That sets up an AFC West showdown in Oakland next weekend between two 6-2 teams — the up-and-coming Raiders and the reigning Super Bowl champs who are winning the same way they did last year: with defense, defense, defense.
The Broncos hit Rivers 17 times, sacked him four times and intercepted three of his passes, including Bradley Roby‘s 49-yard pick-6 that started it all.
“They’re tough to deal with,” sighed Rivers, the latest QB to leave Denver bruised and battered.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was taken to a hospital after getting knocked down during Roby’s return in the second quarter. He was released a couple of hours later and is expected back at work Monday.
San Diego running back Melvin Gordon was blocked into the 69-year-old assistant by Von Miller and Phillips was strapped to a backboard and carted off the field in a scary scene that concluded with him giving a thumbs-up on his way to the tunnel.
“All indications are that Wade is doing great and he will be back quickly,” coach Gary Kubiak said afterward.
With linebackers coach Reggie Herring taking over Denver’s defensive calls, the Broncos had a goal-line stand in the closing minutes and picked off Rivers twice more in the second half.
“I got on the headset a couple of times and he told me shut the hell up, he’s got it,” said Kubiak, who gave Herring a game ball.
The Broncos only turned one of those third-quarter takeaways into points, however, and that allowed the hard-luck Chargers (3-5) to stay in it until the end.
Rookie Devontae Booker, making his first career start with C.J. Anderson‘s undergoing knee surgery three days earlier, scored from 3 yards out afterDarian Stewart‘s 25-yard interception return gave Denver the ball at the San Diego 10.
Juwan Thompson, promoted from the practice squad Saturday, scored from the 1 to make it 24-13. But the Chargers got into the defensive act themselves when cornerback Casey Hayward returned a tipped pass from Trevor Siemian to Jordan Norwood 24 yards for a touchdown that made it 24-19.
The 2-point try failed and Brandon McManus‘ 22-yard field goal made it an eight-point game with five minutes left.
The Chargers reached the Denver 2 with three minutes remaining but threw four consecutive incompletions without handing off to Gordon, who had 111 yards on 23 carries.
“After the fact, you go, `Shoot, maybe we should have run it once or twice down there,” Rivers said.
San Diego coach Mike McCoy would have none of that.
“We called the plays we did. We didn’t finish them. We didn’t score,” McCoy said. “We called what we did. It didn’t work. I’m not going to second-guess it now.”
San Diego’s last gasp ended at midfield on an incompletion to Gordon when Rivers was hit for the 17th time, this one coming from Derek Wolfe.
THE APPRENTICE: Roby, starting in place of Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib(lower back), gave Denver a 10-7 lead with a 49-yard interception return in the second quarter.
Rivers’ pass went off receiver Tyrell Williams‘ hands and Roby spun around and plucked the ball out of the air. He quickly found the sideline — just like he learned from Talib, who has nine career interception returns for touchdowns — slipped past tackle Joe Barksdale and outraced Rivers into the end zone.
DIDN’T COUNT: Roby’s pick-6 came a few minutes after DeMarcus Ware‘s strip-sack was overturned on review, even though it appeared he had his hand on the football as Rivers was about to release it. Linebacker Corey Nelson, making his first career start in place of Brandon Marshall (hamstring), scooped up the ball and returned it to the San Diego 22. Ware was making his first start since breaking his right forearm in Week 2.
“I thought that play was a sack,” Miller said. “That’s right in his backyard, legendary. Take a couple of weeks off and he’s right back like he’s never missed a step.”
DAWDLING DENVER : A week after holding Houston to three-and-outs on its first two drives, Denver’s dawdling defense again surrendered a touchdown on its first series. That makes six times in eight games the Broncos have allowed a TD on an opponent’s first drive.
UP NEXT: After snapping a 10-game AFC West skid with a 21-13 win over Denver 17 days earlier, the Chargers lost for the eighth straight time on the road in the division. Now, they host Tennessee next week, starting a stretch of four consecutive non-division games.