The Denver Broncos hit the road to take on the Los Angeles Chargers as both teams look to keep their playoff hopes alive. These two played back in Week 12 with Denver holding serve at home 28-13. The Broncos were efficient on offense with 147 rushing yards on 33 carries. Justin Herbert was LA's leading passer and rusher, although he only totaled 36 yards on the ground. Denver has won 16 of the last 21 meetings in this divisional rivalry.
Since that victory, Denver (7-8) has lost three of four. The Broncos' offense has dried up, scoring just 70 points over that span with 38 of those coming at home against the Lions in Week 14. An injury to Teddy Bridgewater has put Drew Lock back in at quarterback. He didn't get much help from the running game in last Sunday's 17-13 road loss to Las Vegas with Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon combining for eight yards on 14 carries. The defense did its part, including forcing three turnovers, but the offense managed eight first downs and 158 total yards.
As bad as Denver's Week 16 loss was, Los Angeles' was that much worse. The Chargers fell at Houston 41-29, as Rex Burkhead (149 yds., 2 TDs) ran all over them and rookie quarterback Davis Mills threw just six incompletions — even though he was without his No. 1 target, Brandin Cooks. Herbert threw for 336 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions in the loss.
Denver (7-8) at Los Angeles (8-7)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 2 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Chargers -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Both teams playing for their playoff lives
Even with a win, Denver faces long odds to get into the postseason while Los Angeles also is currently on the outside looking in but is tied record-wise with Miami, who possesses the final wild-card berth in the AFC. Regardless, both teams just want to end their two-game losing streaks. The Broncos have a chance to even their road record and the Chargers are just a .500 team at SoFi Stadium.
The bigger storyline for LA is that the team should be closer to full strength after being down so many key guys last week in Houston due to COVID-19 protocols. Running back Austin Ekeler was activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday and Mike Williams was removed on Thursday. More could follow before Sunday, especially with the NFL (in accordance with the CDC's revised guidance) reducing the quarantine period for COVID-positive players from 10 days to five. As of Thursday evening, nine players were still on the Reserve/COVID-19 list for the Chargers, including four defensive backs and linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. Injury-wise, the biggest concerns are a hamstring injury for safety Derwin James Jr. (limited in practice) and an ankle injury for linebacker Drue Tranquill (yet to practice).
Denver also has nine players on the COVID-19 list, including wide receiver Tim Patrick and cornerback Bryce Callahan. The Broncos' bigger concern is injuries. Ten players are on injured reserve, including starting linebackers Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, while 12 players are currently on this week's injury report. Teddy Bridgewater (concussion) isn't likely to return, so Drew Lock will get another start at quarterback but both Javonte Williams (knee) and Melvin Gordon III (thumb/hip) have been limited in practice this week. Additionally, linebackers Bradley Chubb and Kenny Young as well as cornerback Ronald Darby didn't practice on Thursday. There's no indication any of these players will miss Sunday's game but it's pretty clear that Denver is limping down the stretch, in more ways than one.
2. Struggling offense vs. leaky defense
With Bridgewater sidelined following his second concussion this season, Lock will continue to run Denver's offense. It's not fair to blame all of the team's woes on this side of the ball on him, but he certainly hasn't impressed since taking over. Last week against Las Vegas he didn't the ball over, but Lock also didn't throw a touchdown pass and finished with 153 yards through the air on 15-of-22 passing. The Broncos have to run the ball effectively since Lock isn't capable of carrying this offense himself. Los Angeles has had trouble stopping the run all season (29th in the NFL) and just allowed Houston, mainly Rex Burkhead, to run for 189 yards. Williams and Gordon is a much better backfield tandem than what the Texans have, so the opportunity is there for them to make life much easier for Lock. Denver has plenty of talent when it comes to pass catchers, so establishing the run early should set up play-action and help Lock settle into a rhythm when he drops back to pass.
3. Justin Herbert
Only six times in Herbert's short career has he thrown multiple interceptions in a game, and two of those came against Denver. The one thing that has worked for him is he's had some of his better rushing efforts against this defense. We know that he doesn't mind using his legs, and he's had 83 yards on the ground in three career starts vs. the Broncos. Denver's defense has held four of its last five opponents to 20 points or less. The good thing for Herbert is that it looks like he'll get both Ekeler and Williams back. Not only is Ekeler the Chargers' leading rusher, but he's also tied for Williams for the team lead with seven touchdown catches.
Both of these teams are in the playoff hunt, although Los Angeles is better positioned to grab a wild-card spot compared to Denver. The Broncos' offensive struggles issues have been a season-long issue but are really rearing their ugly head recently considering the defense is tied for the league lead in points allowed per game (17.3). The Chargers have more firepower, especially with guys coming back from the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and are at home, so easy call, right? Maybe not... Los Angeles' loss last week to Houston was ugly even with the COVID-related absences and Denver's ground game should have success against LA's leaky defense while the Broncos' is much more trustworthy at this point of the season. Give me the outright upset here as the road team grinds out a victory to keep its playoff hopes alive.
Prediction: Broncos 23, Chargers 20
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.