The (10-3) Denver Broncos are on the brink of history. If they can defeat the (8-5) San Diego Chargers, in Qualcomm Stadium, they will secure the AFC West Divisional crown for the fourth-straight season, which would catapult John Fox into some rarefied coaching air.
As fun as it is for media and fans to think about and talk about records, for the Broncos, it's all about securing their place in the playoffs. A divisional championship would guarantee them a spot in the NFL post-season tournament. As it stands, they're the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC.
But over the next three games, if they can win out, they would be no less than the No. 2 seed. For them to move higher, and secure the No. 1 seed for the third-straight season, they would need the New England Patriots to drop one more game. However, looking at the Patriots next three games and factoring in their high-quality play in recent weeks, it's hard to imagine them losing before the regular season ends.
First thing's first; the Broncos must take care of business tomorrow against a Chargers team who is fighting to stay alive in the AFC playoff picture. Currently, they're the sixth (and final) seed in the conference. A loss would jeopardize their season and likely rip away control of their own destiny.
Peyton Manning understands what's on the line tomorrow.
“These division games count double, so I think you do put special emphasis on division games and that is how we’re looking at it," he said via the team. "It’s the second game of this fourth quarter and it’s a game that is—it’s a lot on the line. It’s a game that you want to play well and you want to do your job and try to find a way to come away with a victory but it’s tough. It’s tough playing there. Every time we’ve played this team, it seems like it’s been settled by a couple points here or there and that is what you’d expect this time around.”
Sometimes the fans and the media can take for granted how important winning the division is. As you can glean from Manning's comments, that is the team's primary objective in-season. Sure, they'd love to be the No. 1 seed. But more than anything, they want a ticket to the dance and without a division crown, there's no guarantee they'd get it.
After studying the Chargers all week, there are several matchups and keys that will determine the outcome of this game. Let's get to it.
Don't Give The Chargers D Opportunities
The one thing that sets the Chargers defense apart as a unit is their ability to take the ball away, when they get on a roll. It's important that the Broncos play smart with the football and don't allow the Chargers any takeaways. Fox was asked what he's seen in the Chargers, since their last matchup.
“They’ve had a change at center," said Fox. "[RB Ryan] Mathews being back [and that] obviously makes them a little more potent at that position. [QB] Philip [Rivers’] play is as good at the quarterback position as most quarterbacks in the league and they’ve got some worthy guys in the receiving corps as well as tight ends. So a good offense that is playing well this season. Their defense is opportunistic, primarily with turnovers.”
Last week, the Chargers took the ball away from Tom Brady and company twice; both in key moments of the game. Their defense played well enough to win, were it not for an offensive performance that could find zero momentum, going against the Patriots exotic defensive fronts.
Corey Liuget leads the Chargers with 3.5 sacks, but is questionable for week 15 with an ankle injury. If he's able to fight through it and play tomorrow, he is a difference maker at the point of attack. Last year, he was responsible for inflicting an injury on Manning (high ankle sprain) that hindered him all season long.
When last the Broncos faced San Diego, they were without several key starters, three of whom will be in the lineup tomorrow; (CB) Brandon Flowers, (OLB) Melvin Ingram and (ILB) Manti Te'o. They'll be without rookie defensive back, Jason Verrett, who is on injured reserve. Losing Verrett was a huge loss for the Chargers and has put the onus on Shareece Wright. Look for Manning to target him early and often.
However, the Chargers defense will look very different tomorrow than their week 8 counterparts, who gave up 35 points to the Broncos. Eric Weddle is one of the NFL's premier playmakers at safety and he knows how to create turnovers, whether it's punching the ball out of the carrier's hands, or tipping a pass into the arms of a teammate. The Broncos will have to keep their proverbial cards close to the vest and protect the football. Manning must be more discretionary with his decisions and can't afford to throw two more interceptions.
Manning Must Rekindle His Fire
Much has been made about Manning's performance last week vs the Buffalo Bills, where he failed to complete a pass in the endzone for the first time in his career with the Broncos. With the team's recent makeover on offense, from a pass-first attack, to a run-heavy one, it should come as no surprise to outsiders that Manning's numbers would suffer.
However, it's understandable that some should feel concern for the 38-year old signal caller. If Manning has an answer for those who are questioning him, he's not being very forthcoming about it.
“I don’t have a great answer for them, I guess," Manning said Thursday. "I’m always trying to play better, always watch the film of the games pretty critically with my coaches, trying to improve, whether we won a game or lost a game, trying to see how I can do my job better in whatever phase that is. So I feel good physically and certainly I’m always looking to play better.”
After spending most of his career snaps on the field with the Broncos in the shotgun, he has played under center much more frequently of late. A necessary requirement, if you want to run the football more effectively. Could that be one of the reasons for his seeming inability to get into a groove?
“I don’t think so. That is probably a little more technical than I’d like to get into. So I don’t think there is any pattern. We’re certainly doing some things on offense as we try to evolve always and try to find plays that we feel good are going to work for us and help us win. I think those are good plays.”
One thing is certain, for a rhythm quarterback like Manning, frequency of throwing plays an integral part in his efficiency. Last week, he only attempted 20 passes, completing 14 of them for 173 yards and 2 interceptions, good for a 56.9 QB rating.
With the emergence of running back, C.J. Anderson, and the new-found grit and chemistry of the offensive line, the Broncos could probably get by with that kind of yardage. But perhaps they could stand to swing the pendulum of balance a little bit more towards the pass, if only to get Manning clicking with his receivers.
But it's the interceptions that mar the complexion of a game and ultimately jeopardize the Broncos fate as a team. In 4 of the last 6 games, Manning has thrown double-digit interceptions. He can't continue at that pace, especially against a team like the Chargers who feature one of the NFL's most deadly quarterbacks in Phillip Rivers. He knows how to convert turnovers into points.
With the running game performing at a prolific rate, it offers up opportunities to gash the opposition with play-action passes. Hopefully, Adam Gase and Manning have cooked up a game-plan that can take advantage of the NFL's new-found respect for the Broncos ground game. Lean on Anderson on first down, but let Manning get into a rhythm. That is a deadly one-two punch.
Force Rivers To Throw
When the Chargers defeated the Broncos in week 15 of 2013, they did so by running the ball, controlling the clock and converting on third-and-short opportunities. It was the perfect formula for stopping Manning and company. However, as the Chargers learned just 8 weeks ago, running the ball against Jack Del Rio's No. 2 rush defense is easier said than done.
Last year, head coach, Mike McCoy, helped to reignite Rivers' career, taking so much of the pressure off of his shoulders by running the ball well. He's been unable to duplicate that feat in 2014. The Chargers lost for the season their top move-the-chains running back, Danny Woodhead. And surprise, surprise, Ryan Matthews has battled the injury bug all year long.
The team's leading rusher is undrafted free agent, Branden Oliver (432 yards). But at just 5'8, 209lbs, his diminutive frame prevents him from being a sustainable threat on the ground. He's great as a change-of-pace option, but he can't be expected to carry the load behind Rivers.
The Chargers brought in former Indianapolis Colt, Donald Brown, but he's been wildly unspectacular and like Matthews, has struggled to stay healthy. Matthews has a track record of performing well against the Broncos, but his day tomorrow is currently in doubt because of an ankle injury.
No matter who carries the rock for the Chargers tomorrow, it is incumbent upon the Broncos to stop them on first and second down and force Rivers into third-and-long situations. Having Danny Trevathan back should help in that regard. Rivers has the skill to convert in such situations, but as we've seen in the past, he also has a penchant for making bad decisions as well.
Third-and-long also buys the Broncos pass rushing studs, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, more time to get to Rivers. The Broncos have the personnel in the secondary to play man coverage. Hopefully, on third down, Del Rio will allow his guys to play on an island and force Rivers to go through his progressions, rather than reading the soft spot in the zone.