If the defending AFC West Division champion Denver Broncos were at their most vulnerable at any time this NFL season, it figured to be in Sunday's game against the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
Not only were the Broncos missing head coach John Fox, a Castle Park High School and Southwestern College alumnus, due to heart valve replacement surgery, but the Rocky Mountain team also were missing running back Ronnie Hillman (an SDSU alum) and cornerback Champ Bailey, both of whom were placed on the team's inactive list.
Besides the key personnel losses, the Broncos might also have been accused of looking past the Chargers to their impending Sunday Night Football match-up next week against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs.
The result? A 28-20 victory for the visitors, who will keep the game ball in waiting until they can hand it to Fox personally when he returns to the team. Fox was released from the hospital on Friday and watched Sunday's game from his home in Charlotte, N.C.
The Denver coach is expected to miss up to 10 weeks; in the meantime, current assistant coach Jack Del Rio, a former head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars, is serving as interim head coach.
Fox released the following statement on Friday:
"I am greteful for the exceptional care provided by the doctors, nurses and staff during this past week at Carolinas HealthCare System's Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte. In particular, I want to thank my seurgeon, Dr. Mark Stiegel, and his highly skilled and compassionate team for all they have done.
"A special thanks to my cardiologist, Dr. Geoff Rose, was well as Dr. Kevin Lobdell and Dr. Robert Heyer for their outstanding care.
"The encouragement I've received from Robin (wife) and my family, friends, the Denver Broncos, fans and so many around the NFL has been incredible. I am very thankful for every single thought and prayer that was directed my way.
"My recovery is progressing well -- I am feeling better and getting stronger each day. I will begin the next phase of my recovery in Charlotte and continue outpatient appointments with doctors, who will clear me to return to Denver when the time is right.
"Although I'm eager to return to coaching, my No. 1 focus is my health. I believe in our players and have full confidence in Jack Del Rio and our staff.
"While it's extremely difficult to be away from the team on Sunday in San Diego, I'll be cheering them on from my home just like the many Broncos fans who have supported me throughout this process."
Give the Broncos credit for jumping out to a big lead on their AFC West rival and then holding on to close out a big win for their coach when they were shut down at the end by the Charger defense.
It took just 57 seconds for the Broncos to score as quarterback Peyton Manning hit Julius Thomas on a 74-yard sideline pattern. Thomas covered most of the ground with his feet after collecting a short toss from just beyond the line of scrimmage.
The Chargers came back to cap a 72-yard, 14-play drive on a 26-yard field goal by Nick Novak. Though the drive only resulted in three points, it consumed 9:20 to keep Peyton & Co. off the field.
The Chargers struck lightning quick on their second scoring drive of the game, however, as they took just 1:59 and five plays – braced by a 35-run by Ryan Mathews – to position Novak for a 40-yard field goal to trim the Denver lead to 7-6.
However, Manning connected with Demaryius Thomas this time on a an 11-yard scoring pass with 6:38 remaining in the second quarter to up the Broncos' lead to 14-6.
The Chargers responded with another drive into Denver territory but Novak missed a 37-yard field goal with 1:43 left before halftime. The crafty Manning capitalized on the San Diego miss by quickly leading his team down the field with pin-point passes, culminating with a seven-yard scoring pass to Thomas with 13 seconds to play.
Manning completed 17 of 22 passing attempts in the first half for 243 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. His counterpart, Chargers signal-caller Philip Rivers, had just 91 yards on seven of 12 completions.
Demaryius Thomas led all players on the field in the opening half with 92 receiving yards.
The Broncos received the second-half kickoff and Manning promptly started where he left off by leading his team down the field, capping the 78-yard drive with a 34-yard scoring pass to Demaryius Thomas (his third touchdown of the game) to increase the Bronco lead to 28-6.
The Chargers caught a break when Manning was sacked and fumbled the ball at the Broncos own 11-yard line. The hosts did not wast the opportunity as it took two plays to cover the short distance to the end zone, with newcomer Danny Woodhead capping the drive on a seven-yard catch.
At 28-13, the Chargers were back in the game and responded to the challenge by forcing the visitors to punt on their next two possessions in the quarter. The hosts had the first sustained drive in the fourth quarter and inched closer to the Broncos on the scoreboard after Mathews scored on a one-yard run with 10:42 left in the game.
The Chargers forced Denver to punt for a third consecutive time, getting the ball back at their own 20-yard line with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter. The Chargers appeared to be moving near midfield but two sacks and an incomplete pass on third-and-16 forced a punt.
The Broncos managed to run the clock down to the two-minute warning and beyond to force the hosts to use their last two timeouts. Denver recorded three first downs to ice the key win. Manning, who had gone down hard on a knee with 1:44 left, knelt in victory formation with 57 seconds to play.
A sizable portion of the 68,847 in attendance, clad in orange, went into a hush when Manning (330 passing yards, four TDs) came up limping and then loudly cheered their Broncos off the field.
A future NFL Hall of Famer, Manning has now thrown 33 touchdowns against just six interceptions this season. Manning also went over the 3,000 passing yard mark with Sunday's performance.
The Broncos entered the game as the NFL's highest scoring team, though the Chargers held them under their season average in both passing yards and points per game.
"When you play Peyton, you've got to finish your TDs," said Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, an assistant coach at Denver last season. "When you play a team like that, you've got to play your best for 60 minutes."
“We knew how important it was for us to score touchdowns and not field goals,” an obviously disappointed Rivers said in a post-game press conference.If we had capitalized on those early chances, we would have been in better shape late in the game ... They were just better than us today."
Denver improved to 8-1 to remain one game behind Kansas City (9-0); the Chargers dropped to 4-5 and will have to likely content themselves with fighting for a wildcard playoff berth. With Kansas City and Denver owning the best AFC records, there will likely be only wildcard berth available for the rest of the AFC teams to contend for.
After Sunday's games, New England leads the AFC East at 7-2 while Cincinnati leads the AFC North at 6-4 and Indianapolis leads the AFC South at 6-3. Teams contending for that one apparent wildcard berth besides the Chargers include the New York Jets (5-4), Miami (4-4) defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore (4-5), Cleveland (4-5), Tennessee (4-5), Pittsburgh (3-6), Oakland (3-6) and Buffalo (3-7).
Among the preseason favorites, Houston and Atlanta are both 2-7.
Baltimore pulled itself back into playoff contention with a clutch 20-17 overtime win over Cincinnati on Sunday.
Detroit took over sole possession of first place in the NFC North Division after taming the Chicago Bears, 21-19, in a game played in Soldier Stadium. The Lions defense stuffed the Bears on a two-point conversion running play on the final play of the game to prevent overtime.
Arizona improved to 5-4 by defeating Houston on Sunday while Carolina topped San Francisco, 10-9, to drop the Super Bowl finalist 49ers (6-3) further behind Seattle (9-1) in the NFC West race.
SD's Rivers passed for 218 yards – 62 yards on four receptions by tight end Antonio Gates.
Both teams punted five times; there were no interceptions in the game. Denver's defense recorded four sacks for negative 20 yards while the Chargers sacked Manning twice for negative 17 yards.
The win was the 300th for Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. He now ranks 49 wins behind New York Giants owner Tim Mara (1925-58) for most victories amogn three-decade NFL owners.
Pregame ceremonies featured a salute to the military, with all branches of the armed services represented, including Naval Station San Diego. Matt Koenig, a Machinist Mate 1 at the 32nd Street naval base, received an award representing the Navy.