In the second of two Monday night games to open the 2017 season, the Los Angeles Chargers pay a visit to Sports Authority Field at Mile High for an AFC West matchup against the Denver Broncos.
Don’t let the Chargers' 5-11 record last season fool you. They were and are a very good football team. In fact, they may have been the best five-win team in the history of the NFL, losing nine games by six points or less. Regardless, the Chargers faltered down the stretch, losing five consecutive games to end the year, ultimately ending Mike McCoy’s reign as head coach. In a strange twist of fate, McCoy now serves as offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos.
The Chargers must now put their snake-bitten 2016 campaign behind them. They begin 2017 with a fresh start in Los Angeles under new head coach Anthony Lynn. And their first challenge is a significant one, beating the Broncos in Denver. Something the Chargers have not been able to do since 2013.
The disappointment the Chargers endured last season probably paled in comparison to that of the Broncos. Despite a respectable 9-7 record, the defending Super Bowl champions failed to even make the playoffs. It marked the first time that Denver has missed the postseason since 2010.
The Broncos enter the 2017 season with a clean slate, under a new regime, led by first-time head coach Vance Joseph. But success will not come easy in the ultra-competitive AFC West. The stakes are high right out of the gate, as Joseph makes his coaching debut on the big Monday night stage against the talent-rich Chargers.
Los Angeles at Denver
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 11 at 10:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Denver -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Broncos and the run game
One reason for the Broncos’ decline in 2016 was a lackluster rushing attack. Denver found the end zone just 11 times via the ground last season, and only five teams in the NFL averaged less than Denver’s 92.8 rushing yards per game. New head coach Vance Joseph hopes to correct this issue by adopting a more power-oriented “between the tackles” attack. This should better complement C.J. Anderson’s aggressive running style, as well as simplify matters for a revamped Denver offensive line. Additionally, the Broncos hope that former All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles has enough left in the tank to provide a spark.
Perhaps an even bigger reason for the Broncos’ slide in 2016 was their inability to stop opposing run games. Denver went from the No. 3-ranked run defense in the NFL during its 2015 Super Bowl season, allowing just 83.6 rushing yards per game, to No. 28 last season, giving up 130.3 yards per contest. The Broncos addressed this by adding defensive tackles Domata Peko and Zach Kerr via free agency to anchor the front. Unfortunately, Kerr will miss tonight’s game due to injury, as will starting DE Jared Crick. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who averaged 102.5 rushing yards against Denver last season, should provide a good early indicator on whether or not Denver has done enough to fix its porous run defense.
2. Elite pass rushers
One of the more intriguing matchups in tonight’s game will feature talented edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram against Denver’s new offensive tackles – free agent addition Menelik Watson and 2017 first-round pick Garrett Boles. Bosa is coming off a stellar rookie campaign in which he tallied 10.5 sacks in just 12 games. While the Broncos were one of only three teams to hold Bosa without a sack, he was very disruptive against them. There is a good chance that you will hear his name a lot tonight against an overhauled Denver offensive front.
If for some reason Bosa isn’t up to the task, Ingram probably will be. Ingram moves to defensive end in 2017, transitioning from his 3-4 outside linebacker position where he compiled 18.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Most believe Ingram is better suited with his hand in the dirt in the Chargers’ new-look 4-3 defensive scheme. If true, it does not bode well for Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian.
And you can’t forget about the sack master himself on the other side. Denver outside linebacker Von Miller is a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and offensive linemen alike. Miller, who holds the Broncos’ single-season sack record (18.5 in 2012), totaled 13.5 in 2016. Two of those came against the Chargers. He could easily find himself in the Los Angeles backfield early and often again tonight against a retooled Chargers offensive line that once again is dealing with injuries at the outset of the season.
3. The passing game
While Philip Rivers’ (above, right) track record against the Broncos in Denver isn’t particularly good, he can take some comfort in knowing that he will have a full complement of weapons tonight. That’s something he did not have during the injury-plagued 2016 season. Expect to see one of those weapons targeted often. Antonio Gates needs just one touchdown to break a tie with Tony Gonzalez for the most all time by a tight end (112).
Despite the return of an outstanding supporting cast, Rivers’ chances for a monster performance appear slim. Even with wide receivers Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin back in the lineup, the passing attack will have a tough row to hoe against the NFL's best pass defense led by elite cornerbacks Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby.
Trevor Siemian also enters tonight’s game with a healthy arsenal of skill players. But like Rivers, Siemian will have his work cut out for him against a dangerous pass defense. On top of having to contend with the aforementioned pass rushers, Siemian will be charged with facing two of the better cornerbacks in the league in Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett. Hayward led the NFL with seven interceptions in 2016 as the Chargers tied for the league lead with 18 picks. Siemian will need four new offensive linemen to jell quickly and top-flight wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to be at their best.
We know that Denver’s defense is elite. Conversely, the Broncos’ offense still has plenty of room for improvement. We also know that a healthy Los Angeles offense has the potential to be special if the line can hold up. The Chargers’ defense has enough talent to be solid in 2017 as well.
The one thing we don’t know much about is first-year head coaches Vance Joseph and Anthony Lynn. That makes this matchup intriguing and a bit of a mystery as well. That being the case and everything else balancing out somewhat equal on paper, the edge goes to the home team. The Broncos also may glean an advantage from having former Chargers head coach Mike McCoy in the fold. No one knows the Chargers’ personnel as well as McCoy, considering Lynn has been with the team just eight months since being hired in January.
Prediction: Broncos 20, Chargers 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.