A lot has changed since these AFC West teams last played each other in Week 5. After Tim Tebow nearly led a comeback in that game, the polarizing quarterback has rode some strong defense and made plays in the clutch on his way to winning four of the last five games. The Chargers meanwhile, haven’t won a game since and are starting to sound ridiculous with their “Oh, we’ve been here before, we can do it again” reasoning about their record. Soon, San Diego needs to start winning games in bunches or they’re going to find themselves out of the postseason despite playing in one of the weakest divisions in the league.
With a win here, San Diego’s five game losing streak won’t matter much. They’d overtake the Broncos in the division standings and would have something to build on as they try to catch up to Oakland. A loss, however, would all but mathematically eliminate the Chargers. They’d need late-season collapses from Oakland and Denver, as well as winning out themselves but with the way San Diego has played this November, it would be less surprising if the Chargers lost every game for the rest of the season than if they won out.
Neither of these teams needs any extra motivation to play hard against each other, but both would take a big hit to their playoff chances with a loss. You know they’d love to deal that blow to each other almost as badly as they want to make the postseason themselves. Let’s look at three matchups that should impact the outcome of this grudge match.
Broncos’ Pass Protection vs. Chargers’ Pass Rush
Pass protection isn’t as important to the Broncos as most teams simply due to the infrequency of their pass plays—remember, Tebow threw only eight passes at Oakland —but that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. The Broncos don’t run the ball so excessively by choice, they do whatever works. If the passing game can’t get going, then they won’t attempt to throw the ball. Facing a secondary that has turned in some good games but has also been exploited at times, Denver would like to be able to complete some high-percentage throws and slowly work a passing game into Tebow’s repertoire. To do that, Tebow must receive sufficient protection against the Chargers’ pass rush or many of those designed throws will deteriorate into runs anyway. Blind-side protector Orlando Franklin (-11.1) will have to do a better job than he’s done thus far in his rookie season. He hasn’t been graded negatively since Week 8, so perhaps Franklin can turn a corner against the Chargers’ skilled pass rushers.
Shaun Phillips (+17.0) and Antwan Barnes (+14.6) bring the majority of the Chargers’ pass rush, with Barnes recently excelling in the starting role the Chargers so reluctantly thrust upon him. The pair have combined for 45 quarterback disruptions in only 615 combined snaps. San Diego seems content to allow Antonio Garay (+5.3) to play in a rotational role, but he’s been effective and can dominate weaker opposition inside, so Center J.D. Walton (-18.9) must play better than he did last week, when Sione Pouha worked him over for a number of plays.
Effectiveness of Injury-Plagued Running Backs
Both of these teams have had injury issues at the tailback position and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. Ryan Mathews (+5.2) has rushed for over 100 yards twice in his career and both games came against Denver, so he would love to get on the field this Sunday. Unfortunately his status is still up in the air and even if he plays the workload will likely favor Mike Tolbert (+7.0) as Mathews is unlikely to be as effective as he can be. For Denver, Knowshon Moreno is, of course, out for the season with a torn ACL. Fortunately for the Broncos, Willis McGahee didn’t suffer further setbacks against the Jets and should be as healthy as he’s been since the start of the season.
The Chargers boast a +19.1 cumulative team run defense grade while the Broncos revamped defense has a +57.8 grade in that department, so success on the ground might not come easily for either team. However, the team that is able to stick to their ground game and grind out some success will probably be the victor in this one, so they both need all they can get from their injury-plagued running backs.
Chargers Receivers vs. Broncos Secondary
Vincent Jackson (+3.6) has had two big games out of his last three, but they were sandwiched around a poor game against Oakland. Malcolm Floyd (+2.4) has also broken 100 yards twice in the past three weeks, but with Floyd out this week the Chargers will hope Jackson plays well to alleviate the strain on their running game against a strong Denver run defense. On defense, LCB Champ Bailey (+5.8) is having a fine season despite declining physical skills, but teams can find success throwing at the right side of the defense, where Andre Goodman (-7.1) mans the right corner spot. In the slot, undrafted rookie Chris Harris Jr. (+6.1) has graded negatively in only one game this season. Safety Quinton Carter could have a big impact in this game as he’s likely to be tested deep by the Chargers’ vertical passing game at least a few times. Antonio Gates presents matchup problems against just about anybody, but the Broncos will need to be extra careful scheming for Gates. The Broncos don’t really have a player who can handle Gates in coverage. His combination of size and athleticism is a rare one, and downhill linebackers like Joe Mays would be a liability when Gates is working the middle. Perhaps we will see Von Miller (+43.4) in coverage more often than we have yet. In that case, the Broncos will have to get consistent pass rush out of Elvis Dumervil and others without Miller rushing the passer the majority of passing downs.
Follow our main feed on Twitter: @ProFootbalFocus