Behind Enemy Lines: Denver Broncos

There is no room left for error ... the Chargers have to win on Sunday to have a realistic shot at returning to the playoffs. Will Denver come in relying on its revived running game? Will the Broncos' defense follow the blitz-happy approach that worked so well for the Patriots? To answer these and other questions, we chat with Chad Jensen of

Michael Lombardo: The Broncos have changed their identity on offense over the last few weeks, beating teams on the ground behind inspired running from C.J. Anderson. Should the Chargers expect much of the same this week in San Diego? How will the rotation look when Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman are finally healthy?

Chad Jensen: The Broncos are all-in on their new-found rushing identity. However, that doesn't mean they aren't going to pass. Peyton Manning is the quarterback, after all. Sometimes they'll rush the ball at a 60-40 ratio, other times, it'll be reversed. The Broncos learned a harsh lesson in the Super Bowl. They don't want to render themselves one-dimensional going into the playoffs.

When Ball and Hillman return, they will back up Anderson. They'll spell him when he needs a rest or if he gets banged up, but they won't be forced into the rotation. Anderson is hot and has taken the Broncos rushing game to heights they haven't experienced in years. John Fox and Adam Gase do not want to mess with that Ju-Ju. Anderson will get the lion's share of the carries moving forward, health willing.

ML: Two of Denver's most dangerous weapons, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, will be free agents after the season. How will the Broncos handle this situation? What are the odds of Denver retaining both players?

CJ: Six months ago, I would have guaranteed that both Thomases would be back in Orange and Blue following 2014. But when the team failed to come to terms on an extension with both Thomas camps before the season started, it cast doubt on the whole situation.

My gut feeling is that Demaryius will get an extension before he hits the open market. He recently told NFL Network that he's willing to give the Broncos a "hometown discount" to stay in Denver. We'll see if that holds true. Both parties seemingly have an interest to get a deal done.

With Julius, his lack of a track-record really skews the numbers and how the Broncos perceive his value to the team. It doesn't help that he's essentially missed six games due to injury over the last two seasons, and all of his first two years with the team. Likely, if they're unable to come to terms, they'll franchise tag him, which should be somewhere around $8 million for 2015.

The contract of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. also complicates this issue. The Broncos are currently in negotiations with him and are expected to extend him long-term.

ML: How important is the No. 1 overall seed to the Broncos? Do you think Peyton Manning can win an AFC Championship Game in New England?

CJ: The No. 1 seed is of the utmost importance to the Broncos. Since Manning came to Denver he's 0-3 at Foxboro. With the Patriots new style of smashmouth football in all phases, it makes their home-field that much more of an advantage.

If the Broncos are unable to win the No. 1 seed and they end up having to travel to Foxboro in January, it's hard to see them pulling out the win considering recent history. However, this is another reason the team has revamped its offensive identity. They have to be able to win in December and January, both at home and on the road. The way they've been executing, they'll be hard to beat, no matter who they play and where.

ML: The Patriots really flummoxed San Diego's offense last week, especially with exotic blitzes that overwhelmed San Diego's pass protection. Do you expect Denver to follow that pressure-heavy game plan, even though Philip Rivers is typically very effective against the blitz?

CJ: Jack Del Rio doesn't like to blitz. Don't ask me why, because he has the personnel, both in the front seven and in the secondary, to pull it off. However, recently he's deployed more blitz packages and it's resulted in 10 sacks as a team over the last two games.

T.J. Ward is someone Rivers will have to keep an eye on. He's been utilized in the box more often lately and has several QB pressures and a sack to show for it. Del Rio has a weapon in Ward and it seems as though he's finally realized how best to use him.

Blitz or no, Rivers will have to contend with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware off the edge. In and of themselves, they are a force to be reckoned with, as they've combined for 23 sacks.

ML: The Chargers have had some success against the Broncos in recent meetings by running the ball and controlling (sometimes dominating) time of possession. How do you see Denver's run defense holding up against Ryan Mathews and Branden Oliver? And is third-down defense the biggest "key to victory" for the Broncos this week?

CJ: I like the Broncos chances of stifling the Chargers run game. The Broncos are only allowing an average of 72.8 rushing yards per game. They are very good at bottling up the run. And they might have their defensive leader, Danny Trevathan, back from injury. In tandem with Brandon Marshall, they are fearsome down-hill tackling machines.

As far as third-down, yes, it will be a key to the game. Whichever team succeeds more on the "money down" will win. The Broncos have done well on third down recently. Their dominant running game has provided them with many third-and-short situations, which they've been able to convert.

ML: Who wins and why?

CJ: My insight as to who wins.....this is a very tough game to call, in my opinion. Had the Chargers defeated the Patriots, I would really like the Broncos chances. Now, this game isn't about who wins the division, it's about staying alive. At least for the Chargers.

And so accordingly, the Chargers will come out swinging and give the Broncos their best shot. Mike McCoy intimately knows the Broncos and he knows how to beat them, as we saw in Week 15 last season. However, with the way the Broncos have been playing of late -- their intensity and physicality -- I'd have a very hard time betting against them.

My prediction: Broncos 27 Chargers 23.

Who do you think will win on Sunday in San Diego? Discuss in the message boards.

Chad Jensen is the publisher and lead analyst for You can find him on Twitter and on Google+.

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