Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is in a position he's become quite familiar with. His team has the NFL's best record, the top seed in the AFC playoffs and has the benefit of playing at home throughout its duration.
Regular-season prominence, however, has rarely translated to postseason success for the 37-year-old legend.
In fact, Manning has been defeated on his home field in the playoffs four times in his career and even before becoming a division rival, the San Diego Chargers were a thorn in his side. Posting an 0-2 career record against the Bolts in the playoffs, with losses at home in 2007 and on the road in 2008, Manning has become entrenched in a rivalry with a quarterback not named Brady.
In Super Bowl era, Peyton Manning has had twice as many 'one-and-done' playoff games than any other QB. Manning has 8.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 7, 2014
Since beginning his stint as the Chargers' starting quarterback, Philip Rivers has defeated Peyton Manning six times in 11 opportunities, including a 27-20 victory over Manning's Broncos at Mile High Stadium just four weeks before he was slated to return.
To avoid another upset at home, this time with larger implications, Denver must be able to slow the rushing attack of Ryan Mathews.
Despite boasting the league's seventh-ranked rushing defense, the Broncos let Mathews go off against them in the previous home loss—allowing 127 yards on the ground, his second-highest total of the season, and a touchdown.
By the same token, the Broncos must force Rivers to beat them. In the previous loss, the former first-round pick attempted just 20 passes, a season low, but accounted for 166 yards, threw two touchdowns and added a 92.4 QBR, his third-highest of the season.
Denver must force San Diego's offense to become one-dimensional. In games where Rivers has been forced to throw more than 25 times, he's been intercepted at least once on eight out of 14 occasions.
Further, the Broncos' front four has massive potential to dominate the Chargers' offensive line, a line that allowed six sacks in two games against Denver.
What player is most critical to his team's success in this game?
Offensively, the Broncos must work harder to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers, particularly Demaryius Thomas.
In the loss to San Diego, Thomas was only targeted a season-low five times and caught just four passes for 45 yards. The Chargers secondary was able to do the job on him, and the Broncos must come out with a different game plan that gets him the ball, be it by way of short passes or screens—anything to get him in a rhythm early.
To that point, Denver must be able to run effectively to set up the pass. Against the Chargers at home, running back Knowshon Moreno carried the ball eight times resulting in just 19 yards, his second lowest rushing total of the season. Look for the Broncos to establish the run early.
Denver must be very wary of the sixth-seeded Chargers. This game is far from a lock.
Unless otherwise mentioned, all stats were gathered via Pro-Football-Reference.com