The Denver Broncos are favored to advance to the AFC championship, but they have to get past this year’s Cinderella first. The San Diego Chargers were the last team to beat the Broncos and did it in Denver no less; coming into the Mile High City on Sunday determined to repeat their success from Week 15.
After Week 13 sitting at 5-7, the Chargers were the biggest long shot to make the NFL playoffs in 2014. With a little help from the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens, the Chargers finished the year at 9-7 and earned the sixth seed in the AFC. Their four game win streak included a 27-20 win over Peyton Manning and the Broncos on the road. The Chargers went into Cincinnati as seven-point underdogs and beat the Bengals 27-10; they enter the matchup against Denver as 9.5 underdogs, the biggest points spread of the divisional round.
“It’s another game to us,” Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said on Wednesday. “When you look at it, we’re going to play the same. It’s another game you’ve got to go in and play. We’re going to do what we do, the coaches are going to put their best game plan together, and go out and have the players execute it.”
At 13-3 as the top seed in the AFC playoff race for the second year in a row, the Broncos and their fans are hoping not to go out like they did last year. Not only do the Broncos not want to suffer another deflating playoff loss, they don’t want it to be against a division rival.
"You’re playing a good football team and it’s going to be a good football game." Manning said. "A lot of familiarity between both teams. I would say there is a lot of knowledge amongst both teams. That kind of evens out and kind of comes down to who makes more plays on the field. That is kind of how I know to approach it and that is kind of what I believe about playoff football.”
Here are the key matchups in the divisional game between the Chargers and Broncos.
Passing: Advantage Broncos
This game will feature two of the most accurate passers in the NFL, but Peyton Manning led Philip Rivers in almost every other passing statistic in the regular season. The biggest difference between the two quarterbacks is Manning’s record breaking 55 touchdown passes to Rivers’ 32. The Broncos air attack saw four players accumulate 10 or more receiving touchdowns this season. Demaryius Thomas, Erick Decker, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker are much bigger downfield threats that Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal, Antonio Gates and Vincent Brown.
Both Knowshon Moreno of the Broncos and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers have had breakout years in 2013. Each rusher has run for over 1,000 yards and averaged at least 4.3 yards per carry in the regular season. Each team utilizes their running backs in the passing game while backups, Danny Woodhead of the Chargers and Montee Ball of the Broncos, have proven to be equally capable of moving the chains for their team. The Broncos defense allowed the eighth least rushing yards per game this season
Defense: Advantage Chargers
The Chargers defense allowed an average of 21.8 points per game in the regular season, 11th best. The Broncos, on the other hand, allowed 24.9 points per game, 11th worst. Headed by Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, The Chargers have a tall order ahead of them to make the highest scoring team in the NFL come to a grinding halt. The Broncos will be without Von Miller, one of their best pass rushers, but Shaun Phillips is eager to go against his former team.
Special Teams: Advantage Broncos
Although Chargers kicker Nick Novak has converted 34 field goals, including 11 40 yards or longer, Matt Prater of the Broncos has missed only one all season and converted the longest field goal in NFL history. The thin air in the Mile High City has helped one of the NFL’s strongest leg drill almost every field goal he has attempted at his home stadium.
The Chargers have not returned a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown this season, Trindon Holliday of the Broncos has returned two. Holliday returned two kick returns in last year’s playoff loss to the Ravens, we’ll find out if he can repeat his playoff success.
Personal prediction: Denver wins 35-21
The Chargers are on a hot streak, they are the last team to beat the Broncos, but Peyton Manning and the high-octane Broncos offense will bring an end to the Chargers run. The Chargers did everything right when they beat the Broncos in Dec. 12, but this time Denver will be ready for whatever San Diego throws their way. Wes Welker returns to the Broncos starting lineup for the first time since suffering his second concussion of the season, adding to Denver’s offensive onslaught.
The Broncos must not repeat the mistake of overlooking their playoff opponent for a second straight season. The road to Super Bowl XLVIII for the Denver Broncos means they will have to beat two of the three teams that beat them in the 2013 regular season.