Peyton Manning and company just finished one of the greatest offensive seasons in NFL history and are well-rested coming off their Wild Card round bye. The Chargers did split the season series with the Broncos, but they find themselves heavy underdogs against their division rivals this weekend.
If the Chargers are to pull off another upset and extend their improbable playoff run, they need to capitalize on any weakness they can find. The Broncos have been a juggernaut all season, but they aren't without cracks in their armor.
Here are three key weaknesses the Chargers can exploit if they want to emerge victorious against Denver on Sunday.
Target the Secondary
The most obvious weakness for the Chargers to exploit is Denver's shaky secondary. Safety Rahim Moore still isn't practicing, Champ Bailey has been hobbled or missing all season and the Broncos finished with the 27th ranked passing defense.
The Chargers have the perfect personnel to accomplish this feat. Philip Rivers had one of his best seasons this year, and his accuracy has improved now that he has safety valves in running back Danny Woodhead and Eddie Royal to hit on check-down routes.
The Chargers also boast a Rookie Of the Year candidate in wide receiver Keenan Allen, who can exploit a size mismatch over corners Kayvon Webster and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Tight end Ladarius Green has been a great big play threat for the Chargers (22.1 yards per catch) all season, and his ability to get downfield on seam routes over the middle will be a nightmare for the Broncos safeties to handle.
He averages just over one catch per game, but he has a knack for showing up in big moments and is a freakish athlete who can make an excellent decoy as well.
Get Inside Manning's Head
Peyton Manning, draped in glory throughout much of his career, tends to falter against the San Diego Chargers.
Over the course of his career, Manning has an 84.8 quarterback rating against the Chargers, well below his sterling 97.2 career rating. The Chargers are 6-5 against Manning in the Philip Rivers era, including a perfect 2-0 against Manning in the playoffs.
Manning's numbers plummet well below his standards late in playoff games as well. He is just a 58 percent passer in the fourth quarter or later in playoff games, and has seven touchdowns against seven interceptions in that span.
The Chargers key to continuing their mental hold over Manning lies in head coach Mike McCoy, who helped build the offense that Manning has run to near perfection this year. McCoy should have enough insight into Manning's mind to help his defense pick their spots.
Defensive coordinator John Pagano needs to dial up the pressure against Manning as well. Outside linebacker Melvin Ingram—injured for the majority of the season—had a strong game against the Bengals last week, and has the potential to be a thorn in Manning's side this Sunday.
Extending Drives, Especially on Third Down
The Chargers had the best third-down conversion rate in the NFL this season, nabbing a first down on 49.0 percent of their tries. The Broncos defense was merely average at stopping teams on third-down, allowing team's to convert on 38.9 percent of their drives, good for 16th in the league. They also allowed the most first downs in the league, at 339.
In the Chargers' 27-20 victory over the Broncos, Manning took the field just five times over the course of two quarters, and was unable to establish a rhythm.
By mixing runs with Ryan Mathews and short passes to Danny Woodhead, the Chargers can kill the clock and convert on crucial third downs.
If the Chargers can limit Manning's opportunities early in the game, they can focus on establishing a lead and force the Broncos to play catch-up late in the game, when Manning is at his worst in the playoffs.
Weaknesses are hard to come by when sizing up the 13-3 Broncos, but the opportunities are there for the Chargers if they want to extend their postseason and send shockwaves throughout the rest of the league.
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