The Denver Broncos host the San Diego Chargers Sunday in the second round of the NFL playoffs. You may have heard.
After six days snooping, I’ve come up with Jussel’s Guide to Broncos-Chargers III, keys that will tell us whether or laugh or cry as the game progresses:
No. 1: Is Peyton Manning on the sideline in his Bronco cap, or is he behind center running the no-huddle?
The last time these two teams played, a 27-20 San Diego win in Denver, the Chargers controlled the ball for almost 40 minutes. San Diego had 66 plays in the game, Denver had 53.
That leads to a certain 37-year-old sitting, festering and tightening up on the sideline.
The Broncos have had the ball for more than 70 plays in every other game this season and had several where they had more than 90. Fifty-three won’t get it done.
No. 2: When the Chargers have the ball, are they running it on first down and having success?
In the Chargers’ 27-10 first-round playoff win over Cincinnati, the Chargers ran the ball on first down nine of 10 plays in the first half and finished with 196 yards rushing.
When the Chargers won in Denver, they had a staggering 29 first-down plays. Of those, 24 were runs. The Chargers finished that game with 177 yards rushing and have won their last five games averaging more than 170 rushing yards per game.
No. 3: Sticking with the Chargers with the ball, look to the left.
The Chargers are left-handed to the max. Quarterback Philip Rivers hands the ball off to a running back from the middle of the line to his left on virtually every running play. He throws short passes to his left or on crossing patterns from the left virtually every time.
When the two teams last played, the Chargers ran 32 plays in the first half. Of those, 27 were from the center to the left sideline.
Against Oakland three weeks ago, a 26-13 Charger win, San Diego ran 56 plays from scrimmage, only 12 right of center. In a 27-24 win over the Chiefs two weeks ago, the Chargers had 69 plays from scrimmage. Only 15 went to the right.
Keys for Denver: Robert Ayers, newcomer Jeremy Mincey, Shaun Phillips and Nate Irving in containing the run and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Charger wide receiver Keenan Allen from left sideline across the middle.
No. 4: Manning is in the pistol, the ball is snapped and all Hades breaks loose.
The Chargers rely mostly on a 3-4 formation, with the front three charged with filling lanes and stopping the run first, applying pass pressure second. Defensive end Corey Liuget has 5.5 sacks and his counterpart Kendall Reyes has five, not exactly eye-popping figures.
They have been able to pressure Manning, however.
This won’t be hard to track.
Either Manning has time to pass and is hitting receivers at will, or he is being harassed and hurried, all of which leads us to …
No. 5: Welcome back Wes; now what?
Wes Welker is Manning’s Band-Aid. He missed the last Chargers game and two others thanks to concussions. Will he be immediately involved?
Welker’s presence keeps San Diego in some form of nickel or dime and needing a quick corner to cover the gnat-like nuisance.
Andre Caldwell and Jacob Tamme were the replacements for Welker in a variety of formations, with wide receiver Eric Decker also moving into the slot at times.
None are remotely close to Welker-quick in the middle. Will he make a difference this time around?
No. 6: By land or by air?
Will Denver be able to improve its rushing attack (18 yards on 11 attempts)? Knowshon Moreno had 19 yards on eight rushes and Montee Ball had minus-1 yard on three attempts.
Can’t I get a block here!
If not, will Manning be able to complete passes against the NFL’s 28th-rated pass defense?
According to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers have three of the worst-rated corners in the league: 101st-ranked Richard Marshall, 102nd Shareece Wright and 104th Derek Cox.
If Manning & Co. can’t move the ball against these fellas, the team just isn’t Super Bowl fodder.
Now, what you have been waiting for, the prediction:
San Diego looked super against Cincinnati. Hence the trepidation.
The week before, however, the Chargers struggled to beat the Chiefs in overtime despite KC starting reserves at 20 or the 22 positions. The week before, the Chargers were tied at the half and needed several Raider turnovers and penalties to hold off a terrible Oakland team 26-13.
They can – and should – be had.
Cry me a Rivers: Denver 42, San Diego 27.