Third-and-17. Yep, let's go ahead and get that out of the way. I have two theories.
At first, I thought backup linebacker Bront Bird (aka Yeoman Johnson) was surely at fault. This looks to be single high safety after all.
Bird is of course the yellow circle. He appears to be the only Chargers player in position to cover Julius Thomas, aside from the safety who is lined up almost 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Bird appears to at least move toward Thomas as the receiver is breaking outside. The safety to that side is actually moving toward the deep middle, so we can cross him off the list of suspects.
Now, Bird never takes his eyes off of the quarterback, Peyton Manning, but he is again moving toward Thomas.
This may have been the fateful moment for Bird, when he stopped his feet and didn't get more depth. Even if he never turned to cover Thomas man-to-man, him getting depth would have likely put him in the passing lane.
And here is the moment of clarity, that moment when Bird turns around to see Thomas about to catch the ball for a first down and the words "oh shit" just erupt from his lips unprompted. Yep, I was all ready to convict Mr. Bird and throw the book at him.
But then I went back and watched it again. If it's single high safety, why wasn't Chargers safety Eric Weddle up on the line covering Thomas? Surely that's the matchup the Chargers would have wanted rather than Bird covering him on such an important play. Besides that, the nickel back is to the right covering the slot. Most of the time the safety rolls down opposite the nickel so he can balance the coverage.
The more I watched, the more I noticed another thing about the safety, Eric Weddle. Throughout the play he is moving as unsure as I've seen Weddle move in a game the last two years. The guy knows this defense in and out and usually moves quickly and confidently to wherever the defense calls for him to go. Not on this play.
From the time the ball is snapped to the minute Thomas goes out of bounds after making the third-and-17 first down conversion, Weddle is inching toward him but at half speed.
By the time Thomas steps out, Weddle has made up a significant amount of space, but he is still way off. My point is if Weddle wasn't supposed to be over there or wasn't confused during the play, then normally he would have been a lot closer to Thomas when he made the catch just by virtue of reading Manning's eyes and the time the ball was in the air.
The truth is, unless somebody in the Chargers organization ever comes out and points the finger, we will never know for sure who was at fault on that play. For right now, Weddle is my top suspect, and it's not all that close.
With that out of the way, I have to say this loss for the Chargers came down to missed opportunities ... opportunities like this pick that Shareece Wright dropped.
You simply have to catch that ball when Peyton Manning gift wraps an interception for you. The score is 0-0 and a play at that moment could have changed the whole complexion of the game. Instead, Peyton shook it off and drove the team down for a touchdown.
Another opportunity was this third-and-5 play near the end of the game.
He had a receiver on the 5-yard line, wide open on the backside for the first down (yellow circle). So when the ball fell incomplete, the Chargers lost a shot to score a touchdown.
With that incompletion the Chargers had to settle for a field goal, which equals to a four-point swing. Hard to blame Rivers on this one, though, because he doesn't have time to scan backside due to the pressure he is under from a Broncos defensive lineman. He had to throw it to Gates or risk taking a sack.
That also acknowledges that the Broncos defense had something to do with the Chargers not taking advantage of some of those opportunities. Even a guy new to the team like Jeremy Mincey, who was cut by the Jaguars in December, made an impact.
Mincey lines up at left defensive end (red circle) and stunts inside because the Broncos are blitzing.
Curiously neither the offensive tackle nor offensive guard thought it was his responsibility to block Mincey after he came inside.
Even more curious was the running back's decision not to block Mincey either. It's like he had an invisibility cloak on out there or something, for frick's sake.
And so the running back is left to turn around and watch his quarterback get demolished by the dude he just let run past him. Are we sure this isn't an episode of Spiderman?
For the first three quarters of the game the Broncos defense got after Philip Rivers and either got him on the ground or forced him to throw the ball quicker than he wanted to throw it. Malik Jackson started the game inside, and I thought he made a huge difference against the run as opposed to the last regular season meeting between the two teams.
The Broncos also clearly caught a break with Ryan Mathews banged up. Mathews carried the ball five times for 26 yards, but couldn't go after the first half. That left Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown as the available ball carriers, and they just can't do what Mathews can do on the ground.
The game looked all but over near the end of the third quarter, but then the damnedest thing happened. The Chargers opened up the playbook. Rivers started looking for rookie sensation Keenan Allen and the team started scoring points.
Yeah, you can blame some of that on Chris Harris leaving the game, but it wasn't just Harris' replacement that Allen was giving the business to that day.
Here Keenan Allen (red line) is running what I like to call an over route from the left after the wide receiver and tight end on the right clear out the short and deep coverage with a go route and a short out route. An over route is like a mix between a slant and a post. The receiver wants to hit that intermediate lane as he crosses the field at an angle toward the pylon, gaining ground upfield. Allen runs it perfectly and Rivers hits him in stride.
Just too much to ask of that defensive back to have him following Allen all the way across the field like that with no safety help over the top.
On this one, Allen lines up inside at slot (red circle), and he angles outside as the wide receiver (yellow circle) comes and sets a pick for him. As luck would have it, while the pick wasn't that great, the route drew up the safety leaving Allen one-on-one with the nickel back.
Would you like butter or jelly with that toast?
Got 'em, coach.
This is just another go route where the safety gets drawn up by the tight end running up the seam unmolested.
Got 'em again, coach.
Man, this double move by Allen was sooooo sweet. Wish I had a GIF of it. He sold the hell out of a quick slant.
And the corner bought it hook, line and sinker.
I'm pretty sure that's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who Allen schooled on this play.
Why they weren't doing some of these things (and they weren't) the first three quarters is anybody's guess.
For the Broncos, running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball were a potent one-two punch on the ground, combining for 33 carries and 134 yards. Manning didn't have a big day on the stat sheet, but he did manage to throw two touchdowns on well-designed plays.
First was the Demaryius Thomas touchdown.
It appears that the Chargers were really geeked up about stopping Welker at the goal line.
So much so that two guys jumped him on his route.
Which of course left Demaryius Thomas wide open on his quick-in route.
Later on it appears the Chargers should have tried that "stop Welker" coverage again.
Decker is the outside receiver (yellow line). He goes inside to set a pick for Welker (red line), anticipating that his man will follow him to the pick and not be a factor on Welker's quick out route. The safety, Weddle (blue line), is up on the line, but he is blitzing. That means Decker has to sift through and make sure he picks the player who has Welker or the play probably won't work.
Decker figures out who the right guy is on the fly.
And Welker is wide open for the touchdown.
Subsequently, the Broncos had a chance to score again on a very similar pick play to Welker, but this time Decker did not try to set a good enough pick to get him free.
It almost appears Decker deliberately missed the pick so Peyton would have to look elsewhere (at him?) for someone to throw the ball to. Almost.
If so, then maybe it was karma that Decker ended up dropping a ball that hit him right in the chest and the careen was intercepted by a Chargers linebacker.
The Chargers defense just couldn't get out of its own way. At some point, if guys can't stop jumping offsides somebody has to get choked on the sideline.
Sort of ...
Seriously, that was embarrassing to watch. A playoff team shouldn't be that undisciplined. With the game going all the way down to the last possession, just imagine what the score might have been had guys just stayed onside.