For most of the season, the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning looked nearly unstoppable. The Broncos didn’t need their great pass-rusher Von Miller, star cornerback Champ Bailey or even a competent defense to win games by multiple scores.
When the Broncos finally lost a couple games, it was against the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots on the road. It took Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady playing amazing football to beat the Broncos by less than a score, and one of the games went into overtime.
When the San Diego Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver by a full touchdown, many people might have assumed it was a fluke. The barely playoff-worthy Chargers shouldn’t beat the No. 1 seed at home, so it was dismissed as an aberration. Except it wasn’t a fluke or aberration, and the Chargers are a serious threat to the Broncos’ title hopes.
Only two other teams have beaten the Broncos at home in the last two years, but the Chargers were the only team to do so this season. What’s even more alarming for the Broncos is that the Chargers didn’t do it with some exotic game plan or great defense; they simply kept the ball out of Manning’s hands and were more efficient on offense.
It’s not easy to beat the Broncos with a bad defense. Yet, the Chargers were able to accomplish it in Week 15. It’s hard enough to slow Manning and the Broncos down with an average defense, and it takes a special defense to force Manning to have a bad game.
Despite allowing the second most yards per play and forcing the third fewest turnovers in 2013, the Chargers finished 11th in points allowed. The Chargers were able to do this by running the football and controlling the clock, not with stellar defensive play in the red zone.
|Chargers' Defensive Stats|
|Drives||Plays||Scoring %||Plays Per Drive||Yards Per Drive||Points Per Drive|
The Chargers were 27th in the league in red-zone defense (62.2 percent), but they faced a league-low number of drives (166) and second fewest number of plays (989). They even allowed a league-high 6.0 plays per defensive drive and the second most yards per drive (35.2 yards), but with limited exposure they were still able to win nine games.
Put simply, San Diego's defense struggled all year, but it was saved by a ball-control offense. It was this clock-killing style that enabled the Chargers to beat the Broncos. It’s also a style that the Chargers are likely going to try to replicate.
"You have to do what you do best when you go out there," Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said via Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com. "Every week, regardless of who it is, you’re going to put a few new wrinkles in there. And that’s all part of game planning.”
In theory, fewer opportunities shouldn’t be a problem for the Broncos—they boast the most efficient offense in the league. The Broncos have scored on a league-high 47.5 percent of their offensive drives for a league-high 2.83 points per drive.
What puts the Broncos’ title hopes at risk? The Chargers are the second most efficient offense in the league. The Chargers scored on 44.9 percent of their offensive drives while averaging 2.33 points per drive—both are second behind the Broncos.
|Offensive Efficiency Comparison|
|Team||Plays Per Drive||Yards Per Drive||Points Per Drive|
The Chargers also lead the league in plays per drive by a wide margin with 6.6 plays compared with 6.1 for the next closest team and 5.9 for the Broncos, who rank fifth. The Chargers average a league-high 37.7 yards per offensive drive, just ahead of the Broncos' 36.2 yards per drive.
On third downs, the Chargers were the best in the league with a conversion percentage of 49.0—the Broncos were second at 46.3 percent. The Chargers also had the fewest three-and-outs with just 23, and the Broncos were second with 31, according to Andrew Siciliano of NFL.com.
If there is any offense in the league capable of keeping pace with the Broncos, it’s actually San Diego's. The Chargers just have a completely different style than the Broncos, but it’s one that enables them to dictate how many times their opponents get the ball.
|Team||Drives||Plays||Score %||Three-and-Outs||3rd Down %||Red Zone %|
Manning might only get nine or 10 opportunities against the Chargers, so he needs to make the most of them. Normally, the Broncos get closer to 13 drives per game. At their average of 2.83 points per drive, that’s a difference of about a touchdown just because the Chargers move the chains and control the clock better than any other team in the league.
Unlike the Colts and Patriots, teams that need to score 34-plus points to beat the Broncos, the Chargers only need to score 28-30 points. That is, if they execute their game plan.
If the Broncos score touchdowns early and often and force the Chargers to keep up, that may get the Chargers out of their groove like it did when the two teams played in Week 10. Offensively, the Broncos can make that happen, but their defense is also bad enough that it’s not assured.
In Week 15, the Broncos scored 10 points on their first two drives, but so did the Chargers. In yet another example of why a playoff loss shouldn’t be placed entirely on the shoulders of a quarterback, the Broncos could be great offensively and lose to the Chargers if their defense doesn’t perform.
Sound familiar? That’s pretty much what happened last year to the Broncos against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs.
A Perfect Storm
The Broncos lost defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe and Miller to injuries this season. Wolfe isn’t technically on injured reserve, but it’s unknown if or when he will be able to play again. Vickerson, Wolfe and Miller are arguably Denver's best run defenders, so not having them against a run-heavy offense hurts the Broncos tremendously.
Against playoff teams this season, the Broncos allowed 149.7 rushing yards per game. Some of those games were even played with Vickerson, Wolfe and Miller. The Chargers have similarly averaged 154 rushing yards per game against the Broncos, including 177 yards on the ground in their Week 15 win.
What all this means is that the Broncos are ill-equipped to make the stops they need to make on defense to dictate the pace of the game. If the Broncos can’t dictate the game by stopping the run, they’ll need to make stops on third down and in the red zone.
|Broncos' Run Defense|
|vs. Playoff Teams||32.5||149.7||4.6|
Unfortunately for the Broncos, they are 25th on defense in red-zone scoring percentage and 16th in third-down defense. In a lot of ways, the Chargers’ ability to extend drives and get touchdowns instead of field goals in Week 15 was why they were able to win.
Despite his playoff record, Manning isn’t what the Broncos are worried about. The Broncos are worried that their defense will not be able to slow down San Diego's offensive attack.
It’s not just the running game that takes time off the clock—it’s complete passes. The Chargers struggle at times running the ball and need their passing game to bail them out. With running back Ryan Mathews and right tackle D.J. Fluker nursing sore ankles, the Chargers need quarterback Philip Rivers to keep drives alive and the clock moving.
Rivers completed 69.5 percent of his passes during the regular season to lead the league. These complete passes created manageable third downs, which is why the Chargers were able to lead the league in third-down conversion percentage.
In the first quarter of the Chargers’ Week 15 victory, the Broncos struggled to slow down Rivers. If not for Miller, the Chargers may have done even more damage early in the game—which doesn’t bode well for the Broncos without him.
Take this sack from the first drive of the game on 2nd-and-11 as a good example of the challenge the Broncos face on Sunday. The Chargers were trying to take advantage of the single deep safety, but physical (probably illegal) coverage on tight end Antonio Gates and the pressure by Miller allowed defensive tackle Sylvester Williams to get a sack.
Running back Danny Woodhead forced the Broncos to cover the flat, and a deep curl by wide receiver Eddie Royal kept the safety from helping Gates over the top. Rivers knew where he wanted to go with the ball and the play was perfectly designed to take advantage of the coverage.
The Broncos were not only lucky not to get called for a penalty, they were also lucky to have Miller forcing Rives up in the pocket. Without that pressure, Rivers may have been able to stay in the pocket long enough to find Gates in the corner for a first down or touchdown.
A miscommunication on third down forced the Chargers to kick a field goal, but it was really the sack on second down that killed the drive. What was a positive play for the Broncos in a loss could very well turn into a negative play on Sunday.
The Broncos will have to blitz more to put pressure on Rivers, but that comes with its own set of risks. On a clock-killing drive in the third quarter that actually ended with a punt for the Chargers, the Broncos allowed a third down to be converted because they brought pressure that Rivers was able to exploit.
It was 3rd-and-6 and the Broncos rushed six, including three players off the left edge where Gates was lined up. Since Gates released, it left only the strong safety to cover him. Rivers alertly flicked it out to Gates in the face of the rush and got the first down with the safety late to arrive.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, it’s not just an issue of stopping the run. Rivers will make plays to keep drives alive if the Broncos can’t get pressure on him with just four pass-rushers.
Given all the known factors, the Chargers are probably the team in the AFC with the best chance to beat the Broncos at home. The Chargers leave the Broncos very little margin for error, so scoring touchdowns early and often like they did in a Week 10 will be the key to the game.
The Broncos may be heavy favorites, but the Chargers are a formidable opponent that has already proven they can beat Denver. Having slot receiver Wes Welker back will help the Broncos, but it will not take much to tip this game in the favor of the Chargers.