8:30 PM EST, CBS/NFL Network – Line: Denver -8
AFC West rivals face off at Mile High tonight as the Denver Broncos host the San Diego Chargers on Thursday Night Football. After a surprising 9-7 campaign resulting in their first trip to the Playoffs since 2009, the Chargers (5-2) have picked up where they left off, putting together a five-game winning streak at one point before last weekend’s upset loss at home to the Chiefs. At first glance, San Diego has the look of a Playoff Team once more, but the truth is that they’ve feasted on weaker competition during said winning streak. With the exception of a strong 30-21 victory over the defending Super Bowl Champion Seahawks, the rest of their opponents have consisted of the likes of the Bills (22-10), Jaguars (33-14), Jets (31-0), and Raiders (31-28), with those four teams combining for a dreadful 6-21 record (.222). Now, the caliber of opponent is raising significantly, as they head to Denver for a date with the reigning two-time division champions. But then again, none of their other division foes have played the Broncos quite as tough as the Chargers; Philip Rivers and Co. met them on three occasions last season, in what were each very close games decided by seven, seven, and eight points respectively. In fact, when last San Diego traveled to Sports Authority Field, they handled them quite well in a 27-20 victory on a cold Thursday Night in December. On that day, they held the most prolific offense in the league to a mere 295 total yards, including a mere eighteen on the ground, while their own rushing attack dictated the tempo with 177 yards on 44 carries.
Pulling off that trick again could prove to be easier said than done, for the Chargers have been beset by a multitude of injuries, particularly on offense, which are slowly having an effect. First and foremost, the backfield has been a revolving door for McCoy, with both Ryan Matthews (leg) and Donald Brown (concussion) declared out for tonight, and Danny Woodhead (ankle) on Injured Reserve. Matthews was particularly effective in that victory over Denver, rushing for 127 and a score, while Woodhead added another 42 yards on ten touches. Granted, Brandon Oliver has played well since being signed weeks ago, rushing for 316 yards in five games, but as a whole, San Diego’s rushing offense has struggled mightily this season. Through seven outings, the ground game checks in at fourth-worst in the league (89.3) and dead-last in yards per carry (3.0), despite averaging 29.4 rushes per contest, the eighth-highest such figure overall. Last weekend against Kansas City they could only manage 69 yards on sixteen carries, leading a disparity in Time of Possession of 39:00 to 21:00, with the Chiefs running a robust 70 plays to the Chargers’ 49. The other problem is that the Offensive Line has been banged up too, with both Nick Hardwick (neck) and Doug Legursky (knee) on IR, leaving Rivers without not only his starting Center, but his backup as well. Without sound protection up the middle, the Quarterback has been sacked eleven times already, as he has not had the luxury of stepping up in the pocket to make plays. This could be particularly troublesome against a vastly-improved Broncos’ front seven that has snuffed out the run and pressured opposing passers consistently.
Of course, all this does is heap more pressure on the shoulders of one Philip Rivers, who has played at an MVP level throughout the first half of the campaign. The eleventh-year veteran has completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 280.1 yards per game on a league-best 8.5 yards per attempt, while tossing seventeen touchdowns to only three interceptions, with a Total QBR of 86.22, the highest of his career. With that said, it’s a legitimate question as to how long he can keep this level of play up without the benefit of the running game and his aforementioned protection issues. In hosting the Chiefs last Sunday, he posted arguably his poorest performance of the season, completing just 17-of-31 passes for 205 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception, while sustaining two sacks. In the three meetings with Denver last season, Rivers was damn near great, completing 64.5% of his passes for 200.3 yards per game, with five touchdowns and no interceptions, including the victory at Mile High in which he was 12-of-20 for 166 yards and two scores. In fact, the 32-year old has been quite comfortable throughout his career in the thin air of Denver, going 10-7 with a 63.2% Completion Percentage, averaging 232.1 yards per game on 8.3 yards per attempt, throwing 27 touchdowns to thirteen interceptions, all the while posting a 96.6 Passer Rating. Expect him to look for the ageless Antonio Gates, who has hauled in 27 catches on 41 targets for 363 yards (13.4 yards/catch) and seven touchdowns. A healthy Malcom Floyd has made a world of difference too; after missing all but two games in 2013, Floyd has returned with a vengeance, reeling in 20 passes on 32 targets for 412 yards on a whopping 20.6 yards per reception, and three touchdowns. If Rivers gets the time to throw down field, then these two will be the focus of the attack.
Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos (5-1) look like a team on a mission, as Peyton Manning and Co. attempt to right the wrong that was last year’s 43-8 debacle against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Front Office doubled down during the offseason and bolstered the defense considerably with the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Aquib Talib, and T.J. Ward all joining the team, with Emmanuel Sanders further augmenting a deep Receiving Corps. Over the last three weeks, they’ve looked head and shoulders above their competition, emerging from their early Bye Week to win three straight contests by an average margin of 16.7 points per game. Last weekend’s 42-17 pummeling of the 49ers was particularly impressive; Denver scored a season-high 42 points on 419 total yards of offense, including 304 through the air and another 115 on the ground, while the defense limited the visitor’s strong rushing attack to just 62 yards and an interception. In the process, Manning made history with four passing touchdowns, the third of which shattered Brett Favre’s career record of 508. From the outset, the five-time MVP looked hellbent on breaking the mark early, throwing a pair of scores in the First Quarter before finding Demaryius Thomas in the corner of the End Zone for No. 509. At the end of the night, it was yet another vintage Manning performance, as the 38-year old went 22-of-26 for 318 yards and four touchdowns against one of the better defensive units in the NFL.
In his seventeenth season in the league, No. 18 continues to age like a fine wine, propelling the Broncos’ offense towards the top of the league in a litany of categories. Through six games, Denver has averaged 31.5 points (1st overall) on 403.2 yards (4th overall), including 308.0 through the air (3rd overall) on 7.9 net yards per attempt (1st overall), along with 95.2 on the ground (25th overall) on 3.6 yards per attempt (28th overall). Manning of course, has been at the center of it all, completing 68.7% of his passes for an average of 308.0 yards on 8.5 yards per attempt, while leading the league with nineteen passing touchdowns to just three interceptions, while posting a supreme Total QBR of 88.9. It’s tough to explain how Manning has played this well at this stage of his career; in fourteen years in Indianapolis he had a .691 winning percentage, a 64.9% completion percentage, averaged 263.6 yards per game on 7.6 yards per attempt, while averaging 24.9 touchdowns per season, but in 38 games with Denver, he has compiled an .815 winning percentage, a 68.5% completion percentage, averaged 315.4 yards per game on 8.2 yards per attempt, and 46.0 touchdowns per season. Furthermore, his career Passer Rating with the Colts was 94.9, but with the Broncos that figure has ballooned to 111.9. However, tonight he’ll have to exercise a few demons, as no team has given him more fits than the Chargers. In eleven career meetings with San Diego, Manning is 7-4, while completing 63.1% of his passes for an average of 302.4 yards per game (7.2 yards/attempt), with 24 touchdowns and nineteen interceptions, the second-most he has thrown against any one particular team. In addition, he has encountered this team on three occasions in the Playoffs, going 1-2, while completing 65.9% of his attempts for an average of 314.0 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Apart form Manning, the biggest story for the Broncos this season has been the resurrection of their defense. Jack Del Rio’s unit was clearly the team’s Achilles’ Heel last year, but with all the big names added in the offseason, the Defensive Coordinator has these guys playing at a very high level. In 2013, Denver allowed 24.9 points (22nd overall) on 356.0 yards (19th overall), including 254.4 versus the pass (27th overall) on 6.2 net yards per attempt (17th overall), along with 101.6 versus the rush (7th overall) on 3.9 yards per carry (10th overall). A year later, and those numbers have changed in a big way as Del Rio’s charges have yielded just 20.2 points (6th overall) on 316.8 total yards (6th overall), including 242.5 against the pass (18th overall) on 5.3 net yards per attempt (2nd overall), and another 74.3 against the rush (3rd overall) on 3.3 yards per carry (5th overall). Ware looks reborn after nine years with the Cowboys, moving to Defensive End where he plays predominantly with his hand int he dirt, racking up seven sacks and a forced fumble, which is already more than he had in all of 2013. Talib on the other hand, has greatly improved the pass defense, just as he had in New England, allowing John Fox and Del Rio to incorporate more Man Coverage schemes to accommodate their revitalized Pass-Rush. And speaking of the Pass-Rush, Von Miller is healthy and back to doing what he does best, which is drop the Quarterback. After missing seven games last season due to suspension and a torn ACL, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year has never looked better, leading the Broncos with eight sacks.