DENVER — Peyton Manning wanted more rest. He got plenty Thursday thanks to Philip Rivers and a Chargers defense that slowed down the Broncos with an unexpected and harmful loss.
Rivers passed for two touchdowns to Keenan Allen and kept San Diego's offense on the field for nearly 39 minutes in a 27-20 stunner over the Broncos, whose easy road to the AFC West title and top seeding in the conference got an unexpected jolt.
Disorganized on defense and never able to crank things up on offense, Denver gained 13 yards on the 13 plays it ran after taking a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter. That covered four fruitless drives during which the Broncos went three and out three times and picked up 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 in improving 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 (11-3) had overcome double-digit deficits four times this season to win, it wasn't happening this time as Denver lost to a division foe for the first time in 11 games.
Manning's final numbers were decent — 27-for-41 for 289 yards and two touchdowns — but padded during desperation time.
It was Denver's first regular-season defeat at home in 14 games, dating to September 2012 against Houston.
"They obviously did a better job getting ready on a short week than we did," Broncos coach Fox said.
Not having to worry about Wes Welker (concussion), the Chargers blanketed the other receivers and turned former Jefferson High and Gators standout Bubba Caldwell into Manning's prime target. Caldwell led Denver with six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns.
The Broncos must sweat out the race in the AFC. Their three losses are now equal with New England and Kansas City. Denver owns the tiebreaker against the Chiefs but not against the Patriots.
Bears back to Cutler: Quarterback Josh McCown will return to a reserve role this week behind starter Jay Cutler when the Bears play the Browns, coach Marc Trestman said. Cutler missed the past four games with a sprained left ankle but was cleared to play Thursday and will be back in the lineup. McCown passed for a career-high 348 yards and threw four touchdown passes against the Cowboys; posted the league's third-highest QB rating in seven starts; and guided the Bears back into contention in the NFC North. Trestman made it clear for weeks that when Cutler was healthy, he would play. That time has come. "Josh has done exactly what we've asked him to do, he's performed very, very well as a backup and he understands his role," Trestman said.
Cardinals: Rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu will have surgery today to repair torn ligaments in his left knee.
49ers: Linebacker Patrick Willis is not concerned about a letdown against the Bucs this week as his team comes off a big win over NFC West rival Seattle. "We understand every game is important to us. We understand that last week was a very big game, a rivalry game, but this week is just as important," he said.
Falcons: Coach Mike Smith said he has not ruled out safety Thomas DeCoud (concussion), who has not practiced this week, for Sunday against Washington.
Jaguars: Rushing leader Maurice Jones-Drew (hamstring) and receptions leader Cecil Shorts (groin) missed a second straight day of practice. Coach Gus Bradley said both could practice today, but that it could "go all the way up to game time" before deciding if they will play.
Jets: Cornerback Antonio Cromartie (concussion symptoms) is still going through the NFL's protocol on head injuries and was limited in practice. He said he is awaiting word from doctors and wearing a red no-contact jersey.
Packers: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (broken collarbone) said he is awaiting results on a scan and hoping to get the majority of first-team snaps in practice today. If all goes well, he hopes to start this week against Chicago. He has been sharing snaps with backup Matt Flynn for the past two days.