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San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos Preview and Prediction

Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers

AFC West rivals will renew acquaintances as the NFL’s Week 15 action gets started tonight with the San Diego Chargers taking on the Denver Broncos at 8:25 p.m. ET on the NFL Network. The Chargers (6-7) need a win if they want to have any shot at the final Wild Card berth in the AFC while the Broncos (11-2) aim to stay ahead of the Chiefs for the divisional lead and the Patriots (10-3) for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Denver has won its past four meetings with San Diego, including a 28-20 road victory back in Week 10. Peyton Manning and the Broncos are a perfect 7-0 at home and are coming off of last week’s 51-28 dismantling of Tennessee. Philip Rivers and the Chargers are just 3-4 on the road, but their biggest victory of the season came as the visiting team. In Week 12, San Diego scored with less than 30 seconds left in the game to defeat Kansas City 41-38, handing the Chiefs their first home loss of the season.

3 Things to Watch

Denver’s Home Dominance
The Broncos have the best record in the AFC and have basically been unstoppable at home. The No. 1 offense in the NFL in both yards (465.6 ypg) and points (39.6 ppg) by wide margins, the numbers are even more staggering when they play at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Denver is 7-0 at home this season and is averaging 478.4 yards and 42.3 points per game played at altitude. The Broncos have outscored opponents 296-153 with an average margin of victory of 20.4 points per home game. Peyton Manning has put up MVP-worthy numbers all season and last week against Tennessee, he pretty much put any doubts about him being able to play in cold weather to bed by torching the Titans for 397 yards passing and four touchdowns. Denver’s offense can beat you with the pass or the run and its quick-strike capability and efficiency combine for one massive headache for opposing defenses. In 28 quarters of play at home, the Broncos have scored in all but three periods. On top of that, Denver has scored double-digit points in more than half (16) of those 28 quarters. San Diego’s offense is no slouch, averaging 400 yards and 24 points per game, and the Chargers’ defense is the only one to hold the Broncos to under 400 yards this season. But Denver still won that game 28-20, and it was in San Diego. At home, no team has been able to corral this offense all season, so it goes without saying that the Chargers’ defense really has its work cut out for it tonight.

San Diego’s Counter Punch
The Chargers know full well what Manning and company are capable of doing, having had a front-row seat just a few weeks ago. The key to beating the Broncos, as the Colts and Patriots demonstrated, is finding a way to trade punches with them when you have the ball. Dallas (48 points), Indianapolis (39) and New England (34) are the only teams to put up more than 30 points against Denver this season. San Diego is fourth in the NFL in total offense at 400.5 yards per game, but tied for 11th in points with 24.3 per contest. The Chargers have scored more than 30 points four times this season, including 37 in last week’s home win against the Giants. Contrast that to Denver, who has been held to fewer than 30 points just twice, one of those games coming against San Diego. The Chargers know they will need to score plenty of points if they have any hope of beating the Broncos. In the first meeting, San Diego was effective running the ball, gaining 131 yards on 35 carries, but Philip Rivers couldn’t get much going through the air. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t turn the ball over, but he was sacked four times and the Chargers were just 6-of-17 on third down conversions. Denver’s defense has certainly stiffened since the return of All-Pro linebacker Von Miller from suspension, but the unit isn’t completely shutting down offenses either. Statistically, San Diego has been a much more productive offensive team on the road (409.1 ypg, 24.6 ppg) compared to at home (365.7 ypg, 24.0 ppg), especially in the yardage department. Going against Denver’s prolific offense on its home turf, the Chargers’ offense is going to need to be able to trade punches with the Broncos if they want to have any chance of winning tonight.

Staying Healthy
Wes Welker suffered a concussion in last week’s win against Tennessee. For Welker it was his second concussion over the past four games, and he has already been ruled out from playing tonight. Denver has already clinched a playoff spot, but has its sights set on the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout. The Broncos must continue to win games to achieve these goals, but John Fox and his coaching staff must weigh that against making sure his team is as healthy as possible for the postseason. Welker’s situation underscores the importance of this, although the Broncos don’t lack for offensive weapons. However, Welker wasn’t the only Bronco to get banged up last week either, as fellow wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas took some hard hits of their own that caused them to either miss some snaps or get up slowly following a tackle. Don’t forget that tight end Julius Thomas returned last week after missing the previous two games because of an ankle injury, while running back Knowshon Moreno left the Week 12 loss to New England on crutches after suffering a bone bruise to his right ankle. With the bumps and bruises adding up, it’s even more important for reserves like running back Montee Ball, wide receiver Andre Caldwell and tight end Jacob Tamme to step up and get the job done when called upon, as it takes some of load off of the starters who have already logged a ton of snaps. In the end, the ultimate goal isn’t home-field advantage; it’s playing in New York City in February in the Super Bowl. To that end, Denver should be a tough out in January, especially if Peyton Manning has all of his weapons at his disposal.

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San Diego Key Players: Antonio Gates and LaDarius Green, TEs
Gates (right) has been one of Philip Rivers’ favorite targets during their time together as teammates and the three-time All-Pro has bounced back nicely from a disappointing 2012 campaign. Gates leads the team in both targets (105) and receptions (68) and is second to rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen in yards (776). Green meanwhile has emerged somewhat in his second season. He has just 16 receptions, but two of those have gone for touchdowns and he’s been more involved in the offense recently. Prior to last week, Green had recorded nine catches for 206 yards (22.9 ypr) in the previous three games combined. Some of this was due to the Chargers utilizing more two-tight end sets and finding ways to get the athletic Green in space after the catch. Whatever San Diego’s offensive game plan is tonight, the Chargers know they have to find a way to produce points. Sticking with the two-TE look may be a good place to start, as the Broncos have struggled against them this season. Denver has given up the second-most receiving yards (953) to tight ends, along with five touchdown catches. In the first meeting with the Broncos, Gates led the Chargers with four catches for 62 yards while Green had one grab for 25 yards. Right after this game was when Green got more involved in the offense, so it’s possible he and Gates could both be factors tonight.

Denver Key Players: Offensive Line
Although Wes Welker is getting over his second concussion in a span of four games and several other of the Broncos’ weapons are dealing with various bumps and bruises, the key to Denver’s offense is keeping Peyton Manning upright and healthy. And while Manning is a master of getting rid of the ball quickly, his offensive line deserves a fair amount of credit too. Despite missing All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady for most of the season and dealing with other injuries that have some guys playing out of position, the Broncos’ line has given up just 15 sacks this season, tied for the fewest (with Detroit) in the NFL. Manning has gone down just twice over the last four games, and both of those came in the overtime loss in New England. San Diego got to Manning twice in its first meeting with Denver, but No. 18 still threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns in the 28-20 win. If there is room for any improvement for the offensive line this time around against the Chargers it is in run blocking. The Broncos were outgained by the Chargers on the ground 131 to 84, as Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball combined to average 4.3 yards per carry on 20 attempts. After all, another way to keep pressure off of Manning is to run the ball effectively, as that helps set up the play-action pass and gives him even more options to attack a defense with.

Final Analysis

San Diego needs to win to keep its slim playoff hopes alive. Denver is already in the postseason, but wants to keep winning to ensure that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Chargers held their own against the Broncos in their first meeting, “limiting” the NFL’s most productive offense to 397 yards and just 28 points.

However, Denver still won that game 28-20, as the Broncos’ defense held Philip Rivers and the Chargers’ offense in check for the most part. The Broncos have been basically unstoppable at home and while I expect San Diego to have some success, the Chargers just don’t have enough firepower to keep up with Denver for four quarters.

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Denver 38, San Diego 27