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Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers Preview and Prediction

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Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers

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San Diego enters tonight’s game with a 1-4 record after dropping a third straight in heartbreaking fashion. The Chargers continue to find new ways to lose, this time squandering yet another late fourth quarter lead on the road against the Raiders. San Diego has led in the fourth quarter in each of its four losses.

To make matters worse, the seemingly cursed Chargers have now lost 10 in a row to AFC West opponents dating back to 2014, a streak that puts head coach Mike McCoy firmly on the hot seat. McCoy and company will attempt to alter their fortunes tonight against the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos. Denver has defeated San Diego five straight times.

Week 5 was not particularly kind to the Broncos either. Rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch was sacked six times in an underwhelming 23-16 loss to the Falcons, Denver’s first of the season. The good news is that it looks like Trevor Siemian will be back at quarterback for tonight’s contest against the Chargers. The bad news is that Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak will not be on the sideline. Kubiak, who suffers from what has been described as “complex migraines,” had to be briefly hospitalized following last Sunday’s loss. Special teams coach Joe DeCamillis will fill in as interim head coach this week while Kubiak recovers.

Denver at San Diego

Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 13 at 8:25 p.m. ET

Broadcast Channels: CBS, NFL Network, Twitter

Spread: Denver -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Broncos’ Offensive Line vs. Chargers’ Defensive Front
Denver’s revamped offensive line was supposed to be a big upgrade over last year’s unit, and for the first two games, it was living up to that billing. But calf injuries to starting right tackle Donald Stephenson and blocking tight end Virgil Green have coincided with a steep decline in the Broncos’ offensive production. In the first two games, Denver averaged 141 rushing yards per game. Over the last three without Stephenson or Green, that number has been cut in half (75 ypg), as running back C.J. Anderson has been rendered largely ineffective.

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Stephenson’s and Green’s absence also has been felt in the passing game, where the offensive line had been giving up just 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hits per game with them in the lineup. Starting in Week 3, the Broncos have allowed four sacks and eight quarterback hits on average without them. Green’s absence also has removed the threat of a capable pass catcher from the offense as well.

Fortunately, both Stephenson and Hill are expected back for tonight’s game. It will be interesting to see if there is a marked improvement from Denver’s offense with them back on the field. Despite the record, San Diego’s defense has played well. The Chargers are eighth in the NFL against the run (83.4 ypg), and the pass rush has been making some noise too. In his debut last week against Oakland, No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa collected two sacks and three tackles for a loss. Ironically, Bosa will likely be lined up opposite Stephenson tonight in one of the key positional matchups.

2. San Diego Turnovers
If the Chargers have any hope of winning tonight’s game, they must avoid the costly late turnovers and mistakes that have plagued them in each of their last three games. Following a 1-1 start to the season, the Bolts had just two turnovers. Since then, they have turned the ball over 10 times, with at least three giveaways turnovers in each of the past three games. Melvin Gordon has had two costly late-game fumbles in each of the last two games, and Philip Rivers has thrown all three of his interceptions within the last two weeks.

It will be a tall order for San Diego to turn its fortunes around on Thursday Night Football against the best defense it has faced all season. Denver’s defense thrives on putting pressure on the quarterback and forcing opponents into making costly mistakes. The Broncos are tied for the league lead (with Minnesota) in sacks with 19 and have already forced nine turnovers (5 INTs, 4 fumbles). They are more than capable of adding to that total tonight and figure to be plenty motivated following last week’s loss to Atlanta.

3. San Diego Passing Game vs. Denver Pass Defense
The Chargers currently have the No. 2 scoring offense in the NFL at 30.4 points per game. A passing attack that ranks fourth (282.8 ypg) is a big reason why. Philip Rivers has played exceptionally well so far this season, especially when you take into account that he has been without each of his top five receivers from last season for much of this year. Fortunately, players such as Travis Benjamin, Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman and Hunter Henry have all stepped up to fill the void.

A Broncos’ pass defense that currently ranks third in the league (185.6 ypg) will give Rivers and company all they can handle tonight. Once again, the pass rush has been potent, led by current sack leader Von Miller (6.5 sacks), and has produced 19 sacks in five games. The secondary, led by lockdown cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., has allowed just three touchdown passes. Throwing the football is the primary strength of San Diego’s offense. So, it will be critical for the Chargers to find success through the air. They may want to a take a few cues from the Falcons, who found some holes to exploit against Denver’s defense last week, especially when it came to forcing Bronco linebackers to cover Atlanta running backs in space one-on-one.

Final Analysis

The key for San Diego will be to eliminate the mistakes and turnovers that have haunted this team in the fourth quarter this season. Philip Rivers will need to have the passing game clicking, and Melvin Gordon needs to step up against a Denver defense that has been vulnerable against the run. Gordon has scored a touchdown in every game so far this season which bodes well, but his 3.4 yards per carry average leaves plenty to be desired.

Defensively, San Diego will need to pressure Trevor Siemian, who is expected to return after missing last week with a shoulder injury, and force the Broncos’ offense into a few mistakes. The Chargers have at least one interception in all five of their games, so they have displayed a nose for the football. Despite a 1-4 record, San Diego is not a terrible football team, especially when you consider the ridiculous number of injuries to key players. If all goes as planned, the Chargers should be able to keep pace with the Broncos tonight.

The winning recipe for Denver is the same as it has been: play great defense and run the football. The latter has been noticeably absent of late, as the Broncos haven’t rushed for more than 89 yards in a game since Week 2. The return of starting right tackle Donald Stephenson and tight end Virgil Green should help remedy that to some degree. Siemian’s return at quarterback also will go a long way in helping this offense find some traction. It is concerning that head coach Gary Kubiak will not be on the sidelines for tonight’s game. But this is a veteran team, made up of players that fully understand their roles, and should make enough plays to squeak by what has been a snake-bitten Chargers team.

Prediction: Broncos 20, Chargers 17

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.