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Wadman fake punt, Von pick, Keenum clutch finish help Broncos upset Chargers, 23-22

CARSON, Calif. – On a warm, sunny Sunday in mid-November at the coziest stadium in the NFL, the Broncos' offense was in a rut.
Credit: Harry How/Getty Images
Case Keenum #4 of the Denver Broncos celebrates his completion to set up a game winning field goal by Brandon McManus #8 to beat the Los Angeles Chargers 23-22 at StubHub Center on November 18, 2018. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

CARSON, Calif. – Even when he wasn't playing well, Case Keenum was battling to do a couple little things in the name of victory.

Specifically, a couple times when he appeared to be sacked, he spotted a receiver as he was falling, and tossed it down in the ground so a loss became a no-gain incomplete. He fought, he tried like no one else, but too many times he didn't seem to have enough conviction to let it rip, or even enough arm to get it there.

Through three quarters, Keenum was 11 of 20 for a putrid 59 yards.

The Broncos were still hanging tough against the heavily-favored Los Angeles Chargers, but a fake punt pass by Colby Wadman, a Von Miller interception, and strong running by rookies Phillip Lindsday and Royce Freeman were carrying Keenum along until he found his rhythm.

Then came the fourth quarter. Keenum hit rookie Courtland Sutton for a 39-yard strike down the middle to set up a go-ahead touchdown. When the Chargers behind Philip Rivers regained the lead with a drive for a field goal, Keenum stepped up like never before since signing a two-year, $36 million contract with the Broncos.

After a busted play between Rivers and running back Melvin Gordon -- "He must have heard it wrong or something, he went the wrong way,'' Rivers said of Gordon -- led to the the Chargers punting the ball back to the Broncos, Keenum was at his 8-yard line with 1:51 remaining, no timeouts and his team down, 22-20.

"I know Case doesn’t flinch,'' Sutton said. "I know the receivers don’t flinch and the offensive line goes out there and does whatever we need to do to win the game.’’

With an offensive line comprised of 60 percent substitutes, Keenum completed 5 of 5 for 86 yards in the final drive. He drilled a 38-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders down the seam. Later, on third and 7 from the Chargers 46, Keenum,zipped a 30-yard in-route to Sutton.

Keenum rushed everyone up to the line, then gladly took his first incompletion of the drive by spiking the ball at the Chargers' 16 to stop the clock with 3 seconds remaining.

“Something clicked,'' Keenum said. "We had to. We had no choice. ... Our goal this week is 1-0. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get that goal. It took all 60 minutes today but it was worth it.’’

Brandon McManus, who missed a 51-yard field goal to end the game in a loss to Houston the last time the Broncos played, this time was true from 34 yards out. Twice. The first time didn't count as Chargers' coach Anthony Lynn called a just-before-the-snap timeout. McManus got another chance and made it again.

The Broncos had stunned the Chargers, 23-22 on a warm, sunny Sunday in mid-November at the coziest stadium in the NFL. At least half of the crowd of 25,462 -- if not a little more than half -- went home happy as the Bronco fans showed up in force.

“I pretty much kick that same kick every time we score a touchdown,'' McManus said. "It was the middle of the field. I’m pretty confident with the short kicks in the middle of the field. Casey (Kreiter, the long snapper) and Colby (Wadman the holder) did a great job making it pretty easy for me to make the kick.’’

The Chargers no doubt came away believing they gave the game to the Broncos. They made mistake after mistake with penalties, two Rivers' interceptions, a missed extra point and the busted play on second-and-2 from midfield that cost them the opportunity to run the clock out. They had won six in a row coming in, but they're now 7-3.

The Broncos had lost six of seven going into their bye week, but they're now 4-6 after McManus used his extra week to not stew about his previous game's mishap, but making sure it didn't happen again.

"I mean, I’d love to stand here and say I’ll never miss a kick,'' McManus said. "The statistics aren’t going to say that for us. What I can do is show up the next week and continue to work. Who knows it would have been this quick to have another game-winner but it feels great and excited about this win.’’

The Broncos play again next Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the latest team to enter its game against Denver with a six-game winning streak.

It started slowly for Keenum on Sunday but he had help from the Broncos' other two units, special teams and defense. The Broncos were held scoreless for their fifth consecutive quarter against Chargers, dating back to last season's shutout loss here, when head coach Vance Joseph pulled out a trick from his game-strategy book.

After failing to convert a third-and-5 from near midfield, Wadman came out for another boot in the second quarter.

But wait, it's Wadman! The punter instead tossed to fullback Andy Janovich in the flat. Twelve yards, first down Broncos at the Chargers’ 41. And it almost didn't happen as for a brief moment, Broncos head coach Vance Joseph and special teams coordinator Tom McMahon had second thoughts.

“We’ve been working on that all week, we’ve been practicing it,'' Wadman said. "And then going out there, he (McMahon) called it originally, and then waved it off as I was jogging out. And then I get out there and I’m getting ready to kick, he put it on again.’’

On the very next play, rookie running back Phillip Lindsay burst up the middle through a huge hole and was alone in the second level. Lindsay finished off the 41-yard burst for a touchdown. Lindsay finished the game with 79 yards on 11 carries.

Back-to-back big plays not only got the Broncos out of their rut, they went up, 7-6.

The Chargers regained control thanks to stopping the Broncos on a fourth-and-1 from the red zone and had been ahead,19-7. Up by two scores and were driving for more late in the third quarter when Miller came up big.

Rivers had third-and-9 from the Broncos' 35 when his screen pass to receiver Travis Benjamin was read by Miller and snagged. Miller returned it 42 yards before he was caught from behind by Benjamin at the Chargers' 18.

"Von sniffed it out,'' Rivers said.

It did look like Miller saw the screen coming from here to San Diego.

"No, I had coverage on the back in the flat,'' Miller said. "The back didn't go to the flat so I just fell off and I knew there were three receivers outside of me so I just stayed there for the screen and he threw it right to me.''

Three running plays later, the Broncos were back within, 19-14. Royce Freeman, in his first game in a month, finished off the short drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.

After the defense held Rivers, the Broncos marched down the field keyed by a perfect pass by quarterback Case Keenum, who hit Courtland Sutton across the middle for a 39-yard play. Lindsay finished off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run from the Wildcat formation.

There was a point in the first half when the Broncos seemed to have momentum. After Lindsay's first touchdown, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. picked off Rivers and the Broncos again had the ball on the opponents’ side of the 50.

Thanks to an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Chargers – who had been victimized by yellow flags throughout the first half – the Broncos had fourth-and-1 at the 16.

Take the field goal for a 10-6 lead? Joseph – who deserves credit for the fourth-and-5 fake punt call -- went for it and Lindsay was stopped inches short.

Momentum was lost. The Chargers came back down the field behind Rivers. He hit Keenan Allen for 10 yards, then dumped off to Melvin Gordon, who broke several tackles for a 32-yard gain.

Rivers then threw a 29-yard out pass to Michael Williams, who beat Tramaine Brock on the play, setting up first and goal. Rivers managed to slip out of a Derek Wolfe sack attempt, kept the play alive and found Allen wide open in the middle of the end zone.

Touchdown, Chargers, who went up 13-7. And it became 19-7 early in the third quarter when the Broncos mounted their comeback. For Keenum, it was his third, fourth quarter comeback win since he signed his two-year, $36 million contract with the Broncos in March.

The Broncos were down 24-20 in the fourth quarter of the opener against Seattle. Keenum threw a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas for a 27-24 win. The Broncos were down, 19-10 the next week in the fourth quarter to the Oakland Raiders. Keenum led a touchdown drive to draw close, then orchestrated a game-winning field goal drive.

"Yeah, we've won a few of them this year,'' Keenum said.

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