1. Jump out to a big lead. This might sound self-evident but it’s the exact formula the Broncos used in their 28-20 win over the Chargers in San Diego on Nov. 10. Denver scored three touchdowns in the first half, along with another to start the third quarter, to jump out to a 28-6 lead. Although San Diego rallied against Denver’s suspect defense, the deficit was too much for the Chargers to overcome. Coming off a very short week, a sizeable early lead will be even more important for Denver this time around.
2. Big performances from backups. As mentioned, both teams played on Sunday and as the Denver Post pointed out today, most players hate the short time between these Sunday-Thursday splits, not due to the lack of preparation but because of sheer exhaustion. The Broncos have been especially banged up recently, particularly on defense. With designs on the postseason -- Denver’s win over the Titans clinched the first playoff berth in the AFC -- expect several backups to get big minutes as the team tries to maintain some semblance of health over the final three games of the season.
3. Run the Ball. As in the ball and Ball, Montee. The rookie running back has firmly entrenched himself as the team’s No. 2 tailback and has looked particularly good over the past two games, averaging 9-yards per carry against the Chiefs and 5.1 against the Titans. Knowshon Moreno is clearly the team’s best RB, but they’d be wise to limit his touches to save him for the playoffs. That goes double for quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw a career-high 59 passes in Sunday’s win over Tennessee. If Denver can get it going on the ground and build that early lead, they can put in backup QB Brock Osweiler for his specialty: Handing the ball off to third-string backs in garbage time.
San Diego Chargers
1. Attack Denver’s secondary. The Broncos pass defense has given up the fourth most yards this season, thanks to a combination of injuries and big leads, which sets up a prevent defense that teams can exploit for big yards, if not points, where they rank a slightly more respectable 25th at 26.5 allowed per game. Philip Rivers is the second-best QB in the AFC behind Manning this season (no, really, you can look it up), so for San Diego to have a chance, they’ll need to get quick strikes and big plays against a secondary that may once again be without Champ Bailey.
2. Force turnovers. Ending up on the good side of the turnover differential provides a huge correlation toward winning, and Denver has been prone to fumbling, as they lead the league in both total fumbles (26) as well as fumbles lost (16). Some of this is on Denver’s running backs, but Manning too has had his share of issues, as his six fumbles lost are tied for the most in the NFL. One of those took place the last time these teams met. If the Chargers can get a few turnovers and take advantage of them with touchdowns, the Broncos may find themselves in an uncomfortable position playing catch-up.
3. Get physical. The banged-up Broncos want no part of a dogfight tonight, not with the playoffs looming. San Diego, meanwhile, has nothing more than an outside shot at the playoffs with their 6-7 record. It behooves the Chargers, then, to bring everything they’ve got at Denver, particularly on defense, where they scared the holy heck out of Bronco fans everywhere with a 4th quarter sack on Manning during the last game, aggravating his already gimpy ankle. Obviously the Chargers would never try to intentionally injury to the MVP (and it would take a shocking meltdown over the next three games for Manning to lose what will be his unprecedented fifth MVP trophy), but with their sights on January football, the Broncos most likely want to get out of the game healthy even more than they want a win.