Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers kept Peyton Manning on the sideline most of the game and handed the Broncos an unexpected and harmful 27-20 loss Thursday night in Denver.
Rivers threw two touchdown passes to former Cal star Keenan Allen and kept the Chargers offense on the field for nearly 39 minutes, keeping their playoff hopes alive while turning Denver's supposedly easy road to the AFC West title and top seeding in the conference into something much different.
"We didn't play well, didn't stay on the field, didn't have the ball much and, when we did, we didn't do much with it," Manning said.
The Broncos (11-3) gained 13 yards on the 13 plays they ran after taking a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter. That covered four drives during which they went three-and-out three times and picked up a total of one first down.
"The longer you keep the ball and the less he has it, the better off you're going to be," said Chargers coach Mike McCoy, Manning's former offensive coordinator.
Rivers finished 12 for 20 for 166 yards and improved to 28-6 in December. Ryan Matthews matched his season high with 127 yards on 29 carries.
After Denver's long dry spell on offense, San Diego (7-7) led 24-10, and though the Broncos had overcome double-digit deficits four times this season to win, it wasn't happening this time.
As most veterans do, especially this time of year, Manning griped about the short turnaround between a Sunday and Thursday game, the likes of which have become more common since the NFL started scheduling midweek contests for almost every week. Adding to the fatigue: Denver ran 91 plays on offense while scoring 51 points Sunday in a blowout over Tennessee.
"Did the (91) plays on offense take a toll? I can't answer that," Manning said.
Bears: Coach Marc Trestman says quarterback Jay Cutler will start Sunday at Cleveland after missing the previous four games with a high left ankle sprain. Josh McCown, who played well in his absence, goes back to a reserve role.
Packers: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers' checklist for playing Sunday has two primary items on it: taking the majority of first-team snaps in practice Friday and getting good results from a scan on his healing left collarbone. If both those things happen, Rodgers could be back under center for the first time since breaking his collarbone Nov. 4 against Chicago. Asked after Thursday's practice if he is holding out hope of playing Sunday, Rodgers paused before replying, "Yes."
Lions: Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson intends to use his "old man strength" to teach Ravens free safety Matt Elam a lesson about showing respect to his elders. Elam said Wednesday that Johnson "is pretty old" and that Baltimore would try to get physical against the talented star to "make him uncomfortable."
Elam is only six years younger than the 28-year-old Johnson, who responded to the rookie's comments during a conference call with Baltimore media Thursday. After calling the Ravens' safeties "young," Johnson said, "I'm getting old, man. I'll show him what that old man strength is about, though."
He added, "Anything that comes at me throughout the week, you just take it and put it in that box over there and use it as motivation."