"We're gonna tie this baby up," Chargers safety Eric Weddle was thinking.
Manning delivered the deciding vote. Dancing in the pocket to avoid a heavy rush, Manning launched a pass that Julius Thomas caught barely in bounds, in front of the Broncos' bench. The play covered 21 yards, preserved a 24-17 victory, sent the Broncos into next Sunday's AFC championship game and ended the Chargers' magical late-season run.
Who knows what may have happened, if the Chargers had maintained their coverage assignments and kept Manning from finding Thomas. Having led 17-0 after three quarters, the Broncos may have found themselves in overtime, and then what? Exactly a year ago, they failed to produce a clinching drive offensively and then gave up a tying touchdown to Baltimore in regulation before losing in OT.
"We weren't going to let that happen again," said Beadles, a left guard from Hillcrest High School and the University of Utah.
Yet a drive that began in the last four minutes with Beadles' false-start penalty hardly seemed promising, until Manning came through from his own 20-yard line. Beadles and the other linemen have protected Manning well all season, allowing an NFL-low 20 sacks, but the QB gets much of that credit. Manning "bailed the whole left side of the line out right there," Beadles said, giving himself time and space to make the throw.
"It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage," said Manning, crediting offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
Just the same, how many quarterbacks could have made that play? And, to their offseason lament, the Chargers cooperated.
"Miscommunication," said Weddle, Beadles' former Ute teammate. "We were supposed to have somebody over there."
Weddle patiently discussed the breakdown through three waves of interviewers, and was still shaking his head and muttering after they left his locker, knowing the play cost the Chargers a chance to extend their miraculous run. They won their last four regular-season games to make the playoffs, then beat Cincinnati in a wild-card game. This potential tying rally would have topped all of that, after San Diego appeared overwhelmed for three quarters.
The Chargers' offense was doing absolutely nothing, and the Broncos were thriving with their version of San Diego's ball-control strategy, eventually running for 133 yards. "No huge runs, but very effective," Beadles said.
But then Weddle's blitz helped the Chargers stuff a third-and-2 play and Denver missed a field-goal try, keeping the lead at 17-0 late in the third quarter. San Diego's offense came to life with a touchdown. Denver matched it, but the Chargers kept coming with a TD, a successful onside kick and a field goal, giving themselves hope.
But a defense that held up well in three meetings this season with Denver's "best offense ever assembled," by Weddle's description, couldn't get off the field. After the third-and-17 play, the Broncos converted twice more with another Thomas catch and a Moreno run. "From then on," Beadles said, "we just knew we were finishing this."
Unlike last January, in other words. So the Broncos are not done yet. New England and another of Beadles' college teammates, defensive lineman Sealver Siliga, will come to Sports Authority Field next weekend with a Super Bowl berth at stake.