The Los Angeles Chargers and the Denver Broncos will meet for their 119th matchup on Sunday afternoon. After dropping two close games in a row, the Chargers rolled over the football team-turned-doormat Dolphins 30-10 last week to even their record at 2-2. A win against the luckless Broncos would put the Bolts in a good spot against a marginal upcoming schedule before their meeting with division favorite Kansas City on Nov. 18.
The Broncos as we know them are on the verge of collapse. The two-year experiment with Case Keenum was unbelievably underwhelming, and one of the league’s best defenses in recent history was shouldered with an impossible burden. President of Football Operations/GM John Elway picked up Joe Flacco, the vanilla pudding of quarterbacks, and NFL lifer Vic Fangio as head coach to right the ship and save his own hide. It seems that nothing is going right in Denver these days, and an 0-5 start might be the final straw for the current regime.
Denver at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 6 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Chargers -6.5
1. Denver defensive decline
Gone are the days of the Broncos' defense leading the way to Super Bowl victories. Heck, this team is just trying to win a game — and the Denver D isn’t helping the cause. Entering last week, the Broncos' defense had yet to force a turnover or record a sack — a feat that hasn’t been accomplished (is that an accomplishment?) in the NFL since the early '60s. While Von Miller and Co. were able to sack Jacksonville quarterback Gardner Minshew five times and hold the Jags to six first-half points, the Bronco D wasn’t exactly reminding folks of the Orange Crush. Jacksonville completely dominated the ground game as the Jags offensive line bullied the Denver front seven, allowing Leonard Fournette to run wild for a career-high 225 yards, including 190 in the second half. Hard to win games when your defense is giving up seven yards a pop.
To make matters worse, star linebacker Bradley Chubb will miss the rest of the season with a partially torn ACL, wounding an already battered Denver defense. Rookie linebackers Malik Reed and Justin Hollins will likely split time filling in for Chubb going forward. Who thought it was a good idea to let current NFL sack leader Shaq Barrett walk? That fella has some explaining to do.
Things don’t get easier for the Broncos this week against a dynamic Chargers offense that is welcoming back arguably its best offensive weapon, running back Melvin Gordon.
2. Speaking of Melvin Gordon...
The Chargers’ two-time Pro Bowl running back ended his 64-day holdout last Thursday and was dressed for the game in Miami on Sunday. Gordon didn’t see any game action against the Dolphins but will definitely see the field this Sunday. Anthony Lynn has all but assured that Gordon will start, but he’ll be on somewhat of a pitch count, leaving Austin Ekeler to get a majority of the Chargers’ touches.
Ekeler has been more than serviceable in Gordon’s absence, leading the NFL in touchdowns with six and ranking fifth in total yards from scrimmage with 490 (220 rushing, 270 receiving). With Gordon back, albeit on a tight leash, and Ekeler’s versatility, the Chargers offense could be poised to run roughshod over a Broncos defensive unit that is third-worst in the league at stopping the run.
3. Joe Flacco
Flacco has been ultra Flacco-ish this season, ya know, just kind of...fine. Not bad, not great, just...fine. He’s 14th in yards per game (269), 15th in completion percentage (66 percent), 21st in touchdown passes (5), and he has completed just three passes of more than 20 yards. Will he win you many games? Probably not. Will he lose you a ton of games, too? Not likely. Against Jacksonville, Flacco was extra Flacco-ish. He dominated the first half with 197 yards and two touchdowns — and then he threw a momentum-changing interception before the half that led to a Jags field goal. He followed that up with six yards passing in the third quarter as the Broncos lost their two-touchdown lead. The whole game was just soooo Joe Flacco.
Its safe to say that this is not how anyone envisioned the Flacco Era in Denver starting out. Due to the meltdown that has been the first quarter of the Broncos season, it's also safe to wonder if the Flacco Era will be over as quickly as it began. A loss on Sunday to the Chargers wouldn’t necessarily be an indictment of Flacco, but it would raise serious concern as to whether or not the Broncos fold on 2019 and go total rebuild for 2020. Which begs the question: If the Broncos opt for a rebuild, is the 34-year old Flacco the QB of the future in Denver? Let me answer that for you — Nah.
Regardless of what happens against the Chargers, second-round pick Drew Lock is out until Week 8 with a thumb injury. So win or lose, Flacco is the guy in Denver for the time being. While he might not be the QB of the future, is Flacco at least the QB who can dig the Broncos out of an 0-4 hole?
With the Chargers' offense getting back to full strength with Gordon's return, the Broncos defense can ill afford to have another putrid performance. Their season and even their franchise’s future are riding on it. While I think the Broncos fight to keep it close, I’m not sure they have the horses.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Broncos 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.