The Denver Broncos open up the postseason with a game against the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs. These two teams know each other well, and the two games they played earlier this year had nearly similar scores but two different outcomes.
San Diego held the Broncos under 30 points twice this season. The rest of the NFL held the Broncos under 30 once.
The Chargers and Broncos split their two regular-season meetings, with the road team winning each time. This game will mark the first postseason meeting in the series history. Their 108 regular-season meetings is the third most between two teams at the time of their first playoff meeting.
After an upset win over the Bengals, the Chargers moved on as the AFC’s No. 6 seed. Dating back to 2005, No. 6 seeds are 6-2 in head-to-head matchups versus No. 1 seeds. Prior to 2005, No. 6 seeds were 0-9 vs No. 1 seeds since the postseason expanded to 12 teams (1990).
San Diego keeps it close when they play against Denver. They held the ball for 33 more minutes than Denver in their two games, and the Chargers were much better on third down.
Head-to-Head This Season
3rd down percentage
Time of possession
The Chargers are running an offense that former Broncos head coach Dan Reeves would be proud of. They love to control the ball.
Chargers Ball Control This Season
Time of possession
Percent of drive without a 1st down
Earlier this week, Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was quite open when he said the team is going to try the same approach against Denver again on Sunday. “It’s another game to us. When you look at it, we’re going to play the same. It’s another game you’ve got to go in and play. We’re going to do what we do, the coaches are going to put their best game plan together, and go out and have the players execute it.”
A big part of the game plan for the Chargers will be built on the ground game.
Ryan Mathews rushed for a career-high 1,255 yards in the regular season but had just one carry in the second half last week. Mathews rushed for 127 yards against Denver in Week 15. He was the only 100-yard rusher the Broncos allowed all season long.
Mathews may not be able to play in the game on Sunday. He has yet to participate in practice this week. If he can practice on Friday, then perhaps he could start. Mathews has a mindset that he’s going to start, but his body might fail him (again).
He’s only played a full 16-game season once in his pro career (2013). Injuries and inconsistencies have held Mathews back, but he’s certainly turned things around this season.
McCoy commented on what the plan was for Mathews this week. “He’s on the same plan he’s been on for the last couple of weeks, to be honest with you. The last couple of weeks, he hasn’t practiced until Friday, so we’re doing the same thing. He rested today, like a lot of the other guys we had today that we rested, and he’ll just take it a day at a time. He is going to be healthy on Sunday.”
The Chargers are 2-0 versus Peyton Manning in the playoffs, winning 28-24 in the divisional round in 2007 and 23-17 in the Wild Card Game in 2008.
They're the only team in the league with at least two wins and zero losses versus Manning in the postseason. They can become the first team to beat Manning three times in the postseason.
In order to beat the Broncos, it will take a concentrated defensive effort. The Chargers defense has gotten stronger as the season has wore on. They allowed 16.3 points per game in their last six games after allowing 23.6 points per game in their first 11 games of the year.
Defensive coordinator John Pagano knows how to disguise what he does against Manning. The Chargers will show blitz, then they'll drop eight defenders into coverage. They’ll also show an “umbrella” look before the snap, only to have actually called a run blitz.
San Diego does a good job of adjusting after Manning has made an audible before the snap. This effort shows up in the numbers.
2013 Denver Broncos
Versus All Others
Points per game
Rush yards per game
Pass yards per game
3rd down percentage
The week started out with a frosty practice, as it was under 20 degrees at Dove Valley.
The high on Sunday is set to be around 40 degrees. By the time the game is in the second half, we could see temperatures closer to freezing.
The Broncos will be ready for these cold-weather conditions.
I’m out at the Broncos' headquarters as much as possible. Here’s what coaches and players have been saying this week.
Fox has led the Broncos to more points than any other team has scored in a single season, and he’s done it with Manning and the high-powered passing game. However, he does have a soft spot in his heart for power football.
During his time in Carolina, Fox was known for building a strong rushing attack. He knows that can be a winning formula, and it’s a formula the Chargers used this season.
“When you run the ball, it does use more time on the clock. The clock doesn’t stop as much. It’s part of the way they [Chargers] play.” Fox continued, “It’s a very effective way to play.”
Fox also admitted there is a sense of urgency now that the Broncos are in the playoffs. “You do this for a living, you’re playing against the best of the world every week. I’d say it’s a fair assessment there is a pretty big sense of urgency every week.”
Manning is making his 13th playoff appearance. This breaks his tie with Brett Favre for the most by a starting quarterback in NFL history.
On Sunday, he’ll try to avoid breaking a tie with Favre for the most losses by a quarterback in the postseason (both have 11).
If Manning does lose on Sunday, it will be the ninth time he's lost his first start in a postseason. This would be more than twice as many "one-and-dones" as any other quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
Peyton Manning NFL Career
Yards per attempt
Manning wants to shake the label of greatest “regular-season” quarterback in NFL history. He wants to be remembered as the best to ever play at the position. In order to do that, he must improve in the final quarter of postseason games.
The veteran has only one game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in the postseason. Manning has 50 such drives in the regular season.
Peyton Manning Postseason Career
1st Three Quarters
Yards per attempt
Manning set NFL records for passing touchdowns (55), passing yards (5,477) and passing first downs this season. He's the fourth player ever to set the single-season passing touchdowns and passing yards records in a season.
Manning's 55 passing touchdowns were more than any team's total touchdowns in the regular season (the Bengals had 54).
He knows the pressure is there, but Manning doesn’t feel he’s put too much pressure on himself in the postseason.
“That’s not how I feel. I guess everybody has a different theory or analysis. A lot of you people weren’t even probably working since I’ve been playing in the playoffs (laughter). Some of you others, you all look a lot younger than that.” Manning continued, “I don’t believe that to be true. I’ve always enjoyed it, and I felt fortunate to be in every opportunity when you get a chance to play in the postseason. Obviously, if you keep advancing, it’s exciting. That is what you’re looking forward to trying to do.”
Manning also admitted this week that the Broncos have been using the Ravens loss as motivation all season long.
“I think we’ve kind of used that throughout the season. We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our offseason training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squats, whatever it may be.” Manning said, “We’ve used it on the practice field. I don’t think that you just get to this week and you start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before. I feel like we’ve done that, and like I said, we’re excited to be at this place right now.”
Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase
Gase is mindful of the situation this week. He knows the Chargers will once again try to control the time of possession. This makes every drive, every play, hypercritical for the Broncos offense.
The Broncos must improve on third down if they want to beat the Chargers on Sunday. Gase admitted it was a problem the last time the two teams played.
“Third down hurt us in the second quarter. We had those three three-and-outs. That was probably the biggest thing that really hurt us. There were poor [play] calls, poor execution—they out-executed us on a couple of those plays and had a better scheme for the play we had called.” Gase continued, “It’s going to be a little bit of everything for us. We’ve all got to pull our weight and make sure we get the right call in. We execute the play properly and make sure we’re all on it.”
To shake the Chargers out of their ball-control offense, Gase knows the team could build a big lead early. If they can get up by 14 points, then the Chargers would have to switch to a pass-happy mode and become one-dimensional.
“We kind of headed that direction the second time we played them, where we got the quick seven, and then we stalled in the red area and took three instead.” Gase said, “It would have been nice to get 14 right there and to see what kind of pressure we would have put on them because we would have had a little better lead there. But obviously, anytime you can get up on a team that is a ball-control team, it puts a little more pressure on them to have to possibly do something they don’t like to do.”
Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio
Things may be different this time around for the Broncos defense. First, Champ Bailey will be in more as the team’s Nickel corner. Last time the Chargers were in Denver, it was rookie Kayvon Webster in that spot.
Del Rio knows that with a more experienced player back there, the team can be more aggressive with their front seven.
“We’re counting on everybody. We’re counting on Champ. We’re counting on everybody on our roster to do their part, be prepared, understand what it takes to do their part, play fast, play well together and have fun.”
In addition to Bailey, the Broncos will need players like Terrance Knighton to elevate their game. Knighton will be in charge of the middle of the defensive line, and their task is to slow down the Chargers’ ground game.
Del Rio likes what he’s seen from Knighton this year.
“Terrance has had a great—I would call it a bounce-back—year. I think he’s comfortable here, understands what is expected of him and is doing a great job of leading that group and communicating. I think if you were to talk to [DT Sylvester Williams] ‘Sly,’ it’s been invaluable for him to have Terrance right there, able to talk with him and explain to him, share things with him and really help bring him along. I think that has been great for him.”
San Diego has won five straight games. This is their longest streak since 2009 and the second-longest active streak in the NFL behind the 49ers (7).
Including the playoffs, the Chargers are 6-2 versus teams that finished with winning records in 2013, including 4-0 on the road. No team has more wins versus teams with winning records than San Diego.
Rivers is 6-2 in his career in Denver with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The only quarterback to win more road games as a starter versus the Broncos is Len Dawson (Chiefs).
In 2013, the Chargers ranked second (behind the Broncos) in points per drive (2.3). They ranked first in plays per drive (6.3) and yards per drive (37.6).
Denver gets all or nothing as a No. 1 seed, losing their first game twice and winning the Super Bowl once. Broncos country is hoping for another Super Bowl ring this year.
The Broncos scored an NFL-record 606 points in 2013. Of the eight teams to score the most points in NFL history, none won the Super Bowl. Denver's 37.9 points per game were the second most in regular-season history, trailing the 1950 Rams, who lost the NFL Championship Game, at 38.8.
The Broncos need only two victories to get to the Super Bowl. A third victory would win a championship, and that would certainly make this season one of legend.
The team knows what they must do in order to advance in the postseason. The bad taste from last year’s loss to Baltimore is still sour. They will do everything in their power to avoid a similar result this season.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Records and statistical information are provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Follow Cecil Lammey on Twitter @CecilLammey