DENVER — The rookie head coach iced the rookie kicker.
Shelby Harris got a hand on Younghoe Koo’s 44-yard game-tying field goal try with a second left and the Denver Broncos began the Vance Joseph era with a 24-21 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday night.
“It was a little too exciting,” Von Miller said after presenting Joseph with the game ball in the jubilant locker room. “But a win is a win.”
Koo nailed the kick moments earlier, but Joseph had called a timeout to ice the kicker.
“I had two timeouts and I wasn’t going to leave with those in my pocket,” Joseph said.
Derek Wolfe had bull-rushed the first field goal and told Harris, a third-year journeyman who made the team largely because of a rash of injuries along the D-line, that he’d get a chance to slice through this time because the guard would lean his way.
Sure enough, Harris got his right hand on the ball, which frittered short of the end zone as the Chargers looked on in dismay and the Broncos dog-piled Harris.
“It’s too bad because Koo drilled the first one,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “And they called timeout and I think he drilled the second one, too. At least, that’s what it looked like to me because it was going right down the middle. And I think if we get to OT, we would have finished it off, but we didn’t get that chance.”
Harris got the start only because Jared Crick and Zach Kerr were out with injuries.
“I’m going to be real with you: I have no clue what happened,” Harris said of his heroics. “I felt it. I just couldn’t tell you where I felt it.”
Koo was also at a loss to explain what happened.
“I was just focusing on the kick,” he said. “I don’t know how it got blocked. It felt good off the foot. I’ll just have to watch film.”
The ending was reminiscent of last year’s opener in Denver, when the Broncos escaped with a 21-20 win over the Carolina Panthers in a Super Bowl 50 reunion when Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.
Denver took a 24-7 lead into the fourth quarter in this opener and the Broncos were feeling pretty good. And why not? The Chargers were 1-155 in their history when trailing by 17 or more in the fourth quarter and Denver was 175-0-1 with a fourth-quarter lead of 17 or more.
Then came a nightmarish eight-minute stretch in which they had two turnovers that were converted into touchdowns, a missed field goal and a punt.
“The game was in firm control for about three quarters there and we felt good but you turn the ball over twice on the short side of the 50, it’s going to be a problem with Philip Rivers,” Joseph said.
Before those fourth-quarter foibles, Trevor Siemian threw two TD passes to Bennie Fowler and ran for another score.
The Broncos held Rivers to 115 yards passing through three quarters but let him engineer a comeback when Siemian threw an interception and Jamaal Charles fumbled on plays that were upheld despite video evidence that had the crowd of 76,324 convinced they should have been overturned.
Rivers threw touchdown passes to Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin following the takeaways to make it 24-21.
Back-to-back sacks of Siemian set up a 50-yard field goal try that McManus pushed wide right, giving L.A. the ball at its 40-yard line trailing by three.
But Koo’s miss loomed larger in the final seconds.
The Broncos led 14-7 at halftime after Siemian threw a 5-yard scoring pass to Fowler and scored on a 1-yard keeper .
Los Angeles’ only touchdown drive was aided by a 40-yard pass interference call on cornerback Bradley Roby before Rivers hit running back Melvin Gordon for an 11-yard touchdown toss. Safety Justin Simmons hit Gordon at the 2, but he just somersaulted across the goal line.
Rivers stayed away from the All-Pro tandem of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., instead targeting Roby and safeties Darian Stewart and Simmons.
Roby atoned for his crucial penalty with an interception in the third quarter on a pass intended for Allen. That led to Siemian’s 6-yard TD toss to Fowler that made it 21-7.
McManus kicked a 20-yard field goal on the last play of the third quarter, capping a 78-yard drive that ate up 8 minutes, 16 seconds.
The game presented landmarks on the football field , along the sidelines and in the broadcast booth.
Not since 1960 had the Chargers represented L.A., where they played their inaugural season before bolting to San Diego.
Beth Mowins became the first woman to call an NFL regular season game since NBC’s Gayle Sierens in 1987 when she handled play-by-play on the doubleheader nightcap alongside Rex Ryan, who made his debut as an ESPN analyst.
With Anthony Lynn also making his head coaching debut, this marked the first time two black head coaches worked their first NFL game against each other.