How the Long-Shot Chargers Could Topple the Broncos on Thursday Night

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How the Long-Shot Chargers Could Topple the Broncos on Thursday Night
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA
The Chargers can win Thursday if Philip Rivers has a big game and can convert in the red zone.

The San Diego Chargers aren’t going to the postseason—that's a safe bet at this point. The current odds of the Chargers playing football in January are hovering somewhere between hell freezing over and a pig flying.

Last Sunday’s win over the New York Giants kept San Diego’s playoff hopes alive, but it needs to win every game and get some help to make it a reality. To maximize their slim odds, the Chargers must win this Thursday on the road in Denver.

"We can beat Denver," Chargers safety Eric Weddle said, via Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego. "We're not scared. Maybe other teams are, but we're not."

The Broncos are obviously heavily favored to beat the Chargers, but this game is a lot closer in reality than on paper. It’s a division game on a short week, and neither team plays very good defense.

We’ve seen a lot of sloppy play on Thursday Night Football this season, but don’t bet on Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning being sloppy. Unfortunately for the Chargers, Manning is 9-1 on Thursday with 33 touchdowns to just four interceptions and a completion percentage of 69.9.

Manning’s one loss on Thursday was way back in 2004 on the road against the New England Patriots. It was Week 1, so there wasn't the same late-season, short-week issue in play as this week. Still, it took Manning’s running back Edgerrin James fumbling at the 1-yard line as the Indianapolis Colts were about to take a four-point lead with three minutes left for them to lose the game.

The Colts got the ball back with nearly two minutes left, but kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal that would have tied the game with 24 seconds left.

If the Chargers can pull off a victory on Thursday, they will become the first team to beat Manning on Thursday night in a short-week situation, as well as the first team to beat him in Denver this year. There’s a first time for everything, but you can’t like the Chargers’ chances. 

 

The Blueprint

There is a blueprint for beating the Broncos, but it’s not as much about stopping Manning on defense as it is being as unstoppable as possible offensively. The Patriots scored 34 points and the Colts scored 39 points to beat Manning, but both teams were playing at home.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Luck beat the Broncos by scoring 39 points.

The Broncos have not lost at home since last year’s playoffs and are 14-2 in Denver over the last two years. The Broncos are also averaging 42.3 points per game at home while allowing just 21.9 points for an average margin of victory of 20.4 points. Compare that with their point differential on the road of only 4.5 points.

The last time these two teams played, the Broncos won 28-20, but they were also coming off a bye week. With extra time to prepare, the Broncos only beat the Chargers by eight points. That’s something to think about as the two teams play Thursday night.

Since the Broncos are No. 1 in points per drive, one of the most effective ways to slow them down is to simply give them fewer opportunities. No one can honestly expect San Diego’s defense to have a lot of success against Manning, so that puts pressure on the offense to sustain drives and come away with points—preferably touchdowns.

Offensive and Defensive Drive Efficiency
Team Plays/Drive YDS/Drive PTS/Drive Plays/Drive Allowed YDS/Drive Allowed PTS/Drive Allowed
Broncos 5.8 36.0 2.86 5.3 28.3 1.89
Chargers 6.6 38.8 2.31 6.0 36.7 2.01
Advantage SD SD DEN DEN DEN DEN

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Chargers are the league’s best team at sustaining drives. The Chargers are averaging a league-best 6.6 plays and 38.8 yards per drive to go along with the longest average drive time of 3:11. The Chargers aren’t too bad about converting those drives into points—they rank third with 2.31 points per drive.

Ball control has been one of the Chargers’ strategies this season, as both the offense and defense are averaging a league-low number of drives and drives against. If the Broncos are given too many opportunities, they are going to take advantage of them, so keeping Manning off the field is a significant key to the game.

 

The Red Zone

While San Diego’s offense has been productive between the 20s, it has stalled in the red zone. According to TeamRankings.com, the Chargers have scored touchdowns on just 52 percent of their red-zone opportunities this season—22nd in the NFL. The Broncos convert their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns an amazing 79 percent of the time—tops in the league by a wide margin.

Defense is also part of the equation when it comes to red-zone scoring performance. The Chargers have allowed touchdowns on 61 percent (25th in the NFL) and the Broncos 62 percent (28th in the NFL) of their opponents' red-zone opportunities.

Red-Zone Scoring
Team Red Zone TD % Red Zone TD % Allowed
Broncos 78.95% 61.54%
Chargers 52.17% 61.11%
Advantage DEN SD

TeamRankings.com

The first time these two teams met this season, the Broncos forced the Chargers to settle for far too many field goals, and the score was 21-6 at halftime. The Chargers settled for three field goals and missed one in the first half, and that was the difference in the game because Manning had no trouble scoring touchdowns against the San Diego defense.

Had the Chargers been able to convert those opportunities into two touchdowns and a field goal, they would've been down just 21-17 at the half. The Chargers also played better in the second half of that game, outscoring the Broncos 14-7.

The Broncos have only been outscored in the second half four times this season. Until three weeks ago in New England, it was the Chargers who had the largest second-half advantage over the Broncos this season.

 

Rivers vs. Manning

With the defenses nearly equally bad, it will be up to Philip Rivers to win this game for the Chargers. Manning will probably be without his slot receiver Wes Welker, whereas Rivers will have his full arsenal of weapons and a healthy offensive line for the second game in a row.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA
Two of the best quarterbacks in football square off on Thursday.

A case could be made that from Week 1 to present, Rivers is second only to Manning at the quarterback position. Rivers leads the league with a completion percentage of 70.3, has a 26:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio and is averaging 8.4 yards per pass attempt. Manning has thrown 45 touchdowns, but his numbers are nearly identical otherwise.

"I think that Philip's had an outstanding year," head coach Mike McCoy said, via Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego. "And when you have a player like Philip, it always gives you an opportunity."

If quarterbacks truly played head-to-head, you might expect Rivers to have a better chance of beating Manning this season than Tom Brady or Andrew Luck—the two quarterbacks who did beat the Broncos this season.

While the Broncos may still win this game, the fact that San Diego's offense and Rivers have rebounded the way they have this season is a positive sign for the future. The Chargers have shown a lot of resiliency this season, with a win against the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago the prime example—becoming the only other team besides the Broncos to win in Kansas City.

On paper, the Broncos should blow the Chargers out, but if Rivers can keep them close by getting touchdowns early, don’t be surprised if the resilient Chargers get a much-needed win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via Pro-Football-Reference.com.

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