On Thursday night, the San Diego Chargers pulled off the upset of the NFL season in beating the Denver Broncos on their home turf at Mile High Stadium. No one outside of the Chargers' locker room expected them to pull this off, even with their playoff lives on the line.
However, the Chargers went into Mile High and proved a lot of people wrong. They also showed some important things for the development of their team in the future, and managed to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Two key players, Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews, continued to show their improvements this season. Head coach Mike McCoy continued to prove how he is changing the culture down in San Diego, and the Bolts also may have managed to show the league a real blueprint of how to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Let’s take a look at five important takeaways form the Chargers' huge upset over the Broncos.
After San Diego’s win over Denver on Thursday night, they stand at a record of 7-7, cementing themselves right in the middle of the playoff race for the last AFC Wild Card spot. However, as Philip Rivers said on the NFL network postgame show, “We have to get to 9-7, and we need some help.”
The Chargers (7-7) are currently slightly behind the Ravens (7-6) and the Dolphins (7-6) in the standings, however that could easily change. Baltimore has a difficult upcoming game on Monday Night Football when they travel to Detroit to face the Lions. Miami has a very tough upcoming game Sunday against the New England Patriots. If both Baltimore and Miami lose this weekend, it would create a three-way tie for the last Wild Card spot. That is the positive news for the Chargers. Unfortunately, they’re going to need more help than that to reach the playoffs.
The Chargers have two games left on their schedule: home games against Oakland and Kansas City. Both are must-wins. Assuming the Bolts win both, they would then need to have Miami and Baltimore each finish their respective seasons with records no better than 1-2. The reason being, if that last Wild Card spot comes down to a tiebreaker, San Diego would be left out in any situation against both Miami and Baltimore.
Miami owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over San Diego. The Chargers also have six conference losses, which by rule, would mean they would lose any tiebreaker against Baltimore, and San Diego would also come in last in any three-team tiebreaker. The Chargers are still very much alive in the playoff race thanks to their upset win over Denver. However, they need to take care of their own business and win their last two games, as well as pray for the misfortunes of Miami and Baltimore if they want to play in the postseason.
If it wasn’t for Philip Rivers’ largely improved play in the 2013 season, the Chargers would be nowhere near Wild Card contention. Obviously Peyton Manning has been the best quarterback in the AFC this season, but it is safe to say that right behind him at No. 2 is Mr. Rivers.
Against Denver, Rivers finished 12-of-20 with 166 yards, two touchdowns and a 120.0 passer rating. Although Rivers’ numbers weren’t exactly eye-popping, he acted as an efficient game manager, and most importantly finished the game with a zero in the turnover column. He has greatly improved in the turnover category this season only having a total of nine, where last year he was among the league’s worst with a total of 22.
The type of consistency he showed against Denver is reflective of the year he’s been having. His completion percentage is at an all-time high of 70 percent. Along with his league-leading completion percentage, he also has the league's fourth-highest passer rating at 106.9.
Rivers has displayed a new and improved version of himself this season, even becoming the second quarterback ever to defeat both Manning brothers, Eli and Peyton, in the same season (Other was Vince Young). Philip Rivers is making his case to be brought back into the elite quarterback conversation, and it's very tough to argue against him. If he can finish the season the same way, he very well may be accepting an invitation to the Pro Bowl, and with a little luck, he may have his chance again in the playoffs.
Ryan Mathews finished the game against Denver with 29 carries for 127 yards and one touchdown. Those are some pretty good numbers for a guy who had been written off by many people around the league. So far in his four-year NFL career, Mathews has basically been the poster child for talented players never able to show their full potential because of injuries.
Mathews missed four games as a rookie, two in his second year, and four more in his third year, and that’s not even including other games where he has not been at 100 percent because of nagging injuries. However, in his fourth year in the league, he has managed to journey through the 2013 season unscathed by any major injuries, and as a result, his play has escalated.
The Week 15 win over the Broncos was the second week in a row Mathews rushed for over 100 yards, and the fifth time this season. He has had a career high in carries this season with 236, where he is averaging a very respectable 4.3 yards per carry. He is also 12th-highest in the league with 72.3 rush yards per game. All of this in return has seemed to earn him back the respect and love of San Diego Chargers fans as well as many other fans around the league.
Before this season, Mathews was interviewed by ESPN about the pressure he faces in San Diego. Here's what he had to say:
I put a lot of pressure on myself to fill LT's shoes. I was trying to live up to those expectations-what he was doing in his prime, all the yards he's getting, all the touchdowns he's getting, just trying to live up to that.
If Mathews can keep up his current pace and stay away from the injured reserve list, he has a good chance of filling those large shoes that LaDainian Tomlinson left in San Diego.
Philip Rivers has not played football at an elite level in a couple years. He has received harsh criticism in the media the last three seasons for excessive turnovers. People were flat-out doubting his ability to still be a starting quarterback in the NFL. The game Thursday night against Denver was just another indication of how things have changed this year, and how Rivers is proving his doubters wrong.
All of that can largely be credited to new Chargers head coach Mike McCoy. McCoy has helped rejuvenate Rivers’ play in 2013. He has done it by implementing a new offensive scheme, which includes getting the ball out quickly and spreading it around to all of the weapons Rivers has at his disposal. This allows Rivers to “dink and dunk” the ball around, building up completions and confidence, similar to the way Tom Brady and the Patriots offense works.
This new offensive scheme and mindset Coach McCoy has instilled in Rivers has led Rivers to having one of the best seasons of his career. He ranks first in the NFL with a 70 percent completion rate, fourth in the NFL with a 106.4 passer rating, and second in the league with 8.4 yards per attempt.
If it weren’t for an inconsistent run game and defense throughout the season, the Chargers would most likely be a lock for the playoffs. They’ve lost several very close games, and it wasn’t the fault of Rivers and the offense. San Diego is much better than its record indicates, and it’s mostly thanks to a rejuvenated Phillip Rivers and new head coach Mike McCoy.
Counting Thursday night’s win, the Chargers have won five out of seven games in Denver, which traditionally is a tough place to play, especially now with Peyton Manning at the helm. However, the Chargers looked like they had it figured out Thursday night, simply dominating and controlling the entire game at Mile High stadium, something no team has done all year.
San Diego’s main keys to success were dominating the time of possession, and not turning the ball over.
The Chargers figured the best way to stop Peyton Manning’s offense was to not give the ball back to them. The Chargers had the ball on offense for 38:49, where the Broncos only had the ball for 21:11. The Chargers were able to keep many drives going with key plays from Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews, therefore keeping the ball out of Peyton Manning and the potent Denver offense's hands.
The other main key to success in beating Denver is to not turn the ball over, and San Diego did just that. Philip Rivers controlled the game and was mistake-free, while Ryan Mathews had a big game without putting the ball on the ground.
Both of the Chargers’ key points for their success both pertain to not giving the ball back to Denver’s offense. If teams can dominate the time of possession battle, and not turn the ball over, they will have a good shot at dethroning the mighty Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.