The Denver Broncos are a more talented team than the San Diego Chargers. However, in the last meeting between the two teams, they didn't look like the better team.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense barely reached 300 total yards, and the Chargers controlled the game clock with a perfect game plan. San Diego won 27-20 thanks to a solid running game and ample, perfect throws from Philip Rivers.
San Diego and Denver split the season series, with each team winning away from its home turf. We know each team is capable of a win, and we know that the Broncos wouldn’t be ecstatic if they were to face the Chargers again.
But if they had to face them, how would it go?
When the Broncos have the ball
When you consider that the Broncos scored 606 points this season, it’s amazing that they averaged just 24 points per game against San Diego.
Manning performed well in both games, throwing for six touchdowns and an interception, but he didn’t have many opportunities to shine. San Diego ran Ryan Mathews a lot, and it kept the ball away from Manning by controlling it for nearly two-thirds of the game in Denver.
Because the Chargers built a lead, the Broncos needed to be perfect late in the game to win. The Broncos scored a touchdown and came through with a critical stop, but Manning was intercepted on a subsequent throw.
Denver only picked up 289 yards through the air, as Decker and Demaryius Thomas were limited. Andre Caldwell accrued 59 yards and two touchdowns in his breakout game, but despite playing against inferior competition, Thomas (and Julius Thomas, for that matter), struggled.
In his first game against the Chargers, Thomas caught seven passes for 108 yards and three touchdowns. He would most likely face Shareece Wright in the playoffs, which would be favorable for the Broncos.
However, it’s not just Demaryius who would benefit. San Diego doesn’t have a corner who grades in the top 94, which is absolutely horrible. On the other hand, Denver has three superb receivers in Thomas, Decker and Welker.
San Diego’s horrendous cornerback group makes it so much more puzzling that Demaryius and Decker didn’t dominate in December, but it’s not unlikely that they would if they played in the postseason.
Decker is on fire and more motivated than ever to earn a lucrative contract, and both Demaryius and Julius Thomas should be successful on a quest for revenge.
Welker isn’t looking for revenge on the Chargers because he didn’t play in the second game. He’s still motivated to win his first ring, though. He should make a difference and help give the other receivers more opportunities by drawing attention.
San Diego doesn’t have a premier pass-rusher, and the Broncos could definitely stop its pass rush. The Chargers had just 35 sacks in the regular season, which ranked 23rd.
To rattle Manning, San Diego would need to blitz, and that could be troublesome with its secondary woes and Denver’s array of talented pass-catchers.
Manning has a good chance to shred San Diego’s defense, but if the regular-season games were any indication, the run game might have a tougher time. Moreno and Ball ran 11 times for 18 yards in the second game, which was a huge reason why the Broncos didn’t win.
However, Denver questionably abandoned the run, which it won’t do in the cold playoffs (no matter whom they play). Against San Diego, it should have run well with ease; only three teams allowed more yards per carry than the Chargers.
In a rematch, Denver’s two vindictive running backs could perfectly complement Manning with solid performances.
But to allow the running backs to step up, Denver would need to jump out early and force San Diego to throw. The Chargers are much more comfortable when playing ahead, and they were in their comfort zone when they beat Denver. However, the Broncos can prevent that.
And if they do, it would significantly change things.
When the Chargers have the ball
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Or an offense that doesn’t give up the ball.
New Chargers coach Mike McCoy molded Rivers into less of a risk-taker and a more conservative, efficient quarterback. The result has been tremendous, as Rivers posted a superb 105.5 passer rating. His stats weren’t gaudy against the Broncos, but he didn’t turn the ball over and wasn’t bad at all.
Forcing a turnover against Rivers would be a challenge, but one player could make it much easier. Bailey’s absence was felt most against San Diego, when Webster, his replacement, was burned repeatedly for nearly 100 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Keenan Allen went off for two touchdowns, but with Denver’s now injury-free cornerback trio, he might struggle.
Rodgers-Cromartie has been tremendous, and while he blew the coverage on one of Allen’s scores (he thought the call was a zone and didn’t run with Allen), he could certainly conquer the rookie.
Allen isn’t extremely athletic and would have to work hard to gain separation against a physical specimen in Rodgers-Cromartie.
If he were contained, San Diego would struggle. Former Bronco Eddie Royal is decent, but he averaged just 2.5 catches per game against Denver (in the regular season) and can be limited by Bailey (or Harris).
Antonio Gates is a talented pass-catcher, but he’s older and isn’t likely to separate himself from Trevathan and a healthy Woodyard enough to change the game. Vincent Brown made some nice catches against the Broncos in Week 15 (when San Diego won), but he isn’t fast enough or consistent enough to make a game-changing impact against Harris.
Danny Woodhead has transformed San Diego’s passing attack by catching passes out of the backfield, but the Broncos should be able to stop him. He accumulated just 30 receiving yards in the two games (in total), which is far worse than what he’s done in other games.
San Diego might not have its way passing on Denver, but if the teams’ last meeting is any indication, it would be able to run the ball at will. Mathews averaged 4.3 yards per carry against the Broncos and helped San Diego control the ball.
Still, the Broncos can stop him. After all, it limited the more explosive Charles.
Denver can keep him from being a big factor by jumping on top early, but even if the game were close, the Broncos could stop Mathews. They would need Woodyard, who played sparingly in the second game, and Trevathan to step up, but they could stop him.
And they could definitely halt San Diego’s offensive attack.
Nick Novak is a good kicker, but he’s not on Prater’s level; he missed three field goals (including a chip shot in the first meeting against Denver). As for Chargers punter Mike Scifres, he’s arguably the best punter in football. He pinned more than half of his punts inside the 20-yard line.
Trindon Holliday nearly fumbled away the first game against San Diego, and he is unreliable. Keenan Allen is more trustworthy, but he isn’t explosive. Veteran running back Ronnie Brown, however, is. He has returned kicks lately for San Diego.
What would happen?
Denver came out flat in the last meeting, but it would be hungry for revenge in the postseason. It has many favorable matchups on offense, and if it jumps out early, it would push San Diego out of its comfort zone. The Chargers were able to beat the Broncos in a fluky game earlier, but the Broncos are too good to lose to San Diego twice in one year.
Prediction: Denver 31, San Diego 21