I want to send this weeks article out to one of my favorite color analysts who has ever covered the NFL. Dan Dierdorf was behind the mic one last time on Saturday in Foxboro, MA. It’s a career that has spanned 43 years as both a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, and I’m sure someday as a Hall of Fame broadcaster. Good luck in retirement, Dan! Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
OMAHA, OMAHA…HURRY, HURRY… <flag on the play> the San Diego Chargers defensive line just jumped offside again.
It’s 2nd-and-7, 1:57 remains on the clock in the fourth quarter. Denver Broncos’ quarterback, Peyton Manning hands the ball off to running back, Knowshon Moreno and he’s stopped after a short, 2-yard gain. On 3rd and 5, in an effort to run out the clock, another handoff to Moreno nets only a yard. So it’s time for Britton Colquitt to come out and try to pin the Chargers as far back as possible. Then San Diego moves the ball to the 30 yard line where quarterback, Phillip Rivers airs it out down the right sideline and into the waiting arms of Keenen Allen for the game tying touchdown. WAKE UP, YOU’RE HAVING A NIGHTMARE!!! A year to the day after that very same scenario played out in the 2012 divisional playoffs, the Broncos were faced with a choice: do they play it conservatively like last year, or as Herman Edwards so eloquently stated, “PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!”? Offensive coordinator, Adam Gase opted for the latter and unlike last year, put the ball in the hands of the best player on either team. That decision paid off as the Broncos held onto the ball for the final 3:51; preserving a 24-17 victory and advancing to the AFC title game. Want to know how it happened? You’ll have to read further.
The Good: Sunday’s pats on the back begin with the defense. Defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio dialed up the perfect game plan and more importantly, the players executed it. It was as if Del Rio said, “Phillip Rivers is going to have to beat us today.” Denver loaded the box and pursued the ball carriers relentlessly. They strung out many of the running plays away from the intended hole and allowed those speedy defensive backs and linebackers to make tackles for little or no gain. That resulted in a net of 65 rushing yards for the Chargers; 112 yards fewer than when the two teams met in week 15. That’s a whole football field +12 yards of offensive production prevented by this defense folks. In addition to stopping the run, the Broncos sacked Rivers four times. Defensive end, Malik Jackson got him once. Defensive end, Jeremy Mincey also got him once. A game of karma for San Diego reared its head as former Chargers’ defensive end, Shaun Phillips harassed his former teammate twice en route to the revenge victory. They were actually shutting out the Bolts until 3:08 left in the fourth quarter. It was only after cornerback, Chris Harris, Jr. went out, with what we have since been informed to be a season ending knee injury that the Chargers were able to start going vertical with its passing game. I believe that if Harris doesn’t go out, Denver pitches the shut out. Between Harris, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Champ Bailey, the San Diego receivers were unable to get open in the first 3 quarters. In fact, it wasn’t until the first play of the fourth quarter when former Broncos WR, Eddie Royal became first Chargers’ receiver to catch a pass in the game. San Diego recognized that Harris was out and immediately started picking on his replacement, former Charger, Quentin Jammer. To be fair, Jammer is 34 years old and did not see many reps in practice at corner. Heck, the Broncos even signed him in the offseason to play safety. So he was really even out of position. So all of that said, the defense deserves high honors today.
In addition to the stout defensive play, Denver flipped the playbook on San Diego offensively. In each of the first two meetings, the Chargers accrued about 38 minutes in time of possession. After the defense got off the field unscathed on the Chargers first drive, the Broncos took the ball and embarked on its longest drive of the season. Manning and the offense matriculated the ball down the field (thanks, Hank Stram), 86 yards on 14 plays, consuming 0ver seven minutes of the clock. The drive culminated in a two yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. Now that, my fellow Bronconians is beating a team at its own game. At the 11:13 mark of the second quarter, Denver chewed up another 5:13 off the clock while going on a 9 play, 57 yard drive. That was topped off with a three yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker. After the Chargers scored its first TD, in the fourth quarter, the Broncos answered right back with a nine play, 81 yard, 4:47 drive which was finished off with a three yard plunge by Moreno. When it was all said and done, the orange and blue controlled the clock to the tune of 35:27 to 24:33 for the powder blue. I can guarantee you that San Diego head coach, Mike McCoy didn’t see that coming. So while the players executed the game plan, my game ball goes to John Fox, Gase, and Del Rio for constructing a great game plan.
Peyton Freakin Manning was…well…Peyton Freakin Manning light. He had a respectable: 25 of 36 for 230 yards, two TDs, and 1 INT. The INT was a good play by the Chargers’ defender covering Eric Decker on the play. He tipped the ball away from Decker in the end zone and an equally good play was made by linebacker, Donald Butler to secure the ball and keep his feet in bounds. However, I think the best stat of the game for Peyton was the five offside penalties he was able to bait the Chargers’s defensive line into. It was complete brilliance by the maestro.
Even more impressive than the scoring drives themselves, was the final drive of the game. In last years loss in the divisional playoff game, the Broncos had a chance to kill the final 3+ minutes of clock while ahead 31-24 over the Baltimore Ravens. Instead of putting the ball in PFM’s hands to deliver the knockout blow, then Broncos offensive coordinator, McCoy opted to run the ball three times with 3rd and 4th string running backs: Ronnie Hillman and Jacob Hester respectively. Knowshon Moreno had already been ruled out with an injury. Well that conservative play calling cost the Broncos dearly in that game. However, faced with the same situation on Sunday, Denver clearly learned from its mistakes of 12 January, 2013. At a crucial point on that final drive, with the Broncos facing a 3rd and 17, Manning hit Julius Thomas on a 21 yard completion and a first down. On that play, the pocket collapsed on Peyton and he threw it with a little more air under it than he would have liked but Thomas made a great catch along the Broncos’ sideline. Forty-nine seconds later, on 3rd and 6, Manning again found Thomas for 9 yards. Thomas had been a non-factor for the first 56:07 of the game, but was clutch at the most critical time. After Orange Julius put his stamp on the game, it was time for the most important player on the offense not named Manning, in my opinion. With 3rd and 1 and no timeouts left for San Diego, all Denver needed to do was get one more first down to seal the victory. And that is exactly what happened. Moreno took the handoff and rumbled five yards to salt it away.
In no way do I want treat the offensive line as an afterthought. As Keith Jackson would say, those “big uglies” were stellar on Sunday. They opened up holes that allowed Moreno and Montee Ball to gash the Chargers offense for 134 yards on 33 carries and Knowshon’s score. That worked out to be 4.06 yards per carry. They also kept PFM clean the whole game; something they were unable to do in the first two meetings with the Chargers. Kudos, boys! Go have a side of beef on Coach Fox.
I think an honorable mention should go out to special teams. San Diego was unable put any kick returns together. Matt Prater was 1 for 2 in field goals in sustained winds of 20 MPH. Punt return duties were handed over to Eric Decker and he did not disappoint. Even much maligned, Trindon Holliday had a good game. Then again, just holding onto the ball constitutes a good game for him. Seriously though, Holliday had a kick return for a touchdown that was brought back by an illegal block by Omar Boldin.
The Bad: There really isn’t much in the “Bad”column; at least nothing self-inflicted. There was Prater’s windblown missed FG. Quentin Jammer was toasted on three plays, but that was after Chris Harris left the game. Jammer just was not ready to go back to being a cover corner, having taken no reps in practice. The two turnovers committed by the Broncos were more a result of good plays by the Chargers. Denver only committed 6 penalties for 50 yards. The worst of which was the aforementioned illegal block committed by Bolden on the would-be 105 yard kick return by Holliday.
The Ugly: The only ugly thing that happened Sunday came on an Eric Decker punt return with 3:36 left in the first half. Decker appeared headed for pay dirt. When out of nowhere, Mantai Te’o‘s girlfriend tripped him up at the Chargers’ 30-yard line. Seriously, what is it with San Diego that causes Decker’s feet to become all thumbs? Your guess is as good as mine.
Up Next: Well unless you have been incapacitated, residing in a cave for the weekend, you’re not too bright, or just don’t follow football or the Broncos (Which the last two really don’t make sense if you’re reading this article), then you know that the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are bringing their New England Patriots and playoff pedigree to (Sports Authority Field at) Mile High Stadium for all of the AFC marbles. Rumor has it that they are schlepping along with them our favorite former head coach, Josh McDaniels (That’s sarcasm at its finest in case you didn’t get it). This will be the fourth time Denver and New England have met in the post season, but the first time in the AFC Championship game. Denver holds a 2-1 lead in the previous meetings. Also, this will be the 15th overall matchup between Manning and Brady. They have met 4 times in the post season, each winning twice. So in other words, this is exactly what the NFL and CBS wanted. Kickoff is slated for 1:05 Elway Standard Time and as previously mentioned, the game will be on CBS. Jim Nance and Phil Simms will have the call. And if you’re heading to the stadium, it’s supposed to be 50 degrees at kickoff. However, since it is Colorado (where if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes, it’ll change) dress in layers. You know, the essentials, like a hoodie with the sleeves cut off. And don’t forget to wear your Uggs…Tommy will be wearing his.