DENVER - The defense kept the stumbling Denver Broncos afloat in the second half against the San Diego Chargers. The offense, led by an unlikely hero, finally pulled its weight on the final drive. The Broncos won 20-17 on Jason Elam’s 41-yard field goal with five seconds remaining Sunday in front of 75,310 at Invesco Field at Mile High. Denver is 1-1, and the defending AFC West champion Chargers are 0-2. Denver had two turnovers inside San Diego’s 20-yard line, missed two field-goal attempts and had two touchdowns nullified because of penalties, but the defense held San Diego to three points in the second half and scored six points on cornerback Champ Bailey’s 25-yard interception return on the first play from scrimmage after halftime. Denver’s offense awoke from its slumber on its final possession. Backup running back Ron Dayne ran for 38 yards and three first downs. On fourthand-1 with less than a minute remaining, Dayne gained 10 yards to San Diego’s 23-yard line to set up Elam’s field goal. “Things didn’t go right — a lot of things didn’t go our way. And all of a sudden, you still got to find a way to win,” coach Mike Shanahan said. Before Denver’s final drive, Dayne had two carries for 6 yards, and the Broncos had 58 yards rushing. “I’m going to be ready whenever they need me,” Dayne said. “I was just happy to get the ball and run downfield.” The Broncos trailed 14-3 at halftime and were booed on the way to the locker room. Bailey missed most of the second half of last week’s 34-10 road loss against the Miami Dolphins with a dislocated left shoulder. But Sunday, his gamechanging interception return for a touchdown cut San Diego’s lead to 14-10. “I really believe Champ won that game for us,” defensive end Trevor Pryce said. “That one play set the tone for the rest of the game. And that put them in the tank. And in the NFL, once you go in the tank, it’s hard to come out.” Bailey outsmarted Chargers quarterback Drew Brees just enough. “He didn’t expect me to get to that ball,” Bailey said. “I knew he recognized the coverage. I baited him a little and just jumped the play.” Denver did little before that. The Broncos’ opening drive was effective until running back Mike Anderson lost a fumble at the San Diego 2-yard line. Elam kicked a field goal later in the first quarter, but Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson scored twice. The Broncos rushed for only 38 yards on 12 carries in the first half. Jake Plummer had 139 passing yards in the first half but had few big plays. “We fell into a little bit of a funk,” said Plummer, who finished 23-of-37 for 248 yards and an interception at San Diego’s 19-yard line. After Bailey’s interception, Denver’s defense was stifling. San Diego had 16 yards in the third quarter and 25 in the fourth. San Diego had 172 yards in the first half. “We went from ‘Let’s get off the field,’ to ‘Let’s not give them an inch,’” Broncos safety John Lynch said. Down 14-10, Denver rookie cornerback Darrent Williams returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown, but it was called back because some Broncos players left the sideline too soon to celebrate. Denver was penalized for too many men on the field. Even with the penalty, Williams gained 37 yards and set up fullback Kyle Johnson’s 3-yard touchdown for a 17-14 lead. “It don’t matter,” Williams said of not getting credit for a touchdown. “It was a momentum changer for the team.” San Diego had one drive in the second half that gained more than 3 yards. “They played really as good as I’ve ever seen a defense play,” Plummer said. Still, San Diego managed a 49-yard drive that was capped by a 40-yard game-tying field goal by Nate Kaeding with 5:21 left. The Chargers’ offense didn’t get the ball back. After Anderson picked up 2 yards on a third-and-2, Dayne took over at tailback. Dayne’s first carry was a 13-yard gain to the Broncos’ 47-yard line. Later in the drive, Shanahan gambled on fourthand-1 rather than try a 50-yard field goal. Elam missed two 53-yard field goal tries in the third quarter. The Broncos faked an inside handoff and pitched to Dayne. Wide receiver Rod Smith blocked cornerback Drayton Florence on the outside, and Dayne gained 10 yards. “I couldn’t see him letting anybody stop him on that play,” Smith said. “The call was excellent.” After Denver spiked the ball to stop the clock, Elam kicked the game-winning field goal. The clock expired on San Diego’s kickoff return. “You’re feeling it, and you’re nervous. But you know if you’re a kicker in the NFL, you know it’s going to come down to those things every once in a while,” Elam said. “I’m very thankful right now.” Having played miserably in Miami, the Broncos were concerned coming into Sunday’s game. Only one team in the past two seasons has started 0-2 and made the playoffs. “There was desperation coming into the game,” Pryce said. “It was desperate. We were desperate after we flew back from Miami. In the NFL, if you go down 0-2, it’s bad.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-4891 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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