As Sunday’s divisional round inches closer and closer, a storyline is being repeated and cemented around this game: the Chargers are surging off their road win in Cincinnati last weekend and the Broncos are trying to ensure last January’s playoff loss to Baltimore doesn’t happen again.
In the wake of this narrative lies a trail of other familiar headlines that include words like “revenge” and “rivalry,” as well as redundant analysis surrounding which team’s quarterback — the Broncos’ Peyton Manning or the Chargers’ Philip Rivers — has an edge in this matchup.
What’s being glossed over in all the hoopla surrounding the game is the fact that defense, not offense, will determine its winner. San Diego played its best game of the season defensively last week, turning over the Bengals four times and limiting their high-powered offense to just 10 points, none of which came in the second half.
By blanking the Bengals on the road, the Chargers confidence is soaring sky high, as it should be. As you all know, this is the same team that limited Denver to a season-low 20 points back on Dec. 12, handing them the No.1-seeded club its only home loss of the season.
Let’s see how the Chargers match up on defense position by position:
Defensive line: Kendal Reyes, Cam Thomas (NT), Corey Liuget
What’s important to note here is that the Chargers lack depth front and the Broncos must attack that weakness by keeping the offense moving at a fast pace. With that said, Liuget and Reyes, a pair of former first and second rounders, respectively, have grown into their own this season, each reaching career highs in sacks, tackles and QB pressures. Similarly, Cam Thomas is playing the best football of his career and will look to challenge All-Pro guard and former teammate Louis Vasquez in the trenches. The Chargers have done an impeccable job in the draft and in no area is that more apparent than on both sides of the line, where the two units are among the most improved groups in the league. Liuget and Thomas were both high impact players in their respective playoff debuts in Cincinnati last week. Expect them to only grow more comfortable and be more confident heading into Denver, a place where they’ve had success this season.
Outside linebackers: Jarret, Johnson, Melvin Ingram, Tourek Williams
No Von Miller, and possibly no Shaun Phillips, will limit Denver’s pass rush on the outside. On the other side, San Diego is fresh and highly capable of wreaking havoc. Johnson recorded a sack and another tackle for a loss last weekend and Ingram, a former first round pick, is capable of making a game-changing play at any moment. Just ask Andy Dalton.
Middle linebackers: Manti Te’o, Donald Butler
Te’o should be someone the Broncos should attack time and time again both on the air and on the ground. He’s still very capable of making rookie mistakes, even though he looked like a veteran the last time the Broncos saw him. Butler is the leader in the middle, coming off one of the best game of his career last weekend. He will need to do that again if the Chargers want to limit Peyton Manning’s time on the field. Putting either of these guys into coverage against, say, Wes Welker or Julius Thomas will be a mismatch the Broncos must take advantage of. Nonetheless, both of these young leaders showed up in December. No reason to believe they won’t show up Sunday.
Corners: Shareece Wright, Derek Cox, Richard Marshall
It’s hard to give an edge to such an unproven unit, and one that ranked 29th in the NFL in the regular season, but San Diego does posses a talented group of corners that are capable of making plays on the biggest stage. Wright picked off Dalton last week and had a pair of pass break ups in December against Manning. Cox and Marshall are two extremely talented players who have gone through ups and downs throughout their careers. Both are looking to prove themselves and earn a much larger pay day next year.
Safeties: Marcus Gilchrist (SS), Eric Weddle (FS), Jahleel Addae
The Broncos safeties will have their hands full come Sunday, but don’t expect it to be a cake walk for their opponent either. Addae emerged last week as a capable third safety that could come on the field to give the Chargers six defensive backs in certain packages. Denver should be familiar with Gilchrist and Weddle, two more players drafted and retained by the San Diego organization. How each plays will have a huge impact on determining the outcome of the game. While Butler is the playmaker in the middle, Weddle is the team’s true defensive leader and will be someone who Manning must beat repeatedly to get the Broncos offense going.
Well, that’s it for the defensive side of the ball. Tune in later in the week for special teams breakdown and my prediction for the game.