San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos: 5 Storylines to Watch
Both teams have a short week and will be playing a pivotal game that will determine which direction both teams will head into as the NFL regular season comes to a close.
Due to the short week, key Broncos players who might have been able to play had the game been on a regular Sunday, won't—or likely won't—suit up on Thursday night.
Receiver Wes Welker—who suffered a concussion this past Sunday versus the Tennessee Titans—has officially been ruled out of Thursday's game. Defensive end Derek Wolfe has been declared out, while cornerback Champ Bailey is "questionable."
The Chargers are fighting for their playoff lives, while the Broncos are seeking to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
What are five storylines to watch in this Chargers-at-Broncos matchup?
The Playoff Implications
There is no bigger storyline in this game than the playoff implications that surround it. You can talk about how both teams are hated AFC West rivals, you can talk about the recent history of the Chargers-Broncos rivalry since Philip Rivers became San Diego's franchise quarterback, you can even talk about Chargers head coach Mike McCoy's history as Broncos offensive coordinator.
But there is no bigger talking point than what's at stake as far as playoff seeding.
The Broncos are 11-2 and control their own destiny. If Denver wins out, it will represent the AFC as the conference's No. 1 seed. If they stumble along the way—such as say, versus the Chargers on Thursday night—then things would become a lot more complicated. In this scenario, a Denver loss and a New England win in Week 15 would give the Patriots control over the AFC's top seed.
Denver has already clinched a playoff berth, and it holds a two-game lead over the second-place Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) in the AFC West, as the Broncos hold the tiebreaker over Kansas City.
The Chargers, on the other hand, are just fighting to stay alive in the playoff race.
San Diego trails both the Baltimore Ravens (7-6) and Miami Dolphins (7-6) for the AFC's last wild-card spot. The Ravens have control over the last playoff spot. Both the Dolphins and Chargers would need the Ravens to lose at least one more game in order to have a chance to clinch the AFC's No. 6 seed.
In the event of a head-to-head tie between the Chargers and Dolphins, San Diego would lose the tiebreaker due to its loss to Miami in Week 11.
What hurts the Chargers in their hunt for a playoff spot is their terrible conference record—San Diego currently holds a 3-6 record in conference play. The Dolphins stand at 6-3, while the Ravens sit at 6-4.
It would essentially require the Chargers to win all three of their remaining games—all against AFC opponents—in order to have a legitimate shot at clinching a playoff berth.
That only becomes possible, of course, if the Chargers manage to knock off the Broncos in Week 15.
This game will mark both the Chargers and Broncos' first Thursday night appearance since last season—the Broncos defeated the Oakland Raiders, 26-13, in Week 14, while the Chargers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-13, in Week 9.
Both teams were coming off of four-day rests before winning their Thursday Night Football games.
Both teams will be looking to do the same versus one another in Week 15.
The Broncos will be missing defensive end Derek Wolfe and wide receiver Wes Welker—cornerback Champ Bailey is "questionable," but it would appear he will be out for Thursday's game, too.
Peyton Manning spoke to the press about the difficulty of playing a Thursday game, via Kyle Montgomery of Mile High Report: "Well, late in the season, I think certainly the disadvantage is that you have an injured player that may or may not have a chance to recover in time whereas he might possibly play Sunday as opposed to Thursday. I think that is a disadvantage, sure."
It looks like it will affect the Broncos more so than it will the Chargers.
With the absence of Welker at slot receiver, look for the Broncos to utilize tight end Jacob Tamme in the slot—especially now that Julius Thomas has recovered from his injury. Tamme played in the slot for the Broncos last season. Due to his quickness and build (6'3", 236 pounds), Tamme is a natural fit in the slot.
The Broncos might struggle to move the chains at first, but expect them to adapt and adjust to being without Welker as the game progresses.
Jacob Tamme in the Slot
Speaking of Jacob Tamme in the slot, what do his teammates think of his role change from special teams player for most of 2013, to key receiver out of the slot?
Via Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com:
"He's a big part of the offense,'' said Demaryius Thomas. "I feel like you could spread Jacob out to any position because he has good speed, he's smart, he runs great routes and he knows every position on the field. So I think you can put him anywhere on the field to help the offense out and I think that helps us."
Before the Broncos acquired Wes Welker in the offseason, Tamme played in the slot in 2012 when he was a key receiver in the offense.
San Diego Chargers' Potent Offense
Overshadowed by the Denver Broncos' record-breaking season on offense has been San Diego's offense—which is tied for first with the Broncos in third-down efficiency, while ranking fourth in total offense and second in time of possession.
Rejuvenated by smarter decision-making from veteran quarterback Philip Rivers under the tutelage of former Broncos offense coordinator and current Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, San Diego's offense has quietly been one of the NFL's most dynamic of 2013.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had a wealth of praise for the Chargers quarterback, via Mike Morris of DenverBroncos.com:
Playing really good football. Making good decisions. He’s always – I think he’s always been a great competitor and I think Mike going in there, he’s done a great job of kind of getting (Rivers) to understand how the scheme works, how the system works.
He’s making great decisions. He’s not turning the ball over. He’s accurate. So he’s a good football player.
Despite Denver's struggles in the pass defense department (29th in the NFL), the Broncos were able to slow down Rivers in Week 10—Rivers threw for just 218 yards and a touchdown—en route to a 28-20 victory.
For the Broncos to continue their path to the AFC's No. 1 seed, they'll have to slow down Rivers for a second time.
Speaking of offense, the Broncos don't just have a game to play—they also have records to break.
Don't tell that to Peyton Manning, who's only focused on wins and losses, according to Stuart Zaas and Gray Caldwell of DenverBroncos.com:
The one we’re concerned with is our win-loss record. It tells you how competitive our division that you’re still having to take care of business each week to have a chance to possibly when the division and that’s where our focus is. Our job as an offense is to score points, score more than our opponent. We’re playing the Chargers this week. Their offense is hot. Philip (Rivers) is having a great year. We have to score points and however we do that – running the ball, throwing the ball, kicking field goals, kicking 64-yard field goals – whatever we have to do, that’s our job.
The Broncos have scored 515 points, 61 touchdowns and 363 first downs through 13 games this year—all NFL records.
Manning is on track to break passing records in the touchdowns and passing yardage categories.
If the Broncos are lucky enough to gain a big enough lead versus the Chargers, it should be interesting to see if Denver will choose to sit Manning and rest him before the playoffs start. The same applies for Denver's upcoming games versus Houston and Oakland—will the Broncos rest Manning if their lead is big enough? Will it get in the way of the Broncos breaking records?
Obviously, all that matters is whether the Broncos win or lose. But it should be interesting to see how these storylines play out over the final three weeks of the season.