The second half of the 2013 regular season starts Sunday for the Denver Broncos when they travel to San Diego to take on the Chargers in their second divisional game this year.
These familiar foes know each other pretty well, and despite the Broncos cruising to a sweep last season, this should be a closely contested battle as Denver adjusts to life on the sidelines without John Fox.
Although the Fox storyline will draw a lot of the headlines, the team must continue on without him and prepare for the Chargers like this is any other week of football.
After fast-paced start to 6-0, the Broncos have returned to reality with a week 7 loss to Indianapolis and a so-so performance against the Redskins at home. While that was happening, divisional rival Kansas City has jetted out to a one-and-a-half game lead in the AFC West that has Denver position as the No. 5 seed if the playoffs started today.
This downward trend must stop in San Diego, otherwise the Broncos will find themselves playing for a Wild Card berth instead of a division crown, regardless of how the team fares in their home-and-home series with Kansas City over the next month.
The most important thing for Denver to do this weekend, other than win, is to not overlook a Chargers team that is looking to rally in the second half of the season after a disappointing loss to Washington last week.
But, that is locker room stuff that we’d like to believe the players already know.
As for what happens on the field this Sunday, here’s what the team must do if they want to keep pace in the AFC West race and the AFC playoff picture as a whole:
1. Don’t Let Phillip Rivers Get Comfortable
Derek Wolfe has yet to have a breakout game this season and the Broncos will need him and the rest of the interior defensive line to get a good push up front to pressure Rivers out of the pocket, where he is less effective. The Chargers offensive line is arguably one of the most improved units in the league this season so this won’t be an easy task, but the more Denver can disturb Rivers’ passes, the easier life will be in the secondary, where rookie Keenan Allen and All Pro tight-end Antonio Gates are expected to thrive against a unit that was burned constantly throughout October.
If Shaun Phillips, Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson and Wolfe each bring down Rivers once and the rest of the defensive line accounts for 15 or so quarterback pressures, then the Broncos defense should look like an improved group coming off the bye week.
2. No more fumbles
No turnovers in general would be nice, but one trend that has emerged — with no real statistical backing, only mere observation — is that the Broncos fumbles really seem to hamper their offense more than Peyton Manning’s six interceptions have over the first half of the season. Fumbles have destroyed the confidence of young running backs Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, while Manning’s fumbles have caused a breach in trust of the once-stable offensive line that has been shifting around due to injury ever since training camp started. If the Broncos don’t put any balls on the ground, then their likelihood of winning the contest increases significantly.
3. Win the special teams battle
This is easier said then done, especially if San Diego implements the strategy used by the Redskins in week 8, which was keep the ball away from Trindon Holliday. However, even if Holliday is limited, the special teams unit can not afford to allow San Diego to win this phase of the game. The Chargers blocked a pair of field goals last weekend and this is a unit that is growing more confident week in and week out. Also worth mentioning, former Bronco receiver Eddie Royal is a standout return specialist. If the Chargers bring back a kick or punt return to the house, then this game will be a lot closer than Denver would like it to be, especially considering the team has struggled mightily in close contests against the Cowboys and Colts.
4. Challenge Chargers into conservative play calling
Former Bronco offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who was known for his conservative play-calling, is now leading the Chargers as head coach. Like an first year head coach, he’s had highs and lows this season on the sideline with a few questionable calls here and there. What the Broncos must do on Sunday is create situations that limit McCoy’s ability to call a more diverse set of plays and force him to return to his conservative routes of running the ball in situations like third and five.
Matchup wise this may prove to be difficult as long-time Bronco killer Gates should thrive on short yard situations throughout the game. Nonetheless, if the Broncos can make the right situational calls on defense it can prove to be a big help by causing McCoy to crawl back into his hermit shell and to restrict Rivers’ ability to make big throws down-field that have propelled his career comeback this season.
Of course, as mentioned early, the pass rush will be key in achieving this step, but what will really make this possible is if the Broncos can contain Gates over the middle and Allen on deep routes. If they can limit San Diego’s aerial attack early on, it could prove to be a big difference later in the game.
5. Attack, attack, attack through the air
This really should be the No. 1 key to winning the game. If the Broncos revert back to their conservative ways with McCoy standing on the opposite sideline, then they will lose this game — mark my words. With Jack Del Rio taking over the coaching duties, don’t expect much to change on the offensive side of the ball. However, if it does, and Manning’s pass attempts are limited for whatever reason, then the team will struggle similarly to how they did early in their last four contests against Dallas, Jacksonville, Indy and Washington.
Now, starting off fast should be a key to every game — hence, why it’s not listed here, but the Broncos can’t get comfortable with any sort of lead in this game, if they are to go up let’s say 17-3 in the first half. The Chargers have a high-octane passing offense and an absolutely terrible secondary that is going to prevent them from being a playoff team more than likely this season. What this means is that the Broncos need to keep throwing it until late in the fourth quarter. The Chargers simply don’t have enough talent back there to handle Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas all at once.