Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Passing by Peyton. Dancing by Von.
On the day Peyton Manning threw three touchdown passes and drew even with John Elway in the career win column, it was Broncos linebacker Von Miller who stole the show – not only with the three sacks and two forced fumbles that rattled Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers but with the ever-evolving sack dance he uses to celebrate.
“You’ve got to show some excitement when you make a play,” Miller said after spearheading a 30-23 victory Sunday that gave Denver a three-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West. “It’s hard enough as it is out there.”
But the Broncos (7-3) are making this look easy.
With their fifth consecutive win, they now have a three-game lead plus the tiebreaker over the rapidly fading Chargers (4-6), who lost their fifth of six and are now playing as much for jobs – namely coach Norv Turner’s – as a playoff spot.
“They’re not losing four of six; I can guarantee you that,” Rivers said of the Broncos, in essence conceding the division race.
Manning tied Elway with 148 career regular-season victories, second place on the all-time list of starting quarterbacks, with Brett Favre still 38 wins ahead.
And Miller? He now leads the league in sacks with 13, after jumping ahead of Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who had one in Houston’s win over Jacksonville on Sunday to reach 11½ for the year.
Miller celebrated his first sack with a pair of somersaults, then getting up and doing jumping jacks with his arms bent at the elbow while he moved to the imaginary music. He said he was inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog, a character in a video game.
His teammates are every bit as impressed with the production as the celebrations.
“That boy works his butt off and plays with a lot of confidence, and I see him doing it for a long time,” cornerback Champ Bailey said.
Miller’s disruptiveness contributed to what was, overall, a choppy day for both quarterbacks.
Manning threw for 270 yards on 25 of 42 passing but also threw an interception that got returned for a touchdown by Eric Weddle to open the scoring and got sacked in the end zone by Shaun Phillips for a safety.
Even with those struggles, Manning reached 24 touchdown passes for the season and remained on pace for a 4,700-yard year.
“Everybody’s got to have an angle on it,” Manning said when asked if this win felt more difficult than it should have. “That’s not how I see it. We beat a good football team. I kind of throw the records out the window. To score some points and to settle for some field goals, and you may actually punt, that’s part of playing against a good defense. We’ll take the win and run with it.”
Midway through the third quarter, the Chargers’ defense had accounted for all their scoring. That’s when Rivers picked things up. All but 60 of his 258 yards came after San Diego trailed 24-9, and when Danario Alexander leapt over cornerback Tony Carter for a 21-yard touchdown, the Chargers were within 30-23 with 1:24 left.
The Broncos recovered the onside kick and ran some time off the clock. After a punt, Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil sacked Rivers to seal the victory and extend a Denver winning streak that started Oct. 15 in San Diego, when Manning rallied Denver from 24-0 down for a 35-24 win. It was the first time a team had trailed by that much and gone on to win by double digits.
In the rematch, Turner’s defense held the Chargers close, but the offense and Rivers took too long to get going. San Diego only had two first downs in the first half.
“We were not able to get the run going, we had a tough time protecting, and they covered us down the field,” Turner said. “So, the combination of those three things makes it difficult.”
Overshadowed by Manning’s arrival in Denver this year has been the blossoming of the Broncos defense, with Miller as the headliner.
Dumervil’s late sack gave the Broncos four for the game and 35 for the season. The constant presence of Broncos defenders in the backfield rattled Rivers, who had two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“This is the best defensive team they’ve had since I’ve been playing them,” said the nine-year veteran.
When Rivers completed a 15-yard pass to Malcom Floyd in the third quarter on third-and-10, it snapped a string of 26 consecutive holds for the Denver ‘D’ on third down, dating to the end of a win over Cincinnati two weeks ago. It was the longest streak in the NFL in 10 years.
Miller is putting himself in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
He now has eight sacks over the past four weeks, and joined Reggie White, Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney as only the fourth player to record 11 or more sacks in his first two seasons. But the second-year player’s favorite player is Derrick Thomas. He wears No. 58 as a tribute to the late Chiefs Hall of Famer, and though Miller shuns comparisons, his teammates know they could be looking at a future superstar.
“He’s just getting started. He’s crazy. Crazy day for him,” Dumervil said.
David Zalubowski/Associated Press