At first glance, an upset appears unlikely. The Broncos dominated the AFC to grab the No. 1 seed behind their high-powered offense, while the Chargers snuck in as the sixth seed.
The Chargers have the ability to pull off the upset, given they've already done so with a 27-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card round. Let's take a look at some of San Diego's keys to victory on Sunday.
Putting Pressure on Peyton Manning
Manning was sacked only 18 times during the regular season, by far the lowest among starting quarterbacks who played in all 16 games. His ability to stand in the pocket with relative ease and comfort undoubtedly played a big role in his incredible success, and the Chargers' ability to generate a successful pass rush in Sunday's matchup could go a long way toward determining who comes out on top.
But do the Chargers have what it takes to do just that? If recent success is any indication, they should be able to at least disrupt Manning at least a bit.
In the Chargers' win over the Bengals, they recorded three sacks and six QB hits, which came after they recorded a pair of sacks and six QB hits against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17. Defensive end Cory Liuget has been particularly impressive of late, with two sacks and four QB hits during those last two games.
You can be sure the Chargers will come in with the mentality to go after Manning.
As San Diego safety Eric Weddle told ESPN's Eric D. Williams before a regular season matchup between the two teams, the Chargers will be looking to hit Manning.
You always want to hit him. You want to hit any quarterback that you can. Sacks are always great from the outside looking at them, but if you're hitting him and getting him off of his spot and force him to run around by creating havoc, quarterbacks don't like that. Then that starts getting their timing off, and they feel like, if they hold on to the ball too long, they're going to get hit. So it's always important to get in his face, hit him as much as possible.
If the Chargers can maintain their recent pass-rushing success, Manning will have a tough day behind center.
Limiting the Broncos' Red-Zone Efficiency
No team was better than Peyton Manning and company upon reaching the red zone. In 2013, the Broncos scored a touchdown on a remarkable 76.12 percent of their red-zone attempts, tops in the NFL.
However, the team that ranked second in that category was the Cincinnati Bengals, with a 71.43 percent success rate in the red zone. In the Chargers' upset victory over the Bengals, they limited them to only one touchdown in three attempts. The importance of replicating that success cannot be overstated.
The Broncos relied heavily on their passing attack to score, which isn't a secret to anyone given Manning's 55 touchdown passes. But that should work to the Chargers' advantage, as they can stack up against the pass in the red zone. Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno is a scoring threat as well, with 10 rushing touchdowns, but the Chargers' top priority should be to prevent Manning from beating them through the air.
It's hard to believe that the Chargers defense will prevent the Broncos from reaching the red zone at least a couple of times during Sunday's matchup. Holding them to field goals instead of surrendering touchdowns could make the difference in the game.
Taking Advantage of the Broncos' Lackluster Pass Defense
The Broncos ranked 27th in the NFL at defending the pass. Part of that undoubtedly had to do with opponents throwing often thanks to the Broncos' constant early leads.
But that doesn't mean Denver's secondary should be let off the hook. In the matchups between the Chargers and Broncos during the regular season, Philip Rivers looked fantastic. He didn't dazzle during the Broncos' 28-20 victory in Week 10, with 218 yards, a touchdown and a solid 99.5 passer rating. But in the Week 15 Chargers victory, Rivers had a passer rating of 120 with a pair of touchdowns.
It's to be expected that Manning and the Broncos will find the end zone a couple of times (at least) on Sunday. Whether Rivers and the Chargers can match him is certainly up for debate. However, the Broncos' struggles at defending the pass, which happens to be the Chargers' main offensive strength, bodes well for San Diego.
All advanced statistics courtesy of teamrankings.com.
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