Will Lightning Strike Twice?
The good news for the Denver Broncos: They have only three losses this season. The bad news: Those three losses are to each one of the three other teams remaining in the AFC playoffs. That’s right, the only teams the Denver Broncos have lost to this season are the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers, respectively. The Chargers seem to be the team of destiny in the AFC, with literally everything working in their favor down the home stretch of the season. They slipped into the playoffs and then handed the Cincinnati Bengals their first home loss of the season. San Diego is one of the hottest teams in football, and has already played two close games with Denver this season.
Everyone remembers the Chargers beating the Broncos in Week 15 on Thursday Night Football. What they might not remember is that the Chargers have played two close games against the Broncos this season. In Week 10, the Chargers lost by only one score to the Broncos, falling 28-20. Denver has scored less than 30 points only three times this season. Two of those three times came against this San Diego defense. Does Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano know something about this Denver offense that the rest of the league doesn’t? San Diego’s defense hasn’t been its strong point this season, yet it managed to hold the highest-scoring offense in NFL history to average numbers not once, but twice.
The Denver quarterback isn’t the only Pro Bowl passer in this game. Peyton Manning may have stolen all of the headlines this season, but Philip Rivers has quietly had an extraordinary season. Rivers essentially had a 3:1 TD to interception ratio this season and led the NFL in completion percentage (69.5%) His ability to complete passes and run long drives is what had slowed this Denver offense in the two meetings before Sunday’s playoff matchup.
In order for San Diego to win, it will need a healthy showing from Ryan Matthews, Danny Woodhead and even Ronnie Brown. The Chargers’ run game has been much improved in the latter half of the season, and that balance on offense has revived their season. It was cool to see Brown playing an integral part in a playoff win at age 32. Despite getting only 45 carries all season long, Brown rushed for 77 yards and a TD on eight carries in the wild-card weekend victory over the Bengals. I expect all three backs to get some touches in an attempt to control the clock and keep the ball out of Manning’s hands.
Manning can’t lose this game. His postseason legacy would take another major hit with a premature end to this stellar season. Manning can’t afford another upset loss in the postseason. By contrast, Rivers is playing with house money. The Chargers would be commended for a great season even if they lost by multiple scores on Sunday. They made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, and are now one win away from the AFC Championship Game. They will be playing confidently and loosely, and practically everything that could go right, has gone right for this San Diego team. Despite all of this, it is hard for me to imagine Manning losing this game. It won’t be easy. I expect it to be close, but in the end I think this Denver team will prevail. The Broncos are just too talented to not win a playoff game this season. If Manning wants this tremendous campaign to be revered the way it should be, he needs to win this game.