The moment every Bronco fan in the world has been waiting all season for is almost here, and it comes with the highest level of expectations.
Expectations aren’t the only thing peaking this week as the Broncos’ postseason inches closer and closer — the stakes are higher, and so are the ticket prices. However, the trend that’s surging the most, as the Divisional Round looms over the Mile High City once again, is the level of competition.
Although top-seeded Denver hosts the No. 6-seeded San Diego Chargers this Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the seeding and home field don’t seem to factor in as an advantage as much as they once did — a fact that’s familiar to Bronco fans everywhere.
While nobody wants to talk about the possibility of another premature playoff exit, San Diego has already proven they can beat the Broncos in Denver.
Record-setting quarterback Peyton Manning is known for his relentless preparation, which helps him recognize and make adjustments on the field. He’s had plenty of time to study everything San Diego does defensively and make corrections before, and during, the game.
The problem is that Manning’s also known for his sub-.500 postseason record (9-11) and the Broncos are coming off a season, where, despite winning the AFC in the regular season, they choked up in the playoffs.
This time around, the situation is nearly identical: the Broncos have everything in the world to lose, while the Chargers are playing “loose” and “care-free” football, just happy to be a part of the ride. If they advance even further into the playoffs, great; if they succumb to the Broncos historic offense, pundits will say they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Denver knows from experience not to take their opponent lightly, but will all the history matter come Sunday when the Broncos and Chargers clash for a chance to play in the AFC Championship Game.
Let’s see how the Chargers match up on offense position by position:
Quarterback: Philip Rivers
Some are saying that Rivers, not Manning, is actually the best QB remaining in the AFC playoffs. He is riding the momentum of a five-game win streak and his team has been playing with a back-against-the-wall mentality since before the two AFC West rivals faced off in Denver on Dec. 12. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean Rivers is the superior player/leader; rather, he’s benefitting from the Chargers circumstances. Nonetheless, what you’ll hear again and again this week is how “loose” Rivers is playing and how “tight” Manning will be on the field Sunday with his Super Bowl-window about to close. What impact this has on performance is yet to be seen, but anybody who’s watched football this season knows Manning is in a league of his own, no matter how high Phillip Rivers’ confidence might be. If the Broncos can put pressure on him early and often, he’ll look a lot more like the quarterback of a year ago, who threw 20-plus interceptions.
Running Back: Ryan Matthews, Danny Woodhead, Ronnie Brown
All three were effective in Sunday’s win over the Bengals, as San Diego rushed 40 times for 196 yards. It appears the Chargers have found a three-headed beast and that discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. To make matters worse, the Broncos have been dreadful in stopping Matthews throughout his limited playing career and their run defense has been questionable at best all season. Denver’s top priority needs to be to limit San Diego on the ground and ensure that Manning isn’t sitting too long on the sideline for his next possession. It’s not going to be easy.
Wide receivers: Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal, Vincent Brown
Nobody picked the Chargers to make much noise this season because of early-season injuries to playmakers such as Malcolm Floyd. The assumption was that Rivers, with a lack of viable targets, would struggle along with first-year head coach Mike McCoy. That narrative has been pushed aside down the second half of the season as Allen has effectively replaced Floyd, while making a push for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Brown and Royal are more streaky threats, but if allowed to make big plays early, they will continue to spark off their quarterback’s confidence and cause further problems later in the game. Despite their outside speed and Allen’s emergence, the Broncos’ trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker has an edge here.
Tight end: Antonio Gates, LaDarius Green
If the Broncos don’t come in with a competent game plan for stopping Gates and Green, it could be a long day. Similarly to River and Matthews, Gates has had his way playing against the Broncos in the past. However, Green may be the more dangerous of the two tight ends, as Rivers has grown comfortable throwing to his second-year tight end. Whatever the Chargers lack on the outside, they make up for in the middle of the field. It’s still yet to be seen if the Broncos have linebackers and safeties capable of shutting down Gates, let alone Gates and Green. This could be a problem area come Sunday.
Offensive line: King Dunlap, Chad Rinehart, Nick Hardwick, Jeromey Clary, DJ Fluker
How the Chargers offensive line handles the Broncos pass rush will dictate how close this game is and whether or not the Chargers have a chance to win it. If Rivers has as much time in the pocket as he did against Cincinnati yesterday, then he will pick apart the Broncos secondary and move the ball consistently like he did in week 15. However, if Denver breaks through and disturbs the once-erratic Rivers, then turnover opportunities will abound. The Broncos probably only need one or two to blow the doors open. With that said, the Chargers offensive line is arguably the most-improved group in the entire league and couldn’t be playing with more confidence, especially after yesterday’s win.
Well that’s it for the offensive side of the ball. Tune in later this week for a defense and special teams breakdown.