DENVER (AP) — It started out as a giveaway and ended in a keep-away.
Mike McCoy's gamble paid huge dividends when San Diego's coach outfoxed mentor John Fox and handed Peyton Manning his first divisional loss since coming to Denver as the Chargers stunned the Broncos 27-20 on Thursday night.
"We didn't have the ball much and when we had it, we didn't do much with it," a dejected Manning said after spending much of his night on the sideline.
McCoy bucked conventional wisdom and give Manning the ball first, deferring after winning the coin toss.
It seemed like a huge mistake when Manning, who entered the game with 45 TD throws as leader of a high-octane offense that was scoring nearly 40 points a game, needed just seven plays to put the Broncos ahead 7-0 with a 15-yard touchdown toss to Bubba Caldwell.
Before long, Manning had Denver up 10-3.
Then, the Chargers held the Broncos to just 13 yards on their next 13 plays covering nearly 30 minutes of game clock, allowing just one first down and forcing a flustered Manning to go three-and-out three times.
The Chargers, on the other hand, were chewing up yards and clock on their way to winning the time of possession by an astonishing 17 minutes, 38 seconds.
"The longer you keep the ball and the less he has it, the better off you're going to be," said McCoy, who was Manning's offensive coordinator in Denver last season.
San Diego's upset sent ripples through the AFC playoff picture.
The Chargers (7-7), who finish with home games against Oakland and Kansas City, are now in the thick of the wild-card race after Philip Rivers, who threw two TD passes to rookie Keenan Allen, joined Vince Young in becoming the second QB to beat the Manning brothers in back-to-back weeks.
"We obviously know we've got to win the next two and need some help," Rivers said. "Too bad we didn't take care of business in some of those other games or we would be the team that's running away with the sixth seed. But we're not. We are where we are. We're a .500 ball club that's going to fight like crazy to get the next two."
The Broncos (11-3) were left to sweat out the long weekend.
The New England Patriots (10-3) can surpass them in the race for the top seed in the AFC with a win over Miami and the Chiefs (10-3) can tie them atop the AFC West again, although the Broncos own the tie-breaker there.