Week 10's visit to San Diego will mark the beginning of a four-game stretch that will dictate Denver's seeding in the playoffs. Over the next four weeks, the Broncos will play three road games—including one in Kansas City and New England—as the Broncos look to gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
However, the Broncos' first test in that four-game stretch comes against the Chargers. Many are overlooking this game due to the Broncos' impending matchup with the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) in Week 11—however, the Chargers are not a team that should be overlooked.
Three of San Diego's four losses came down to the wire—two occurred where San Diego lost a lead or a tie with less than 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, while their most recent loss versus the Washington Redskins, came in overtime after the Chargers failed to score a touchdown late in the fourth quarter from less than a yard out on three consecutive plays at the goal line.
As most know, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is having a historic season. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is also having a historic season of his own.
Rivers' completion percentage of 72.2 ranks as the best in the NFL—in fact, it would rank as the greatest single-season mark in NFL history if the season ended today.
Both AFC West teams are playing for something; the Broncos are playing in hopes of keeping pace with the Chiefs for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, while the Chargers are hoping to grab a victory to keep pace with the New York Jets (5-4) for the last wild-card spot in the AFC.
What are some of the storylines entering this AFC West battle?
This game features two top-tier quarterbacks playing at elite levels right now in Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers.
Although many have overlooked Rivers' excellent start to the season due to Manning's record-breaking numbers through the first half of the season, the Broncos' Rahim Moore is not one of those people. Via Stuart Zaas of DenverBroncos.com:
Every time you look up, he’s always having 300, 400 yards passing. His quarterback rating is (106.5) – that’s outstanding. So he’s getting better – and it’s showing on film. He is who he is. He’s going to be a future Hall-of-Famer. There’s a reason why he’s a (four)-time Pro Bowler. His accolades and his ability every week, it shows.
Rivers ranks third in quarterback rating behind only Manning and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. His three 400-yard passing games ranks just one behind Dan Marino's single-season mark (four) set in 1984.
With Manning leading a record-setting Broncos offense that is averaging nearly 43 points per game through eight outings, get ready for a shootout.
It's safe to say there won't be a shortage of passing yards in Sunday's meeting between Denver and San Diego.
Lost in the Kansas City Chiefs' undefeated start and the Denver Broncos' dominance is the recent history between the Broncos and the San Diego Chargers.
With the Chiefs-Broncos rivalry taking center stage due to both teams being considered the very best in the NFL, many are forgetting the recent history that has taken place between the team from Mile High and team in San Diego.
Just as recently as last year, the Chargers led the Broncos 24-0 in the first half on Monday Night Football in Week 6 at Qualcomm Stadium. San Diego proceeded to lose a 24-0 lead by allowing 35 consecutive points to the Broncos in a 35-24 loss. This began a Broncos' undefeated streak in the regular season that did not come to an end until three weeks ago, when the Broncos lost 39-33 to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7.
What about before the Peyton Manning era?
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was the definition of a guy who dominated the Broncos. Before Tim Tebow led the Broncos to a 16-13 overtime victory late in the 2011 season, Rivers had beaten the Broncos in 9-of-11 meetings from 2006-2011.
Rivers played a role in keeping the Broncos out of the playoffs in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
Many won't forget the Chargers' improbable run to the AFC West title in 2008, when they were down three games in the division with three weeks remaining in the season. The Chargers pulled off three straight wins, combined with three straight Broncos losses—including San Diego's 52-21 victory over the Broncos in the final week of the season that clinched the division. It was former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan's final game with the team before he was fired.
Although many are looking towards Week 11 when the Chiefs visit the Broncos in a game of heavyweights, Broncos and Chargers fans know the AFC West's best rivalry over the past decade has been between these two teams.
Denver's offense is playing at record-breaking levels. The offense leads the league in points per game (42.9 ppg), third-down efficiency (50.5 percent) and red-zone efficiency (78.4 percent)
So how does San Diego's defense plan on slowing Peyton Manning down?
Hit him. And keep on hitting him. As Chargers safety Eric Weddle comments, via Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com:
You always want to hit him. You want to hit any quarterback that you can. Sacks are always great from the outside looking at them, but if you're hitting him and getting him off of his spot and force him to run around by creating havoc, quarterbacks don't like that. Then that starts getting their timing off, and they feel like, if they hold on to the ball too long, they're going to get hit.
So it's always important to get in his face, hit him as much as possible.
As the statistics suggest on the posted link, Manning struggles with pressure. In games where the Broncos lose, there is a correlation with increased duress on Manning from opposing pass-rushers.
Expect the Chargers to try to rattle the four-time NFL MVP early on in the game.
As mentioned before, Philip Rivers is having an outstanding season. He ranks at, or near, the top of the league in various passing categories such as completion percentage, passer rating, passing yards and touchdowns.
Although their points-per-game ranking (16th) may not reflect it, this is a high-octane offense with the ability to put up points in bunches. The offense ranks sixth in the NFL in total offensive yardage and second in first downs.
With a supporting cast that features the likes of Danny Woodhead, Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal, Rivers has a plethora of weapons to utilize in the passing game.
The question becomes, how does the Broncos defense plan on slowing Rivers down?
Denver's defensive rankings do not impress, as it ranks 25th in points allowed per game, while ranking 30th in passing yards allowed. However, the stats don't do the unit justice. This unit has won games for the team when the offense has struggled.
The defense has succeeded in forcing turnovers (eighth best in NFL) and keeping teams out of the end zone when needed.
With San Diego's offensive struggles at scoring touchdowns in the red zone (20th best in NFL) despite its ability to move the chains, the difference between a Broncos win and loss may depend upon the performance of the defense in the red zone.
As mentioned in the opening slide, the game's top storyline will be none other than playoff seeding.
Both teams will be fighting for playoff position in the second half of the season. The Broncos might need to win all four of their upcoming games if they wish to gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Chargers need to win to keep pace with numerous AFC teams who will also be playing for the conference's last wild-card spot—the New York Jets (5-4), Miami Dolphins (4-4), Tennessee Titans (4-4) and Cleveland Browns (4-5).
As is the case every season, the Broncos and Chargers will look to beat each other at the expense of the other in another late-season meeting between the two AFC West rivals.