San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
(Sunday, CBS, 4:40 PM ET)
The Denver Broncos (13-3) host the San Diego Chargers (10-7) on Sunday in the first-ever playoff matchup between the two AFC West rivals. San Diego advanced by defeating the Bengals, 27-10, in the AFC Wild Card, while Denver earned a bye week. The Broncos and Chargers have faced one another 108 times. This season, the teams split the season series.
Denver won the AFC West and secured home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a 13-3 record. The Broncos scored 606 points, the most in a season in NFL history. Peyton Manning passed for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both single-season NFL records.
"All the records and all the stats go out the window," says Denver head coach John Fox. "It's a whole new season. The key is playing the best football during the playoffs. It's a single-elimination tournament, so you can't have a bad day. You have to be on your game from beginning to end. The team that usually does that is the team that usually wins it all."
The Chargers head to Denver having won five in a row, the second-longest active streak (7 - 49ers) among the eight teams remaining in the NFL Playoffs including last week's 27-10 playoff win at Cincinnati.
"We challenged everyone on the football team that going on the road in a playoff game is not going to be easy," says San Diego first-year head coach Mike McCoy, who spent the previous four seasons with Denver as the team's offensive coordinator. "The players have gone out and executed and now we've got another week."
The Chargers outperformed the Bengals in two key areas. San Diego racked up a season-high four takeaways (two interceptions and two fumble recoveries), and rushed for a season-high 196 yards. The ground game netted the Chargers touchdown runs from Danny Woodhead (5-yard TD) and Ronnie Brown (58-yard TD). Philip Rivers threw a touchdown pass in the win and posted a 118.8 passer rating.
Cincinnati led at the half, 10-7, but the Chargers dominated the game on defense in the second half, pitching a shutout as the Charger outscored the Bengals 20-0. Cincinnati's first six drives of the second half ended with a punt after a third-down sack, a fumble, two interceptions and two on downs. The seventh ended when the clock expired. In addition to the four turnovers, the Chargers' defense recorded three sacks, five tackles for loss and eight passes defensed.
That the Chargers even made the playoffs is a near-miracle as San Diego qualified for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in nearly-impossible fashion. Heading into Week 16 of the regular season, the Chargers found themselves needing to win their final two games, while also needing both Miami and Baltimore to lose their final two. In Week 16, the Chargers beat the Raiders, the Dolphins lost to the Bills, and the Ravens lost to New England.
In final week of the regular season, the Dolphins and Ravens had already lost to their division rivals earlier in the day to the Jets and Bengals. At the start of their game against the Chiefs, the Chargers finally had control of their own destiny. However, the Chargers trailed Kansas City 24-14 heading into the final quarter. San Diego outscored the Chiefs 10-0 to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. The Chargers would have never beaten the Chiefs in overtime if Ryan Succop didn't miss a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left in the game. The Chargers won the coin toss and drove 16 plays for a field goal to take the lead 27-24. San Diego's defense responded by stopping the Chiefs on downs to seal the improbable victory.
The Chargers now face a Denver team that had a week off last weekend as the No. 1 seed in the AFC and come into the playoffs having won two straight and four of their last six.
The Broncos are led Peyton Manning who broke multiple NFL passing records in 2013, most notably the single-season marks for touchdowns (55), yards (5,477), passing first downs (289).
At the same time, Manning has an outstanding supporting cast on offense that scored 606 total points this season, the most in a season in NFL history. Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno had a break out year. This season Moreno scored 13 touchdowns (10 rushing, three receiving), rushed for 1,038 yards on 241 carries and caught 60 passes for 548 receiving yards. Including Moreno, the Broncos became the first team in NFL history with five players catching at least 60 passes in a season (Demaryius Thomas 92, Eric Decker 87, Wes Welker 73, Julius Thomas 65, Knowshon Moreno 60).
Philip Rivers led the Chargers with an outstanding season as he completed an NFL-leading 69.5 percent of his passes (378 of 544) for 4,478 yards with 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions for a passer rating of 105.5.
Ryan Mathews rushed for a career-high 1,255 yards this season. Complementing Mathews in the backfield is Danny Woodhead. Woodhead finished the regular season with the most touchdown catches among all NFL running backs (6) and the second-most receptions (76) for 605 yards. Tight end Antonio Gates led the Chargers with 77 catches, good for 872 yards and four touchdowns. Rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen had 71 catches, good for 1,046 yards and 8 touchdowns. Wide receiver Eddie Royal scored eight touchdowns and had 47 catches this season
The Chargers defense has played some of its best football of the season down the stretch. The Chargers have 14 total takeaways in the last seven games and has brought constant pressure against their opponents in terms of sacks, tackles for loss and passes defensed. Another key stat for the defense was that in their last nine games, the Chargers are holding opponents to just 330.3 yards per game.
Regular Season Games Between the Chargers and Broncos
In Week 9 of the regular season (11/10/2013), the Chargers lost to the Denver Broncos at home. The Broncos took an early 7-0 lead, when Peyton Manning (25-of-36 for 330 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INT) connected with tight end Julius Thomas for a 74-yard touchdown reception. The Chargers were able to cut the deficit to 7-6 thanks to two field goals by Nick Novak. Manning responded with two more touchdown passes (11-yard & 7-yard TD passes to Demaryius Thomas) to end the first half with a 21-6 lead. The Broncos scored on the opening drive of the second half when Demaryius Thomas caught his third touchdown of the game from Manning for 28-6 lead. San Diego rallied in the second half to get within one score with 10:42 remaining, but the Broncos held the Chargers at bay and escaped with the victory.
In Week 12 of the regular season (12/12/2013), the Chargers evened their record at 7-7 with a 27-20 road win over the Broncos. It was the Broncos first loss at home this season.
The Chargers controlled possession for 38:49 minutes and took advantage of a defensive effort that held the Broncos to a season-low 295 yards of total offense. The Chargers controlled the game with their ground game by outrushing the Broncos 177 to 18, while converting six of 12 third downs and racking up 24 first downs.
Denver started quickly by scoring on its opening series -- a 15-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to wide receiver Andre Caldwell. The Chargers were also able to score on their first possession, executing an 11-play, 60-yard drive that resulted in a 38-yard field goal by Nick Novak. The Broncos extended their lead to 10-3 when Matt Prater made a 32-yard field goal. Philip Rivers (12-of-20 passing for 166 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT) completed TD passes of 19 and 10 yards towide receiver Keenan Allen to give San Diego a 17-10 lead at halftime.
The second half was much of the same for San Diego as running back Ryan Mathews (29 carries for 127 yards, 1 TD) scored on a 23-yard run on the Chargers' first possession of the third quarter. Manning led the Broncos on a 12 play, 89-yard touchdown drive to bring the score to 24-17 with 10:25 left in the fourth quarter. Denver forced San Diego to punt on the ensuing series giving Manning the ball back with 5:50 left. However, on the third play of the series, outside linebacker Thomas Keiser intercepted Manning's pass and returned it to the Denver 33-yard line. Novak connected on a 35-yard field goal to extend San Diego's lead to 27-17 with 2:36 remaining. A 42-yard field goal with 0:29 left cut the Broncos deficit to 27-20. Denver attempted an onside kick to extend the game, but San Diego knocked the ball out of bounds to preserve the win.
Rivers has a career playoff won-loss record of 4-4. He's 3-0 in wild card games, 1-3 in the divisional round and 0-1 in championship games. In eight career playoff appearances, Rivers has completed 146 of 245 (.596) for 1,948 yards with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. In four career road playoff games, Rivers is 2-2 and has completed 66 of 107 (.617) for 911 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions for a 95.2 passer rating.
Rivers is 10-6 record against the Broncos. In those 16 previous games, Rivers has completed 290 of 456 pass attempts (.636) for 3,830 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and a rating of 98.8. In the two games against the Broncos this season, Rivers combined to complete 31 of 49 (.633) for 384 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 107.9 rating.
Peyton Manning (5,477 passing yards & 56 TD passes) and the Broncos (606 points) compiled record-breaking statistics during the regular season. Manning (167-73 .696) is second to Brett Favre with 167 regular-season career wins.
But the regular season is behind us. Manning is only 9-and-11 (.450) in the playoffs including eight losses in which he has failed to advance beyond his first playoff game.
The Broncos are in the same situation as last year -- the Broncos are the top seed with the best record in the AFC, hosting a divisional round playoff game. Last year, the Ravens beat the Broncos 38-35 in double overtime. Could this be destiny all over again? Perhaps. After all, the Chargers are the only team to beat the Broncos in Denver this season.
A big key to the Chargers' success this season has been their ability to sustain long drives. The Chargers led the NFL in 10-play drives (39) and 10-play drive points (157). The Chargers sustained two 10-play drives in their AFC Wild Card Playoff win over the Bengals with both drives ending in TDs. Another key is San Diego's ability to convert on third-down (49.0 percent best in the NFL). The Chargers also averaged 23.3 first downs per game and were able to gain 5.61 yards per play on first down this season.
If the Chargers are able to control the ball and sustain drives, then the more time Manning will spend on the sidelines. The less time Manning spends on the field, the less the Broncos will score.
Destiny might be on the Charger's side, but their mid-season transition to a ball control offense and improved defensive play has made San Diego a much better team.
Expect the game to be close as the Chargers beat the Broncos, 23-20
Can the Chargers Topple the Broncos?
SI.com's Andrew Perloff previews the AFC Divisional matchup between the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos.
Chargers-Broncos NFL Playoffs Preview
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"Broncos Host Chargers in AFC Divisional Round Matchup "