AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos

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Peyton Manning and the Broncos look to avenge their only home loss of the season and avoid another early playoff exit

AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos

Division rivals meet for the third time this season when the San Diego Chargers take on the Denver Broncos in this afternoon’s AFC Divisional Playoff game at 4:40 p.m. ET on CBS. Philip Rivers and the Chargers (10-7) upset the Bengals in last week’s Wild Card win and now look to beat the AFC West champions on their home turf for the second time in a little more a month. Peyton Manning and the Broncos (13-3) are coming off of a bye that allowed them to get some rest and healthy and some payback against the only team to beat them at home this season.

San Diego earned the final wild card spot in the AFC on the strength of a four-game winning streak to end the regular season. One of those wins was a 27-20 upset of the Broncos in Denver in Week 15. The Chargers continued their strong play on the road last week, overcoming a 10-7 halftime deficit and outscoring the Bengals 20-0 in the final two quarters to win their Wild Card game 27-10. The loss also was Cincinnati’s first at home all season.

Denver, the top seed in the AFC, will try and avoid becoming the fourth division champ in these playoffs to lose at home in their first game. Besides Cincinnati (AFC North), Philadelphia (NFC East) and Green Bay (NFC North) also came up short at home in their respective wild card matchups. The Broncos also would like to finally move past last season’s playoff collapse against Baltimore in the Divisional round.

3 Things to Watch

The Rubber Match
San Diego and Denver split their two regular-season meetings with each team winning on the other’s home field. The Broncos won 28-20 in San Diego in Week 10 in their first game without head coach John Fox, who underwent emergency heart surgery in early November. Peyton Manning threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns as Denver jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead and never looked back. San Diego had more rushing yards (131 to 84), but Philip Rivers had just 218 yards passing and the offense managed just two field goals despite being on the edge of the red zone on three of their first four possessions. The rematch came a month later with the Broncos a heavy favorite at home, where they were averaging nearly 480 yards of offense and more than 42 points per game in their first seven at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Someone apparently forgot to pass this on to the Chargers, however, as the defense held the NFL’s No. 1 offense to a season-low in both yards (295) and points (20). Rivers and company did their part too, scoring three straight touchdowns to turn a 10-3 deficit into a 24-10 advantage entering the fourth quarter. San Diego’s defense held, giving the Chargers an improbable 27-20 victory that kept their late-season momentum going. Once again, San Diego enjoyed much more success running the ball, outgaining Denver 177-18 on the ground behind Ryan Mathews’ 127 yards rushing. Manning threw for 289, but needed 27 completions and 41 attempts to get there, as Denver’s longest play from scrimmage was just 22 yards. Rivers completed just 12 passes, but two of them went for short touchdowns to rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, and he didn’t turn the ball over. The Broncos were without Wes Welker, who missed this game as well as the next two because of a concussion, and it was apparent that the normally high-scoring offense wasn’t the same without him. The Chargers left the Mile High City with a bunch of confidence, which carried over to their final two games of the regular season and last week’s Wild Card win, while the Broncos were left scratching their heads wondering what had happened. Denver did bounce back, winning their final two games to close things out, and now has a chance to take out two birds with one stone thanks to San Diego’s upset of Cincinnati last week.

Pressure on Peyton
Peyton Manning is all but assured of winning his fifth MVP award after setting new single-season records for both passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55), as Denver scored the most points (606) in a single season in NFL history. He also completed better than 68 percent of his passes with just 10 interceptions, finishing second in the league in passer rating (115.1). After leading the Broncos to the AFC’s best record at 13-3, Manning brought his regular-season victory total to 167 in his career and he also picked up his 10th division title. He was the only unanimous first-team All-Pro selection (seventh time overall) and he also earned his 13th Pro Bowl invitation. All of these numbers have one thing in common – they are related to the regular season. As far as the playoffs go, the number that matters most when it comes to Manning is 9-11. That is his career record in the postseason, the only real blemish to his otherwise sterling Hall of Fame resume. Manning has one Super Bowl ring in tow, but he’s also lost in the big game once and his sub-.500 career playoff mark includes eight one-and-done appearances. Manning’s last playoff victory came in the AFC Championship Game following the 2009 season when he was still with Indianapolis. At 37 years old and less than three years removed from multiple neck surgeries, Manning knows he’s nearing the end of his career. Nothing would be sweeter for him than to prove all the naysayers wrong by leading his team to another Lombardi Trophy, especially given all that he’s gone through in the last three years. However, Manning also knows that all eyes are on him and even though this is a team sport (and he doesn’t play defense), that Denver’s Super Bowl aspirations are riding on his right arm. Manning is as competitive as they come, but even he can’t dispute his postseason resume. The 9-11 record speaks for itself, but there’s also the 32:21 touchdown-to-interception ratio in playoff games, a number that looks rather pedestrian compared to his 491:219 career mark in the regular season. But there are also the gut-wrenching, game-deciding interceptions, such as the one he threw late in the first overtime against Baltimore in last season’s Divisional Playoff game, which set the Ravens up for Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal early in the second extra period. No matter that the game went to overtime in the first place because the Broncos’ defense gave up a 70-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown with just 31 seconds left to tie the score. The buck begins and ends with Manning, that’s just the way it works when it comes to being one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. And this also is why Manning is faced with yet another defining moment this afternoon. If he and the Broncos take care of business at home then he won’t have to deal with any one-and-done questions for at least another season. If Denver comes up short at home again, regardless of how well Manning plays, all of the talk will be focused around two numbers – 9-12 and what that means as far as No. 18’s status among his peers. Is Manning ready to silence some of his critics or give them more reason to sound off?

What’s the Rush?
In two games against Denver, San Diego has rushed for 308 yards or 154 per game. In the Chargers’ 15 other games, including last week’s Wild Card win over Cincinnati, they have averaged 123.5 rushing yards per game. San Diego’s ground dominance was a big reason why the Chargers split their two games against the Broncos and also played a part in holding the highest-scoring offense in NFL history to just 23.5 points per contest, which was more than 14 points below their average (37.9). The Chargers really had their ground game going last week against Cincinnati, gashing the Bengals for a season-high 196 yards on the ground on 40 carries (4.9 ypc) and would no doubt love to continue that success this afternoon. They did much of this damage with leading rusher Ryan Mathews sidelined because of a lingering ankle injury, which has him listed as Questionable on the injury report. Mathews rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games against Denver, so if he is limited or can’t go, it will fall to Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown, who sealed last week’s win with a 58-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, to pick up the slack once again. The Broncos are just as capable of running the ball successfully, as Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have combined for nearly 1,600 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Denver didn’t have much success against San Diego in this department, however, posting a total of 102 yards rushing in two games. This needs to change, as the run not only helps set up the play-action passing game, but it could help keep the Chargers’ offense off of the field longer, something a beleaguered Broncos defense would definitely appreciate. From a defensive standpoint, Denver finished the regular season tied for seventh against the run (101.6 ypg), while San Diego wasn’t too far behind in 12th place (107.8 ypg). The Chargers surrendered 113 yards on the ground to the Bengals last week, but limited them to just one touchdown. After getting gashed by San Diego for a season-worst 177 yards rushing in Week 15, the Broncos yielded a total of 151 in wins over Houston and Oakland to close out the regular season. Quarterback play is obviously important, especially with Peyton Manning on one sideline, but whichever team controls the line of scrimmage and does the most damage on the ground will more than likely end up being victorious.

San Diego Key Player: Philip Rivers, QB
While most of the attention will be on Peyton Manning, and understandably so, his counterpart also has an opportunity to beef up his postseason resume. Rivers evened his playoff record to 4-4 following last week’s Wild Card win in Cincinnati and is looking to earn his second trip to the AFC Championship Game in 10 seasons with the Chargers. Rivers wasn’t asked to do a lot last week, as San Diego controlled the clock and the flow with a dominant running game, but he was solid nonetheless. He completed 12 of 16 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over. Turnovers have been a bit of a bugaboo for Rivers during his career, but he’s thrown just 11 interceptions and lost just two fumbles this season compared to his 32 touchdown passes. He is 10-7 in his career against Denver and 5-4 in head-to-head matchups against Manning. Rivers holds a 2-0 edge over the future Hall of Famer when it comes to playoff games, however, as the Chargers beat the Colts in a 2007 Divisional Playoff game in Indianapolis and in the ’08 Wild Card game at home. Manning has come out victorious in three of the four meetings since coming to Denver, but there’s no doubt which quarterback is under more pressure and scrutiny entering this one. The Broncos’ defense, especially its pass rush, hasn’t been the same since Von Miller suffered a knee injury. Can Rivers take advantage of this and embrace the underdog role to pull of another big upset?

Denver Key Players: Defense
Just because most of the focus will be on Peyton Manning, it doesn’t mean that the Broncos’ defense is off the hook. After all, Manning staked his team to a seven-point lead with 1:09 remaining in last season’s Divisional Playoff game against Baltimore. It was the defense that allowed the Ravens to go 77 yards in three plays to tie up the score before going on to win in double overtime. It also is the defense that finished 27th in the NFL against the pass this season, giving up 254.4 yards per game. This defense has had its moments and produced 26 takeaways, but it’s also given up 440 yards or more on four different occasions. In the postseason, the margin of error is so small (as in inches, right Rahim Moore?), and it’s too much to expect Manning and company to produce like they did in the regular season. This defense is capable of giving opposing offenses fits, but its task will be a little tougher without All-Pro linebacker Von Miller around to apply pressure and make some big plays. With Miller sidelined because of a knee injury, it falls to Shaun Phillips to lead the charge in the pass rush. The rest of the defensive line needs to disrupt things up front and make some plays in San Diego’s backfield, while linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan clean up the leftovers and protect the middle of the field. The group that’s under the most pressure, however, is arguably the secondary, especially considering last season’s playoff collapse. The Chargers have been more content to run the ball than throw it lately, but Philip Rivers will take his chances. This means the likes of Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie need to do their job in coverage, especially on rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen and veteran tight end Antonio Gates, as well as limit the big plays and bad mistakes. Manning will no doubt play a huge role in how this game turns out, but the fate of the Broncos’ season does not entirely lie in the hands of No. 18. There are 11 guys on the other side of the ball who need to do their job too.

Final Analysis

Denver is the top seed in the AFC playoffs, went 7-1 at home this season and is feeling all of the pressure entering this one. The memory of last season’s playoff collapse against Baltimore lingers and Peyton Manning doesn’t want to go one and done in the postseason for the ninth time in his career. San Diego is relishing its underdog role, as the Chargers handed the Broncos their only home loss so far and are riding high after last week’s Wild Card win in Cincinnati.

San Diego has done a better job than other team this season of limiting the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, but you can’t help but wonder if Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Manning used the bye last week to come up with some new wrinkles. The bottom line is that the Broncos know they need to figure out a way to find some things that work against a defense that’s obviously benefitted from first-year head coach Mike McCoy’s familiarity with his former team.

There’s obviously a lot at stake in this rubber match, but I have a hard time seeing Manning and his teammates coming up short this time. There were several things that happened in last season’s loss to Baltimore that could only be defined as “fluky.” Also, it’s fair to say that the weather (13 degrees at kickoff) was a factor, as Manning just didn’t look comfortable throwing in those conditions. He’s already posted some pretty big numbers in less-than-ideal conditions this season and also it looks like the only weather that could be in play this afternoon is the wind.

For this one, I am expecting Denver to look more like the team that rolled up 480 yards of offense and 42 points in its first seven home games than the one that was held to just 295 and 20 by San Diego in December. I also think the defense will pull together and put forth one of its stronger performances this season, as the Broncos take care of business at home to set the stage for another Manning vs. Brady AFC Championship Game next week.

Denver 31, San Diego 23

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