The San Diego Chargers pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the NFL season with a 27-20 win on the road against the Denver Broncos. With the victory, the Chargers showed the rest of the league what it will take to beat one of the best teams in the NFL.
While this was not the first loss of the year for Denver, it was certainly the most telling. The team dropped a road game against the Indianapolis Colts in an emotional comeback for Peyton Manning in Week 7. The squad then turned the ball over four times to allow the New England Patriots to earn a comeback victory.
Unfortunately, these situations are almost impossible to replicate for most teams, especially if the game is at Sports Authority Field.
The Chargers, however, showed that it is even possible to beat the Broncos at home under optimal conditions. You simply have to follow the strategy laid out by head coach Mike McCoy.
The most telling stat of the game was time of possession, which was highlighted by SportsCenter.
San Diego dominated the time of possession: Chargers: 38:49 Broncos: 21:11— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 13, 2013
Denver entered the week with the highest-scoring offense in the league, but it was unable to do anything from the bench.
San Diego was able to accomplish this, thanks to an incredibly conservative approach on offense that featured a lot of Ryan Mathews. The Broncos were ranked No. 7 in the league against the run, but they were unable to stop the fourth-year player, who totaled 129 rushing yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.
ESPN Stats and Info provided a look at how he was able to excel on outside rushes.
A look at Ryan Mathews' rushing by direction in the Chargers win ...1 big gain going left, chewed up yds up middle pic.twitter.com/hQggH3TgF6— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 13, 2013
This helped the team move the football and eventually put points on the board. Still, controlling the clock seemed to be more important than scoring, which led to interesting play calls.
At one point, ESPN's Jason Whitlock expected the conservative offense to be setting up a big play.
Chargers gotta be setting up something with all of this first-down running.— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) December 13, 2013
The truth, however, is that the Chargers were simply setting up long drives. With this rushing attack and a solid 6-for-12 conversion rate on third downs, they were able to stay on the field for long bouts at a time.
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There is no denying that Denver's defense has been a weak part of the squad all season. Instead of exploiting it with big plays, the Chargers used it to their advantage to stay on the field as long as possible.
This is the same strategy they used in a Week 10 loss, earning more than 38 minutes of possession. The difference in that game was that the defense was unable to make stops, but the execution was almost flawless this time around.
Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen previously took a look at what it would take to slow down Manning and this incredible offense, citing the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers utilized much of this strategy, specifically with tight, physical coverage on the receivers.
On the other hand, there was a lot of deep safety help that prevented any long plays from happening.
Peter King of The MMQB broke down what went wrong for the Broncos, and his number one issue was Manning's inability to make plays down the field.
Maybe he was in “take what they give us’’ mode. Maybe he never felt comfortable with the pesky and variable Charger rush keeping him off-balance all night. Maybe it’s the wear of a long season on his 37-year-old right arm. Whatever, Manning’s longest completion was 22 yards, and he had but three incompletions longer than 20 yards out of 41 throws. To see him dink-and-dunk in the final two minutes with no timeouts on the clock and needing two scores was the height of frustration.
If the Chargers and their inconsistent pass defense can force this type of frustration for the MVP candidate, it is certainly possible for other teams with better athletes in the secondary to repeat this.
Of course, it still comes down to execution on every single play, and that is something the Chargers did on both sides of the ball. Safety Eric Weddle discussed the difference in the two games against the Broncos, via Nick Toney of Chargers.com.
We held Denver to 28 points in the first game, and two touchdowns were off bonehead plays by us. If we make them drive 80 yards and execute on defense, we felt like it could be a low-scoring game like it was. You still have to go out and execute and play at a high level, but guys went out there and took the right approach.
It does not matter what a team plans to do if it cannot do it. This was not a problem on Thursday, as the players on San Diego's defense were always in the right spot at the right time. Head coach Mike McCoy praised the effectiveness in his postgame comments.
Still, the takeaway from all of this is that the Chargers did not do anything superhuman in their win. The players are talented, but few of them are among the best in the league at their position.
This gives other teams the confidence necessary to beat the Broncos in the last two weeks of the regular season or in the playoffs.
On offense, a team must be able to run the ball efficiently and sustain drives to control the ball for as long as possible. Defensively, it must challenge the receivers to get open while forcing Manning to settle for shorter plays.
Finally, it requires everyone maintaining focus on every snap and making plays when the chance arises.
Although this does not remove the Broncos as a Super Bowl contender for this season, it certainly proves that they are far from invincible in a competitive AFC.
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