The Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers will meet for the third time this year in the divisional round of the postseason to break the series tie and send one to the conference title game.
Denver took down San Diego in Week 10, 28-20. But the Chargers were able to hit the road in Week 15 and secure a 27-20 victory and have not lost since. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and the Broncos have also won out and been fortunate enough to rest on a bye.
These two sides know each other well, so expect another close affair defined by stars and big plays.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is a top candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year Award after first-year coach Mike McCoy helped to play to his quarterback's strengths in 2013. ESPN Stats & Info illustrates the comeback story nicely:
A visual look at the improvements Chargers QB Philip Rivers has made from 2012 to 2013, using Total QBR as a guide pic.twitter.com/eRyU8WZxoY— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 8, 2014
A nice chunk of Rivers' total production came against the Broncos. In two games, he threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions.
With the news that starting running back Ryan Mathews is questionable for the contest, Rivers will be asked to take to the air often. When he does, he will be greeted by the NFL's No. 27 pass defense, which allows an average of 254.4 yards per game.
Rivers has plenty of weapons at his disposal to post the points necessary to upend the Broncos. He can go to running back Danny Woodhead out of the backfield, massive tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green or keep things simple and find rookie breakout star Keenan Allen.
Expect Rivers to have a huge game against a porous unit.
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning is not a sure thing to take his team to victory against the Chargers. History tells us that much:
The @chargers will now face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning's career playoff record against San Diego? 0-2.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) January 5, 2014
But Manning was mostly strong against San Diego in the regular season. He threw for 330 yards and four scores in the Week 10 win, but was a bit more human in the Week 15 loss with 289 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Manning got no help from his running game in both contests against the Chargers. Denver managed 84 total rushing yards in the win, but a jaw-dropping 18 in the loss.
In other words, Manning is about to post strong numbers against the NFL's No. 29 pass defense that allows an average of 258.7 yards per game. But as fans know, numbers do not necessarily equal wins, so Manning is going to need some help.
Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers
As hinted, Allen is one of the NFL's rising stars at wideout after a rookie season in which he caught 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns.
Allen attributes his success to Rivers, per Ricky Henne of the Chargers' website:
My rookie year has been great for me because of Philip Rivers. It’s great to have a quarterback that has the knowledge that he has. What he means to me is everything I’ve accomplished this year (because he was the one) throwing me the ball. What he means to this team, that speaks for itself.
The California product was quiet in terms of yardage in both games against the Broncos this year, but he was a major part of the seven-point win in Week 15 with his two touchdowns.
Allen is in line to have a similar performance as the beneficiary of a pass-heavy attack.
Something is off about this matchup. Denver has had a week off, but that potentially leaves the team prone to a sluggish performance.
Which team wins?
In that span, San Diego has had the look of an unstoppable team, especially after going to Cincinnati in the Wild Card Round and downing the Bengals at home—where they had been 8-0 on the year.
San Diego has done this before, and Manning habitually exits the playoffs in his opening round. Rivers needed to attempt just 16 passes against Cincinnati thanks to a strong defense and a committee approach that produced three rushers with more than 50 yards.
The Chargers are a complete team with everything clicking. Rivers will orchestrate another road upset with a hot start.
Final Score: Chargers 30, Broncos 28