DENVER — The last time Teddy Bridgewater appeared before Broncos Country, boos split the rays of sunshine at Empower Field.
His non-tackle on Philadelphia's Darius "Big Play" Slay became a referendum on his toughness and the Broncos' ineffectiveness.
Then Drew Lock replaced him for three series Sunday and all was forgiven, two huge scoring drives soothing lingering wounds.
Compromised and limping, Bridgewater delivered his most significant fourth-quarter moment of the season, putting away the Chargers and placing the Broncos in playoff contention entering next Sunday's primetime game in Kansas City.
The Broncos sauntered to a 28-13 win, exhaling after rookie Pat Surtain's pick six.
"I psyched myself up to return," Bridgewater said. "I just wanted to be out there for my guys."
Sunday continued a remarkable trend, showing the importance of playing well early beyond giving the crowd — there were 9,568 no-shows — reason to scream. The Broncos boast a 16-4 record when leading at half under coach Vic Fangio, including 6-0 this season. Compare that to a 1-20 record at intermission when trailing with Fangio in charge.
While the Cowboys' road victory was the impressive of the season, Sunday's win was the most necessary. Denver sat at 5-5 with a 4-9 record in its last 13 home games. Elasticity was gone. There were no more mulligans. Win, and the Broncos remained in the mix. Lose, and the focus shifted to a new coaching staff and the draft.
Denver played inspired, and no one embodied that more than Bridgewater in the fourth quarter. With the game hanging in the balance, the Broncos held 14-7 lead. Hope began to siphon as the Broncos produced two yards of offense on one three-and-out possession in the third quarter.
Then something weird happened. Denver rolled up its sleeves and went to work. Bridgewater connected on a screen and flat pass to Javonte Williams for 56 yards. Then the veteran put his stamp on the afternoon with a scramble and 1-yard dart to tight end Eric Saubert, swelling the Broncos' advantage to 21-7 with 8:48 remaining.
"I have never questioned Teddy's toughness. He toughed it out," Fangio said. "He's our quarterback."
Bridgewater finished the 10-play drive 5-for-6 for 70 yards. He only had 129 yards passing, showing the significance of his final scoring march. The Broncos finished 8 of 11 on third down conversions, a season best percentage. And they rushed for 147 yards.
"When you do that, you put yourself in a good position," Fangio said.
Surtain II Zip-locked the win with his second interception, zooming 70 yards for a score.
"Those were big plays," Fangio said.
With Bridgewater absent, then compromised, Denver did its best to make fingernails disappear in Broncos Country with the awful third quarter.
Teammates, while admitting the optics were not great, never wavered when it comes to Bridgewater's courage or heart. He returned to the NFL after nearly having his leg amputated while with the Vikings.
For Bridgewater to win over the fans, one path existed: victories.
The veteran did his part to shove the Broncos ahead, scrambling and diving 11 yards into the pylon for his second rushing score. As the Broncos secured a 7-0 lead with only their fourth first quarter touchdown of the season.
It was short-lived for Bridgewater. With 2:17 remaining in the first quarter, Chargers safety Derwin James came untouched, blindsiding Bridgewater. Officials reversed the fumble call, ruling it an incomplete pass. Bridgewater, however, exited with a lower right leg injury, limping into the locker room as the first quarter expired. He tested his leg throughout, but did not return in the first half after an X-Ray.
For the second time this season Lock made a relief appearance. And it was forgettable.
On his second play, he fumbled on a strip sack that was barely recovered. Even with left tackle Calvin Anderson carted off with a knee injury, the Broncos made the wise decision to focus on the ground. It's what they do well, and the Chargers couldn't stop a run in a pair of stockings.
The Broncos handed the ball off in five of the next six plays as rookie Williams darted nine yards for the score, widening Denver's advantage to 14-0 with 12:46 left in the half.
However, on second-and-eight from the 48-yard line and 1:22 remaining in the half, Lock scrambled right, and perhaps thinking there was a penalty on Los Angeles, threw the ball right to Derwin James. It was inexcusable and jolted the Chargers. Six plays later, Justin Herbert connected with former Eaton High star Austin Ekeler for a 12-yard score, shaving the deficit in half.
As awful as Lock's decision was, the Broncos gripped one important statistic. They don't lose this year when leading at half.
There was an old school vibe to the offense and the crowd. In between foot stomping, going hoarse yelling by the fans, the Broncos held the Chargers without a first down in the first quarter. It was part of what made Lock's mistake so unspeakably bad, showing no situational awareness.
In the end, the Broncos defense deserved credit. They held the Chargers to 357 yards. Herbert passed for 303 yards, but was undermined by the turnovers.
"We want to play ball that Broncos Country is proud of. If we don't win today, our season is on the line. I think that came out. Guys were playing with passion and energy," Broncos safety Justin Simmons said. "We can't have a Dallas week where we come out and lay an egg vs. Philly. What has to be perfect is our energy and flying to the football. Man, it mattered to guys. It is personal (vs. Kansas City)."
Surtain saved points, stopped drives. Leading 21-7, Surtain produced his first pick six in the same city where his dad delivered his last pick six.
"You got to expect every game to make big-time plays in big-time games like this,” Surtain said.
There is a road back to contention with the team facing the Chiefs, who have beaten Denver 11 straight times, for first place in the AFC West. And on Sunday, Teddy found his paved in redemption with the Chiefs waiting.
“You best believe," Williams said, "that we’ll be focused and ready to go.”
By the end of the first quarter, the Broncos had one starting offensive lineman remaining from the opening game: center Lloyd Cushenberry. Dalton Risner (back, day-to-day) and Calvin Anderson (carted off with what appeared like a serious knee injury) were hurt during the game and did not return. And Cushenberry had two penalties. ...
Defensive end Shelby Harris represented the only surprise inactive, unable to answer the bell after spraining his ankle last Thursday in practice. ...
The inactive list included: right tackle Bobby Massie and starting safety Kareem Jackson. Garett Bolles also missed his third game — two for a sprained ankle and Sunday because of COVID-19 — this season. Calvin Anderson and Cam Fleming manned the tackle spots and rookie Caden Sterns started at strong safety. ...
Game balls were given to Pat Surtain, Eric Saubert, Teddy Bridgewater and Quinn Bailey, who played left tackle after his promotion from the practice squad.