DENVER — There were only about 5,000 fans allowed in, but they were hearty and frustrated.
When Drew Lock and the Broncos' offense went three and out on their first series of the second half, losing 5 yards in the process, the fans booed them to the bench. The Los Angeles Chargers were up, 24-3 and once again there was seemingly no hope for the home team.
The Chargers started doing what they have regularly done this season -- blow a big lead -- while Lock and the Broncos' offense got hot and rallied for a remarkable 31-30 win. The winning score came on a final-play, 1-yard touchdown pass from Lock to rookie KJ Hamler in the thrilling AFC West rivalry game at Empower Field at Mile High.
The Broncos were trailing, 24-3 in the third quarter and all looked lost. Lock was either running for his safety or playing as if he was afraid to make a mistake. Simply put, he was playing poorly. Put in Brett Rypien for a spark? Fangio stuck with Lock and was rewarded.
"We've played (seven) games,'' Lock said in a postgame interview with 9News' sports anchor Rod Mackey. "People have been injured, people have been hurt. We haven't been a normal, complete offense for multiple games in a row yet this year. And people just think they know us. That's plain and simple. People think they know who we are. They think they know this team. They expect one thing. They think I lack confidence. They think that we're a young team, that we can't go together and put drives together like that.
"That's absolutely not true. We get coached extremely well throughout the week and it's our job to come out and play well. Obviously in that first half we didn't, but like I said, we actually know ourselves. We know that we can come out, turn it on and make big plays. And along with the great play calls we got in that second half, I'm just really proud of the guys around us without a doubt."
On their final drive, the Broncos had reached the Chargers' 18 yard line, but it was fourth and 4 with 7 seconds remaining and they had no timeouts. Lock threw to the back of the end zone to his favorite red-zone target, Albert Okwuegbunam. It was incomplete but Albert O drew a pass interference penalty from Chargers defender Brandon Facyson.
That set up first and goal from the 1 with 1 second left. Do or die. Lock rolled right, waited until the defensive came up on him, then slipped a throw to an open KJ Hamler for a touchdown. Hamler was barely inbounds. The game was tied, 30-30. With no time remaining, Brandon McManus made the 33-yard extra point.
Broncos with the improbable comeback win to improve to 3-4.
"Lot of times we try to work the scramble drill in practice,'' Hamler said via Zoom after he made his first career touchdown catch count for the game-winner. "I came up the field, and came back down just to see if he would fall of me. And sure enough he did.''
PHOTOS | Denver Broncos vs. Los Angeles Chargers
The same limited number of fans who booed about an hour earlier were ecstatic.
"Fans are going to be fans,'' said running back Phillip Lindsay, the former Denver South High School and University of Colorado star who sparked the comeback with a 55-yard touchdown run in the third quarter -- off the first drive after his unit was booed. "You gotta love them, but you've got to love them at their worst times, too. They just wanted to see points. ... That's anywhere they're going to do that.
"That's what fans are for. They sit there, they're critics. That's why they don't play the game. Lot of times they're not good enough to play. They're sitting their booing, half the time they're made because they can't be out there playing. ... I've been here my whole life and I know how it is. This organization is great. They're not used to having losing seasons. They're used to winning all the time which that's what I was used to growing up. I want to get back to that. The fans also need to understand we feed off that stuff.''
The comeback started when Lindsay hopped left and burst through a hole for a 55-yard touchdown run.
"It was a good play call by Pat (Shurmur),'' Lindsay said of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. "Pretty much I was able to get one-on-one with the linebacker, make a move and explode out of there, which we did it. We were saying on the sideline how we needed a big play. Somebody needed to do it and I was the one who was able to do it.''
After an exchange of interceptions thrown by Lock and Chargers' rookie Justin Herbert -- Broncos cornerback Bryce Callahan outdueled the taller and bigger Chargers receiver Mike Williams for the ball in the end zone to prevent what would have been a game-clinching touchdown for the Chargers -- Lock got hot in the fourth quarter.
He started to gain confidence after he stepped up and converted a third-and-16 by completing a 43-yard catch-and-run to rookie Jerry Jeudy to flip the field from the Broncos' 29 to the Chargers' 28. Lock eventually finished the drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass to the back of the end zone to Okwuegbunam, who made a leaping, reaching and falling catch.
That closed the score to 24-17 with 11:02 remaining. There was more than hope. The Chargers had blown 16-point leads in three previous games. Before they blew a fourth, Herbert led the Chargers on a field goal drive to go up, 27-17.
The Broncos immediately answered. On the first play, Lindsay rushed for 20 yards and got a late-hit penalty from Nasir Adderley that set up the Broncos at the Chargers' 40. On the second play, Lock hit DaeSean Hamilton on a crossing route. Hamilton was wide open and ran all the way for a touchdown to close the score to 27-24 with 7:30 left in regulation. Two plays, 75 yards. The Chargers weekly collapse was on.
In their last four games, the Chargers led 24-7 against Tampa Bay and lost, 38-31; were up 20-3 on New Orleans and lost 30-27; and were up 16-0 on Jacksonville before falling behind, 29-22 (although Herbert eventually led the Chargers to a 39-29 win). And now add a 24-3, second half lead against the Broncos before falling apart.
“I'm sorry. I feel bad,'' said Chargers coach Anthony Lynn when asked what he would say to the team's disappointed fans. "That game, we had it completely under control, and the way we lost that game today, that is unacceptable. I take full responsibility for that.”
On their final offensive drive, up 27-24, Herbert again led a sustained drive that took up nearly 4 minutes, but again the Denver defense would not break. Another field goal by Michael Badgley put Los Angeles up 30-24, but the Broncos still had 2:30 left.
Starting from their on 19, the Broncos moved methodically without panic. They got two huge penalties in the Chargers' secondary, but Lock also completed passes of 6 yards to running back Melvin Gordon, 2 yards to Gordon, 7 yards to Hamler, 14 yards to Hamilton, 3 yards to Lindsay, 2 yards to Gordon, 4 yards to Gordon, who made a terrific fingertip catch, 6 yards to Noah Fant and finally 1 yard to Hamler.
Lock was 9 of 12 on the final drive with the incompletions serving to stop the clock. He finished 26 of 41 for 248 yards, three touchdowns and 1 interception that didn't hurt because of Callahan's answer against Herbert.
Herbert, the Chargers rookie quarterback, threw three touchdowns on three consecutive series that sandwiched the end of the first half and early part of the second. Down 24-3, the Broncos' offense showed some life when Lindsay sprinted 55 for six.
Despite absolutely perfect weather – it was 63 degrees with a bright blue sky at kickoff – the atmosphere was relatively subdued for 2 1/2 quarters. Only about 5,000 fans were permitted inside the 76,125-seat stadium, and even that gathering took on some risk as the COVID-19 cases have been spiking both in the city of Denver and within the Broncos’ team.
The Broncos played this game with starting right guard Graham Glasgow, and two top assistant coaches – defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and offensive line coach Mike Munchak – not at the stadium as they were all placed in the COVID-19 protocol program in recent days.
To those looking at the bigger picture, the game might have been less about who won, as did everyone avoid getting infected?
The Broncos entered this game 0-3 at home. The franchise has never lost its first four home games in a season. They still haven't.
In fairness to the 2020 Broncos, their early home schedule was brutal: Against the Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Bucs and Kansas City Chiefs, who are a combined 17-5.
The Chargers were only 2-4, though, so no excuses.
Early in the second quarter, the Broncos were clinging to a 3-0 lead thanks to safety Justin Simmons’ interception deep in the middle of the field off Chargers’ rookie quarterback Justin Herbert.
Simmons returned it 46 yards to the Chargers’ 16. Three plays later, the Broncos were still at the 16 and Brandon McManus came out to kick a 35-yard field goal.
It was clear that after Lock threw four interceptions in his previous five quarters that it was emphasized to the Broncos’ quarterback he should look for the short pass and be careful with ball.
Shurmur started by calling the game with extreme caution. It was up to Lock to show his play-caller he was ready for more.
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio was asked what changed after his offense was so bad in the first half.
“You’re being nice by just saying so bad, it was worse than that,'' he said. "Phillip busted that run, got it going for us. Then we just stayed with it, started completing some passes. I said our passing game had to improve and it did. We had some really good catch-and-runs, too.''
Lindsay had 83 yards rushing on just six carries. He may have played more but he spent the week of practice recovering from a concussion. Gordon had just 26 yards rushing on eight carries, but he also had six catches for 21 yards.
Hamilton led the Broncos with 82 yards receiving on four catches. Fant had seven catches for 47 yards. Jeudy added four catches for 73 yards.
Herbert started slowly against Fangio’s Denver defense, as so many quarterbacks often do. The Chargers did reach the Broncos’ 25 on a series to end the first quarter, but they were stuffed on a fourth-and-1 on the first play of the second quarter by defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones.
Herbert entered this game with gaudy stats, throwing for more than 308 yards and 2 touchdowns a game through his first five starts. But he was only 9 of 16 for 61 yards with the costly interception midway through the second quarter.
But Herbert is too smart, and too talented, to be held down all day. He engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter that included some impressive gains off his improvisation. He capped the drive with a 9-yard strike to a wide-open Keenan Allen on a skinny post in the end zone.
On his next series, he went 80 yards again, this time in less than a minute, and finished it off with a 2-yard toss to fullback Gabe Nebers. Herbert was 29 of 43 for 278 yards with 3 touchdown passes against two interceptions.
The Broncos play at Atlanta against the 2-6 Falcons next Sunday. Win that game and the Broncos are 4-4 and thinking playoff wild-card spot in the second half of the season.
Tim Patrick, who became Denver’s No. 1 receiver after Courtland Sutton was lost for the season with a torn ACL, was inactive because of a hamstring injury suffered in the second half of last Sunday’s game against Kansas City. Hamilton started in his place and had his best game since at least his rookie year. ...
Broncos cornerback A.J. Bouye suffered a concussion in the second half and didn't return. Tight end Nick Vannett suffered a game-ending foot injury that was the result of getting stepped on. He will have an MRI on Monday morning to determine the damage. ...
Fangio was bandaged with a cut on his nose. He got caught up with players on the sideline following Lock's interception in the third quarter.
Broncos podcast: Klis' Mike Drop
Denver Broncos headlines, game previews and interviews with our 9NEWS insider Mike Klis.
HOW TO LISTEN
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Sports