Eric Decker celebrates a touchdown with Andre Caldwell while Demaryius Thomas looks on.
In their last game of the season, they thrashed the Oakland Raiders by halftime, putting up 31 points and pitching a shutout until the backups came in. They looked as dominant in that outing as they did at the beginning of the season, when they got things off on the right foot by destroying the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens—the club that ousted them in last year's playoffs.
Despite this full-throttle offense, a victory against San Diego Chargers in the divisional round is far from guaranteed.
Forget that San Diego scraped into the playoffs, barely beating the Kansas City Chiefs' backups and only getting in because a number of losses fell their way. They seem very comfortable playing in Denver, where they won 27-20 just a few weeks back.
Manning has been notoriously bad in the postseason, losing eight times in his team's first playoff game over 12 appearances.
The Broncos might be a No. 1 seed, but they are ripe for an upset if they are not careful. These keys to the game will outline how they can avoid another home loss to the Bolts and move on to face either Indianapolis or New England in the AFC Championship Game.
Ryan Mathews breaks away down the sideline in Denver.
Ryan Mathews was the key to the Chargers' victory in Denver during the regular season. He ran the ball 29 times for 127 yards and a touchdown. His consistent production allowed the Chargers to extend drives, control the game and really run time off the clock.
This also meant that Manning was planted firmly on the sideline for much of the game. It allowed San Diego's defense to only have to make a handful of stops, which took pressure off the team and kept the score low so that the Chargers would always be within striking distance—if not leading.
However, Mathews has recently been missing practices, so he may not start and will not be 100 percent even if he does play. If he takes the field, though, Denver has to contain him.
Woodhead cuts in the open field.
If Mathews really cannot go, the Chargers have a very capable backup in Danny Woodhead. He has provided that spark that they needed, giving them the shifty, quick sort of runner that the Chargers haven't had since they let Darren Sproles go to New Orleans.
He's especially dangerous on third down, when he can extend drives and exploit linebackers.
Woodhead saw the most action of the season last week at Cincinnati, running the ball 15 times for 54 yards and a touchdown. Denver needs to get San Diego off the field if it is going to put up the points to win this game and that's the kind of production that could derail its plans.
Welker puts his head down to dive for extra yards.
The Broncos were given just three drives in the second quarter the last time that they faced the Chargers, and what was the result of each one of those drives?
Denver played right into San Diego's hand, allowing the Chargers to keep working the clock and pounding the ball. The Broncos have to extend their own drives and, most importantly, score points. San Diego can't beat them in a shootout.
It goes without saying that the return of Wes Welker—one of the most prolific slot receivers over the last decade—who has missed the last three games with a concussion, will help tremendously. He was unavailable for that 20-27 loss to the Chargers after being injured against Tennessee.
Miller dives to block a pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Starting linebacker Von Miller, one of the brightest young stars in the NFL and perhaps the best player on the Broncos defense—especially with Champ Bailey spending most of the season on the bench due to injury—has a torn ACL.
He's gone for the season and had surgery on January 9th.
He leaves some huge shoes to fill. The Broncos have to find a way to get production out of guys like Nate Irving and Shaun Phillips. They have to slow down the run and get pressure on Rivers.
Jack Del Rio must put together a scheme in which the backups can at least suffice, if not excel. If he doesn't, the Chargers are going to exploit those mismatches all day long—both in the running game and with Antonio Gates. It won't be pretty.
The good news? Miller was suspended for violating the drug policy for the first six games of the season. A lot of people asked questions about how the Broncos would fare without him.
They went 6-0.
Thomas snares a touchdown grab against the Chargers.
San Diego can't beat Denver if the game turns into a shootout. Other teams have tried, like the Dallas Cowboys, and it just doesn't work.
The way to beat Denver is to keep its offense off the field. You do that by running the ball. If you're losing, though, you have to throw it.
The best way for Denver to win this game is to come out and score early and often. If the Broncos can run up a lead in the first half, they'll make San Diego play their game rather than letting the Chargers dictate the pace.
It's a game that the Chargers cannot win because they're not going to be able to match the Broncos offense at full throttle.
Carving out an early lead gives the Broncos the best chance to move on in the playoffs. Their strength is in the raw power of their offense and it must be utilized. With enough points, they can cover up for deficiencies on defense.