Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Key Matchup: Chargers O-Line vs. Broncos Pass Rush

If you’ve been asleep at the wheel this NFL season, you might have missed the story about Chargers quarter Phillip Rivers experiencing a career revival.

After sinking to five-year lows in touchdowns (26), passing yards (3,606) and passer rating (88.6) in 2012 that was compounded by a career-high 22 turnovers and 49 sacks, Rivers is playing some of the best ball of his career and has San Diego (6-7) in the thick of a hyper-complex race for the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot.

A lot of credit goes to the hogs up front, whose protection has cut Rivers’ sack total in half — 24 through 13 games, and has allowed for career highs in both his completion percentage, 70.3 percent, and passer rating, 106.4.

Nonetheless, the Chargers are still on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture — they sit behind Baltimore and Miami, both 7-6 — and arrive in the Mile High City carrying a four-game losing streak to their divisional rival that extends back to October 2011.

Despite the recent outcomes against the boys in powder blue, this is short-week matchup comes at the wrong time for a Bronco defense that remains very hobbled with injuries to starters Champ Bailey, Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson and Rahim Moore.

If that weren’t enough, the club is limiting starting safety Duke Ihenacho’s time on the field and has asked captain Wesley Woodyard to take a smaller roll the rest of the regular season.

John Fox explained these moves with rhetorical coach-speak earlier this week, saying that “Wesley Woodyard is a great player for us and he’s done a tremendous job…Wesley Woodyard’s fine. He’s going to play a lot of football for us moving forward … It’s that the other guys have earned opportunities, and the more guys that you can call on, the better it is for your football team.”

Right, John, whatever that means. Football is an ever-changing business, we get it — some guys move up the depth chart, some move down.

While all of these headlines and injuries suggest that the Broncos’ defense is heading in the wrong direction in December, the team’s best defensive unit — its pass rush — remains intact, for the most part, and has been playing its best football of the season over the last four weeks.

Von Miller, the group’s unquestionable leader, had one of, if not, his best games of the season against Tennessee and will need that high-performance level to carry over into the short week against a quarterback he hasn’t much trouble pressuring in his five career games against San Diego.

Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio should expect a lot of double teams on Miller tomorrow night though, which means former Charger-standout Shaun Phillips will have to make an impact along with backup rusher Robert Ayers, who’s battled inconsistency issues this year.

If the Broncos fail to apply a consistent pass rush on Rivers, who’s enjoyed being able to sit behind his much-improved offensive line this season, then it will be a long day for Denver.

Yes, the Broncos can score points until the stadium lights go out. However, that anecdote short changes the fact San Diego comes into this week hungry and with their backs against the proverbial wall.

Rivers remains the team’s best player, despite what pundits may say, and he’s been a Bronco killer in the past. With the Denver secondary at its weakest, Rivers must be licking his chops to get on the field and prove to the football world that the Chargers are a playoff-caliber team.

Denver’s pass rushers have the ability to write a completely different script for anchors to read Friday morning. And, more importantly, send Rivers in the one direction he doesn’t want to go just yet: home.

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Tags: Denver Broncos Phillip Rivers Robert Ayers Shaun Phillips Von Miller

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