SAN DIEGO • Josh McDaniels never hid his motivational tactic this week. He said repeatedly, his Denver Broncos had to fight back if they wanted to wrest the AFC West from the San Diego Chargers. The 5-0 start wouldn’t matter as much if they just got blown out by the Chargers again.
Now there can be little doubt that the Broncos are in absolute control of the AFC West. Thanks to a historic performance from Eddie Royal, the Broncos took a three-and-a-half game lead in the AFC West with a 34-23 win at Qualcomm Stadium. No team has ever led a division by more than three games and not made the playoffs.
“We came and played the way we play,’’ McDaniels said. “Not always pretty, but tough.”
The Broncos had lost five of the last six meetings against the Chargers, including four losses by at least 20 points. The Chargers, who were heavily favored to win the AFC West, are a surprising 2-3. But perhaps no team in the NFL is as surprising as the 6-0 Broncos.
“We’re a different team,’’ Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. “They didn’t know what to expect.”
The Broncos needed a little magic against a desperate Chargers team, and Royal provided it. Because he had 91 catches last year, it’s easy to forget Royal was drafted in the second round to be a playmaker for the Broncos’ special teams. He had a 93-yard kickoff return in the first quarter and a 71-yard punt return in the second quarter.
On both returns, he went through the Chargers’ special teams untouched.
“He can make some big plays,’’ McDaniels said of Royal. “He made two huge ones for us tonight.”
The Chargers controlled the first quarter. They held the ball for 11:32 of the first 15 minutes and outgained Denver 169-18. But the Broncos were in the game because of a stop inside their 10-yard line — San Diego fans were upset with three straight runs and a field goal that close to the end zone — and Royal’s big plays.
Too bad for the Broncos they gave one of those special teams’ touchdowns back. Darren Sproles took a punt that was near the Chargers’ sideline but not out of bounds, and weaved through the Broncos for a 77-yard touchdown.
Denver’s defense, which has been fantastic all year, was picked apart by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the first half. Rivers was 11-of-16 for 172 yards in the first half.
He was able to find receivers downfield and was creative, throwing a chest pass to LaDainian Tomlinson for a 25-yard gain and floating a 21-yard pass over the defense to tight end Antonio Gates.
Still, the Broncos took a 24-23 lead on Tony Scheffler’s nifty 19-yard touchdown catch, and then Denver got a big play from Elvis Dumervil near the end of the third quarter. Dumervil forced Rivers to fumble and the Broncos recovered. That set up a field goal that put the Broncos ahead 27-23.
In the fourth quarter, the Chargers got a 34-yard pass interference call on a long pass to Vincent Jackson, when cornerback Andre Goodman bumped him.
But the Broncos’ defense held.
On fourth down the Chargers went for it, and threw incomplete to Malcom Floyd with 5:40 remaining.
Two plays later Scheffler broke free for a 52-yard gain to San Diego’s 8-yard line. Brandon Stokley scored a 5-yard touchdown on third and goal to give the Broncos an 11-point lead.
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