The showdown for supremacy in the AFC West will kick off at 4:40 PM Sunday afternoon at Mile High Stadium in Denver. This marks the third meeting between the two teams this season. The Broncos knocked the Chargers off 28-20 in Week 10, and San Diego returned the favor by posting a 27-20 victory in the rematch a month later. There are three keys to victory that I believe will determine the outcome of the final contest between the two rivals.
The effectiveness of Matthews will go a long way in deciding the outcome to this game, and the number of touches he gets is directly correlated to who takes the lead early. In the Week 10 meeting the Chargers trailed 21-6 at the half, and as a result of playing from behind their feature running back was held to 14 carries for 59 yards. In the Week 15 rematch San Diego came out of the gate quickly and they were able to control the clock and the tempo in the second half thanks to the 24-10 advantage they’d gained by early in the third quarter. This allowed Matthews to run for 127 yards on 29 carries, and completely control the pace of the game in the fourth quarter. Matthews’ health has been a question mark, but he’s a gamer and I don’t believe a sore ankle will limit him in such a crucial contest.
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A key to the Broncos success in the first meeting was big plays from Manning targeting his wide receivers outside the numbers. In that victory the Broncos had four touchdown drives, with three touchdown grabs from Demariyus Thomas. The drives spanned 57 seconds, 2:27, 1:25, and their longest was 3:26. Quick strikes were nowhere to be found in the rematch, as backup slot receiver Andre Caldwell caught Manning’s only two touchdowns in the red zone, and the aforementioned Thomas and Eric Decker were non-factors on vertical routes. If Denver wants to revert to their winning ways, their outside receivers are going to have to do more against the Chargers secondary.
Both of these quarterbacks could be diagnosed with on-field multiple personality disorders. Peyton Manning frequently goes from regular season hero to post season zero. This regular season he shattered both the touchdown and the yardage records. However, when the calendar turns to January he holds the NFL record for “one-and-done’s,” losing his team’s first playoff game eight times in twelve appearances. This season’s only all-pro quarterback only has one Super Bowl ring, and in that four game run he only threw three touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions, a far cry from his MVP regular season statistics. For Denver to win he has to be better than he has been in the past.
On the other side of the ball is Philip Rivers, who had a slow start to the season, but picked up speed towards the end. It seems that Rivers’ greatest enemy may be apathy. In games that he seems engaged in, when he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder, he’s one of the best in football. When he appears disengaged his game is mired in mediocrity. Look no further to the Chargers recent winning streak as an example of this. With his season on the line, Rivers has been nothing short of brilliant. He outdueled Manning, and little brother Eli en route to a wild card appearance in which his team beat a favored Bengals team on the road. With the Broncos heavily favored and Manning receiving all of the press for his record-setting 2013 campaign, the Chargers quarterback’s shoulder chip may be a crater by the time they kickoff Sunday.
Mason’s Final Stance
This season the Denver Broncos have impressively racked up over 400 yards of offense in 14 out of their 16 games. The only two outings that they did not accomplish this feat? They were at San Diego, and hosting San Diego. Coupling a defense that appears to have Manning’s number in the regular season with his post-season persona, I think the time is right for an upset here. With Rivers looking down the barrel of the gun on the other side of the ball, I forecast that the underdogs emerge with a hard-fought win on the road.