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Chargers vs Broncos: Why the Denver Run Defense Holds the Key to Success

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Chargers vs Broncos: Why the Denver Run Defense Holds the Key to Success
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The best offense can be a good defense. Nobody knows that better than the Denver Broncos.

Some teams have resorted to stopping Denver's high-octane, record-setting offense with a ball-control approach. The San Diego Chargers tried this in November, and they lost by eight. However, the second time around, they bested the Broncos in Denver.

Many called it the upset of the season. But nobody called it a playoff prelude.

Unfortunately for Denver and the AFC, that's what it was. San Diego received some lucky breaks in the form of blown calls and poor performances from AFC Wild Card contenders, and it sneaked into the playoffs.

Most thought its stay would be short. After its blowout win in Cincinnati, most are rethinking that.

The white-hot Chargers are now ready to roll into Denver with more confidence than ever. Part of that comes from the team's five-game winning streak, but its play against Denver this year is also a factor. The Chargers were outscored by one point in the two games, and they established themselves as a team Denver can't beat easily.

That's because of their running game.

Denver should be able to stop Ryan Mathews because of its talented run defense, which ranked seventh in the regular season. However, Mathews eluded Denver in both games. In Week 15, when San Diego beat Denver, Mathews accrued a phenomenal 127 rushing yards.

Mathews has been a bit banged-up lately, but it would be surprising if he doesn't play. Even if he doesn't, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will. Brown and Woodhead combined for 131 rushing yards Sunday, and they both present a threat.

In other words, any Chargers running back is dangerous.

Does San Diego's ball-control offense make it dangerous?

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That was proven in Week 15. Because of the Chargers' rushing success, they were able to control the ball and hold their lead. They did that against Denver in both games. In the first game, the clock went against the Chargers, who were losing 28-6.

Conversely, in the second game, San Diego's ball-control offense prevented a Denver comeback.

San Diego didn't just chew the clock up against Denver. The Chargers won five regular-season games against playoff teams, and they had the time of possession edge in each game. In three of those games, they controlled the ball for 38 or more of the 60 minutes. They eclipsed 40 minutes against the Philadelphia Eagles.

They've kept opposing offenses out of a rhythm and stayed in games against talented teams. If you include their first-round playoff game, the Chargers went a tremendous 6-2 against playoff teams.

They're built to beat good teams and control the ball. However, if a team can throw them off their game plan, winning would be much harder to come by.

Denver can throw the Chargers off their game plan by stopping the run. The Chargers try to get in favorable third-down situations with good runs on the first two downs, and Philip Rivers often ends up finding himself in a great position to succeed on third downs and in general.

Consequently, the Chargers converted 49 percent of their third downs and finished fifth in total offense (during the regular season). They converted six third downs on 12 chances in Week 15, which killed the Broncos and propelled the Chargers to victory.

Could the Broncos shut down the Chargers offense if they stopped the run?

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That shouldn't happen again, though. The Broncos could limit San Diego's third-down offense and get the Chargers off the field by simply stopping the run. They could also task Rivers with carrying the offense, which he struggles with and has always struggled with.

Luckily for the Chargers, he hasn't had to perform under those circumstances because of Mathews. Mathews' consistency has been remarkable, and it's been the biggest reason why Rivers finished third in the league in passer rating (minimum 225 attempts).

Rivers hasn't left his comfort zone much this year; he's rarely had to play from behind and shoulder the load. However, we know what can happen when he has to do that. In 2012, when Mathews ran for 707 yards, the Chargers won seven games and Rivers threw 15 interceptions.

Even in 2013, that situation has presented itself. Mathews was hurt against the 4-12 Oakland Raiders, and no one else stepped up. The Chargers had to play from behind and rely solely on Rivers.

How did he respond? By throwing three interceptions in a 27-17 loss.

The Broncos can bring out that same Rivers by stopping the ground game, which is definitely possible. Denver has tightened up its run defense since the San Diego game, holding Houston and Oakland to a combined 97 yards (on 36 attempts).

Mathews is a whole different animal, but the Broncos can stop him. After all, they did hold LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles to an average of 82 yards per game. Mathews is solid, but he's not on that level.

Will Denver stop Mathews?

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In other words, the Broncos should be able to do a better job against him. And they should be able to make Rivers beat them.

The Chargers do have the potential to beat the Broncos, though. They will need to perfectly execute the same game plan they had in Week 15 to do so, which won't be easy.

The Broncos will be ready and motivated this time. They know what the Chargers will do, and they'll be ready to counter it and move past the Chargers.

All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

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