This week, the Denver Broncos have the opportunity to clinch the AFC West Division title for the fourth-straight season However, the San Diego Chargers stand in their way and are fighting to maintain their postseason positioning as the AFC's No. 6 seed.
I recently sat down with Michael Lombardo, the Publisher of SD Bolt Report, the Chargers page for the Scout NFL Network. He had some very interesting insights.
MHH: With Melvin Ingram back on the field, how have he and Dwight Freeney produced as a pass rushing duo? The Chargers were unable to register a sack in Week 8. Do you see them having better success against the Broncos offensive line this week?
Lombardo: Melvin Ingram is getting better every week since coming off the temporary IR list (hip). He had his best game last week against the Patriots, coming through on a big third-down sack in the red zone and delivering a couple powerful tackles for loss. He is, far and away, San Diego’s best pass rusher off the edge (defensive lineman Corey Liuget is still the team’s best pass rusher and top overall defender).
Dwight Freeney, to be honest, doesn’t have much left in the tank. He can still provide occasional pressure as a situational pass rusher -- and his patented spin move is still in effect -- but he only has two sacks this season despite playing in all 13 games. He ranks second in the league in quarterback hurries (19), but he doesn’t have the explosiveness to finish off those plays like he used to.
If the Broncos can block up Ingram and Liuget, Peyton Manning will have ample time to throw.
MHH: The last time the Broncos played the Chargers, Jason Verrett was banged up and Brandon Flowers didn't play. Are they now healthy? And how much of an impact do you see them having on Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders?
Lombardo: Jason Verrett is on injured-reserve with a shoulder injury and that is a huge, huge loss. Teams have really picked on Shareece Wright since Verrett went down and have mostly avoided Flowers, who has been sensational since coming back after that Denver game. The loss of Verrett significantly lowers San Diego’s ceiling for this season, in my opinion, because strong coverage is the only way to compensate for such a spotty pass rush.
Flowers is outstanding and is in that tier of elite cornerbacks right below Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman. His timing couldn’t be better, either, as he is playing on a one-year deal and is about to get paid this offseason.
Thomas and Sanders are both dynamic players putting up huge numbers. I expect whoever lines up across from Wright to continue doing exactly that, while Flowers will win more battles than he loses.
MHH: The Chargers are reportedly now on their fifth starting center. How has the flux of that position affected Philip Rivers?
Lombardo: San Diego is back to center No. 4, rookie third-round pick Chris Watt, who was able to start last week despite a calf injury. The Chargers would have been better off if he sat out, though, because he had an absolutely miserable go of things against the Patriots. He had a hard time calling out protections against New England’s complex fronts and was often flat-out beat at the point of attack.
The protection has been solid for most of the season, with last week being a glaring exception. Rivers does a good job working with young centers, because he can assist with the protection calls, but if he doesn’t get more time in the pocket he will obviously be limited. If Watt struggles again, San Diego could go back to center No. 5, Trevor Robinson, who was signed off Cincinnati’s practice squad earlier this season and has limited starting experience.
MHH: Ryan Mathews has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. He recently returned from injury. Is he healthy? And if so, do you think the Chargers will be able to run the ball and control the clock as effectively as they did last year when they beat the Broncos in Denver?
Lombardo: Mathews is fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him seven games, but he is now battling an ankle injury suffered last week against New England. He sat out practice on Wednesday, but I expect him to go against the Broncos. But you can never tell with Mathews, who is one of the most injury-prone players in the league.
The Chargers will try to lean on the run to control the clock and keep Manning off the field ... that seems to be the most realistic formula for upsetting Denver. That being said, it will be much more difficult than last season because there is no Danny Woodhead (on IR with a leg injury). Woodhead is the perfect complement to Mathews and is one of the best “move the chains” backs in the league. Branden Oliver is an above-average backup and has been a great find as an undrafted rookie, but he lacks Woodhead’s quickness and precision as a route-runner.
Also noteworthy is that No. 2 tight end Ladarius Green is likely out this week with a concussion. The two tight ends behind him on the depth chart, John Phillips and David Johnson, are both blocking specialists. If both of those guys see increased snaps, it could lead to San Diego calling more runs on the edge than usual.
MHH: Mike McCoy has been under fire for some of his late-game decisions versus the Patriots. How has he handled the criticism and do you think it is justified?
Lombardo: McCoy never lets the criticism get to him. He is similar to Bill Belichick that way, stopping just short of saying, “We’re on to Denver.” His standard response is he always does what he thinks is in the best interests of the football team and, in this instance, it didn’t work.
Clearly, he made the wrong call against the Patriots. You can’t punt the ball with six minutes to go when you’re down two scores. That is especially true when the distance is manageable (fourth-and-5) and when you’re punter is sitting in the locker room with a broken clavicle. That being said, the Chargers were not going to win that game whether they punted or not. New England’s defense dominated the Chargers for 54 minutes, so it’s unrealistic to think the final six minutes would have gone much differently.
McCoy has done a great job since taking over in San Diego and his time management is usually superb. His biggest problem is the tendency to get overly conservative late in close games. That was the case again in his decision to punt against the Patriots and it will be something worth watching if this week’s game is close into the fourth quarter.
MHH: Last question. In my opinion, this game is going to be very hard to call. How do you see the chips falling?
Lombardo: I am not entirely comfortable predicting a double-digit win over a Broncos team that is clearly superior to the Chargers. But the reason I lean that way is threefold: 1) I expect Philip Rivers to bounce back with a huge game after he -- and the entire offense -- stunk it up against the Patriots; 2) the defense is coming off its best game of the season and may actually be peaking at the right time; and 3) the Chargers have desperation in their side, as this is their final home game and a loss here would all but snuff out their playoff hopes.
Rivers is always money in the month of December. I say he bounces back in a big way and gives the Broncos their first divisional loss of the season.
Prediction: Chargers 34, Broncos 23
Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the Scout.com team. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 18 years and covered the team since '03.