9NEWS

Despite suffering a deep leg contusion on the play, Bridgewater managed to get just enough forward motion with his arm to turn a lost fumble into a completion.

Per replay review. It was a key overturn and incompletion as it prevented a turnover deep in Broncos territory. It did cost Bridgewater the rest of the first half as he left with a lower leg injury.

Bridgewater suffered a deep contusion in his shin that swelled, although X-rays were negative. He returned for the second half, but the bend-but-don't-break Denver defense couldn't get off the field in the third quarter.

And some damage was done late in the half when Bridgewater's replacement Drew Lock threw an interception that helped bring the Chargers back in the game.

Initially, Lock did OK thanks to a break. Soon after replacing Bridgewater, Lock fumbled off a sack, although he too had the ball bounce forward and newly-paid receiver Tim Patrick made a clutch, hustling recovery downfield for a first down.

The game was going the Broncos' way, even as starters were heading to the locker room with injuries.

Credit: AP
the Los Angeles Chargers line up against the Denver Broncos during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Bridgewater-Lock-led drive finished with a 9-yard touchdown run by rookie running back Javonte Williams, and the Broncos were up 14-0 early in the second quarter of this pivotal AFC West Division showdown. The Chargers fell into a three-way tie for second place as they join the Broncos and Raiders with 6-5 records.

"The message before going into today's game was, 'This is it. This is the season,''' safety Justin Simmons said.

The Kansas City Chiefs lead the AFC West with a 7-4 record. Winners of the previous five division titles, the Chiefs host the Broncos next Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium. That means the Broncos, who haven't beat the Chiefs since game 2 of the 2015 season -- a string of 11 consecutive losses -- will be playing for a share of first place. Even if the Broncos are 9.5-point underdogs.

"Going into next week it's going to be another really good game, another statement game,'' said Simmons, who as a third-round draft pick in 2016 has never personally beat the Chiefs. "And no matter what happens, we've got to find a way to leave Arrowhead with a win."

The Broncos had scored first when Bridgewater scrambled in from 11 yards out in the first quarter, making a leaping lunge for the pylon. The potential body-sacrificing play was in contrast to the Broncos' previous game in a loss to Philadelphia in which Bridgewater was criticized for not making a better attempt at stopping Darius Slay Jr. during a fumble return for a touchdown.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) runs for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

"Teddy's toughness is unquestioned,'' Fangio said. "I didn't question it, in the big picture. Like I've said, some of you have asked me and he's our quarterback. It's as simple as that."

This was a game when it seemed advantageous the Broncos lost the pregame coin toss, because it gave their usual slow-starting offense the ball early so Bridgewater and company could get in rhythm. Usually when Denver wins the coin toss, Fangio defers until the second half.

The offense too often has had to stand around and watch the defense either stay on the field a while, or put them behind before getting to their second series.

This time, the Denver D benefitted from a terrific punt coverage play by punter Sam Martin, who pooched the ball from the Chargers’ 43 to the 1 yard line, where Nate Hairston made a falling catch of the ball.

Herbert was held to a three-and-out and after a punt the Broncos got the ball back at the 50. Bridgewater smartly moved the offense downfield until he took it himself around right end for the 11-yard run and 7-0 lead.

Then came another three-and-out defensive stand against Herbert’s Chargers. Denver rookie outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper chasing down the talented, but still raw quarterback after a 7-yard, and not a 10-yard, gain was the key play, as was a pass breakup by rookie linebacker Brandon Browning.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) throws against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Then came the Bridgewater-Lock drive in which running back Melvin Gordon III and Williams did most of the work on an 11-play, 75-yard drive.

The 14-0 early lead was crucial because the Broncos lost three offensive starters during the game – Bridgewater, left guard Dalton Risner (back) and left tackle Calvin Anderson (knee). Anderson appeared to suffer a serious left knee injury. He was emotional as he was getting carted off the field.

Anderson will have an MRI on his injured knee Monday.

He had been replacing usual left tackle Garett Bolles, who missed the game with COVID-19. Quinn Bailey, a practice squad member for most of his three seasons with the Broncos, moved in to play left tackle. Fangio gave one of the game balls to Bailey, as well as to Surtain, Bridgewater and Saubert.

Netane Muti replaced Risner at left guard. With rookie Quinn Meinerz already replacing veteran Graham Glasgow at right guard and Cam Fleming subbing in for Bobby Massie at right tackle, the Broncos again played with only one offensive line starter the rest of the first half – center Lloyd Cushenberry III.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos outside linebacker Bradley Chubb (55) celebrates a defensive stop against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Bridgewater was 11 of 18 for 129 yards with the touchdown run and touchdown pass. He now has 15 touchdown passes in 11 games this season, matching his career best.

"He toughed it out,'' Fangio said. "He was nowhere near 100% in that second half."

There wasn't much doubt Fangio would go back to Bridgewater in the second half if his quarterback was able. Not after Lock’s interception helped set up the Chargers’ 12-yard touchdown pass from Herbert to Ekeler, a native of Eaton, with 31 seconds left in the half.

Lock in the second quarter was 4 of 7 for 26 yards with the costly interception that occurred when he attempted a scramble right, sidearm toss.

Gordon, who left briefly with a hip injury, returned and had 83 yards rushing on 17 carries, and Williams had 54 yards on 14 carries. Williams also had a terrific 42-yard catch-and-run off a Bridgewater checkdown in the fourth quarter that set up the touchdown pass to Saubert.

After Williams, who had three catches for 57 yards, Patrick was the Broncos leading receiver with two catches for 26 yards, plus had the key fumble recovery. Jerry Jeudy had two catches for 25 yards and Courtland Sutton had two catches for 17 yards.

Herbert got hot late in the first half and finished with 303 yardsand two touchdowns on 28 of 44 passing, but his two interceptions were costly. He was under constant duress and was sacked three times.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos running back Javonte Williams (33) scores a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

“Yeah, they do a great job disguising everything,'' Herbert said. "And you know, they’re really well coached. When you put together a really good coach (Fangio) like that with some pretty exceptional players, you get a really good defense.''

This game pitted Broncos head coach and defensive play caller Fangio against his protégé, Chargers’ head coach Brandon Staley, who was an assistant on Fangio's staff for three years. The mentor clearly outcoached his student in this game. Did Fangio take any extra satisfaction in outsmarting Staley, at least in their first meeting?

"No. During the game I had zero thoughts that Brandon was on the other sideline,'' Fangio said. "It's the Broncos versus the Chargers. It has nothing to do with Brandon and myself. Brandon's doing a great job with that team. I'm happy for him. I wish he was in another division so we don't have to do this twice a year.''

There were scary moments late in the first half after the Chargers converted the Lock interception and in the third quarter when the Chargers controlled the ball except for one three-and-out series by the Broncos' offense.

But the Chargers scored nothing. Their first deliberate drive ended with Dustin Hopkins badly missing a 53-yard field goal, and their second drive, which lasted into the fourth quarter, was thwarted when Herbert underthrew tight end Jared Cook and was intercepted by Surtain.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II (2) celebrates his interception with teammates during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Bronco Bits

The week of practice didn’t bring back four Broncos starters. Bolles tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, safety Kareem Jackson (shoulder/neck) and Massie (high ankle sprain) didn’t sufficiently recover from their injuries and defensive lineman Shelby Harris suffered an ankle sprain during practice Thursday. The team did get back starting outside linebacker Bradley Chubb for the first time since he underwent left ankle surgery in late September.  …

Peyton Manning and his son Marshall were followed by a video crew from the Madden video game prior to the game. Peyton said he and his son were acting as ratings adjusters. ...

The Broncos' 72.7% conversion rate on third down (8 of 11) was their best single-game performance in that category since at least 1991 when that stat was first tracked. ...

Denver's sacks were recorded by Stephen Weatherly, McTelvin Agin and half-each for DeShawn Williams and Malik Reed.

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