The Denver Broncos have faced off against the San Diego Chargers 109 times in the past 54 years. It's a rivalry that has produced classic moments like the 1985 edition wherein Dennis Smith blocked two straight field goals to seal a 30-24 Broncos victory, the 2008 botched Ed Hochuli fumble call, and the 35-point second half comeback on Monday Night Football that truly began the Peyton Manning era in 2012.
However, Sunday's edition of this classic AFC West rivalry feels different. That may be because this is almost certainly the las time this game will be played in San Diego for the forseeable future as Chargers owner Dean Spanos eyes a move to Hollywood. Or it may feel different because after so many years where both the Chargers and Broncos came in as competent football teams, that simply isn't the case this go around.
The Broncos are three and a half point favorites in this game, and for good reason. The Chargers come into the game with a miserable 3-8 record and have more injuries than one would think possible. That does not mean this game is going to be easy for the Broncos, however. Despite his team's struggles, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is in the midst of a career year. If there is any gunslinger capable of willing his team to a victory this season, it would be Rivers.
The Broncos will have to be on their game if they are going to come out of San Diego with their fourth consecutive ten win season. Here are three of the most important things they will have to do.
Keep Your Head In The Game
The Broncos are coming off one of the most thrilling wins in franchise history. Their 30-24 victory over the previously undefeated New England Patriots may go down as the game of the season. It would be easy for the Broncos, riding the wave of euphoria created by the New England game, to look past the lowly Chargers. If they do so, they will almost certainly lose.
Denver must keep their heads in the game and not allow San Diego's record, or their own press clippings, to impact their play. If there is such a thing as a trap game, this is it. The Broncos cannot get caught looking past the Chargers, or they'll come back to Denver with their proverbial tails tucked between their legs.
To avoid that ugly result, the Broncos will have to rely on the prepartion done during the practice week, something head coach Gary Kubiak is concerned about. "In this league, it's going to be tough every week," Kubiak said. "The team that we're playing is very capable. They've been in every game that they've played."
That message has been drilled into player's heads every day in the lead-up to this game, but understanding it and acting on it are two different things. The Broncos must come into this game mentally prepared to play.
Put On The Pressure
News flash: Philip Rivers is good. In fact, despite his team's poor record, Rivers may be having the best statistical season he will ever have as an NFL quarterback.
Thus far in 2015, Rivers has thrown for 3,511 yards with 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions. If his team was competitive, Rivers would be a legitimate MVP candidate. Instead, he's the lone bright spot on a very bad football team.
Rivers has succeeded, in large part, thanks to the offensive system Chargers head coach Mike McCoy has installed for him. It is a system Broncos fans will almost certainly recognize. It's the same quick passing, hurry-up, no huddle offensive attack McCoy learned from Peyton Manning during his one season as the five-time NFL MVP's offensive coordinator in 2012.
In order to disrupt Rivers' offensive onslaught, the Broncos must generate pressure with their front four and get home with the pass rush early and often.
Rivers has been sacked 26 times this season. That is tied for 13th highest in the NFL. Tied, coincidentally, with the Denver Broncos.
Getting to Rivers is a necessity if the Broncos defense is going to disrupt the Chargers quick passing attack. Injuries will make that considerably more difficult than one would think. DeMarcus Ware will not travel with the Broncos to San Diego, and will miss his fourth consecutive start recovering from a back injury.
Since Ware's been out, the Broncos have struggled to rush the passer with the same force they did early in the season. Without him in San Diego, and with starters T.J. Ward and Sylvester Williams both out with injuries of their own, the Broncos defense will be down three horses, all of whom have recorded sacks this season.
The Broncos will have to overcome their injuries and get to Philip Rivers if they are going to control the pace of the game and come away with a win.
Take Advantage of Your Matchups
The Broncos have good matchups in nearly every offensive situation. The Chargers defense is beat up and has been beaten down on a regular basis all season. Their defense is ranked in the bottom three of nearly every single measured statistic and they come into Sunday's game without any concievable way to matchup with the Broncos outside threats in the passing game, or their suddenly emerging two headed running attack
A month ago, Brock Osweiler was a little known backup on a team led by a five-time NFL MVP. Now, after two impressive victories, he is on the regional cover of Sports Illustrated. This is his team. It's time for him to show it by taking advantage of the Broncos numerous matchup advantages.
The Broncos may be able to win big if Brock can find a connection with Demaryius Thomas.Thomas led the team in targets last week against the Patriots with 13, but was only able to haul in one 36-yard catch. It was one of the worst game's of Thomas' NFL career. Look for him to bounce back this week in a favorable matchup with Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett.
This game shapes up as the first blowout of the Osweiler era. However, for the Broncos to get there, they'll have to come into the game mentally prepared, put pressure on Philip Rivers, and take advantage of the numerous offensive mismatches working in their favor.
If they can do those things, the Broncos will come away with a victory in what is almost certainly the final game they will play in San Diego for the forseeable future.