The AFC West takes center stage the next two weeks and it started with the Denver Broncos traveling to San Diego on Sunday. With a showdown with the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs looming next week, Denver first had to stave off the challenge of the surprising Chargers who were looking to thrust themselves into the competitive division race.
Denver thwarted the upset attempt early with big plays on offense and stout red zone defense, sneaking out to a 21-6 halftime lead. While San Diego showed signs of life in the second half, their comeback attempt fell short as Denver held on to the 28-20 victory. Once again, it was all about the offensive skills players for the Broncos as quarterback Peyton Manning dispersed the ball to receivers, running backs, and tight ends that picked up 213 of his 330 passing yards after the catch. Denver appears ready for their head-on collision with Kansas City while San Diego has some rallying to do in order to keep pace in the competitive AFC Wild Card race.
Here’s a look at the key performances from this AFC West matchup.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
The Thomas’s Take Over
The weekly conundrum for opposing defenses is figuring how to stop the multitude of weapons at Manning’s disposal given their unique talents and skill sets. On Sunday, it was Demaryius Thomas (+3.8) who stole the show, but Julius Thomas (+2.4) got into the act to kick things off. He turned a 4-yard flat route into a 74-yard touchdown early in the first quarter as he raced up the sideline, outrunning a number of Chargers defenders. He was relatively quiet the rest of the game, but the early damage set the tone for the Broncos.
Demaryius took it from there as he became the game’s best playmaker with the ball in his hands. He found the end zone three times, including two in the second quarter. He broke away from cornerback Shareece Wright on an out route with 6:44 to go and then capped a beautiful two-minute drive at the end of the half with the slant route for the touchdown. Thomas put the bow on his afternoon with 11:41 to go in the third quarter as he took the wide receiver screen from Manning and burst through the San Diego defense for the 34-yard score to cap Denver’s scoring. Both Julius and Demaryius proved to be the difference Sunday, but with WRs Wes Welker and Eric Decker still lurking, the Broncos continue to put defenses in a bind every week.
Von Does It Again
It often feels repetitive singing the praises of linebacker Von Miller every week, but it was once again well-deserved Sunday. He was unblockable in the running game as he showed an amazing combination of slipperiness and power when getting off blocks. It felt as if every time San Diego ran the ball, Miller had already beaten his man by the time the running back took the ball at the mesh point, whether they were running Miller’s way or not. Early in the game he did a nice job working off San Diego fullbacks as he drew a holding penalty on John Phillips when he lined up in the backfield and later used a spin move to shed Le’Ron McClain to get in on a tackle for a 3-yard gain. He also had his way with right tackle D.J. Fluker as he snuck inside him right off the snap at the 4:22 mark of the first before standing him up in the backfield on a run with 10:38 to go in the second. While Miller dominated in the run game to the tune of a +4.6 grade, he also got into the act as a pass rusher picking up five hurries and a sack on his 31 rushes. His +5.8 overall grade led the way for the Broncos defense for the third straight week since returning from suspension.
Uncharacteristic OLine Woes
The Broncos offensive line has played well all season, with much thanks to Manning’s quick release and decision making in the passing game. But they’ve struggled at times recently, most notably in the Broncos’ loss to the Indianapolis Colts back in Week 7 and Sunday saw a similar performance from the front five. Chris Clark posted his second negative grade in three games at -0.9 including -1.4 as a pass blocker thanks to surrendering two pressures and a sack as well a couple other mishaps that won’t show up on the stat sheet. Meanwhile Orlando Franklin was right with him at -1.4 overall while Zane Beadles and Manuel Ramirez graded at -1.1 and -1.9 respectively. Beadles was the worst of the bunch in pass protection as his two hits and two hurries led to a -2.0 grade in that department. Overall, Manning was only pressured on 11 of his 38 dropbacks, but the many of those featured multiple pressures while the line was once again saved by Manning’s quick release on a number of occasions.
San Diego – Three Performances of Note
Wright Can’t Keep Up
To no one’s surprise, the San Diego secondary had some difficulty keeping up with the Broncos’ playmakers and Wright was the biggest culprit. He graded at -3.9 overall including -4.3 in coverage. He was targeted 11 times in the passing game for eight receptions for 117 yards and all three Demaryius Thomas touchdowns. He was unable to take Thomas down on the out route and later gave up the inside on the slant for the touchdown just before the half. He was also sealed out of a couple of screens thrown his way including Welker getting the best of him at the 2:43 mark of the fourth quarter. When you throw in his biting on play action and getting beat over the top on a go route to Thomas with 0:24 seconds to go in the second quarter, it was not a good outing for Wright whose struggles continue to the tune of a -11.8 overall grade on the season.
Offensive Line Shuffle
San Diego had to shuffle the offensive line once again as King Dunlap had to leave the game with yet another concussion, this time after playing only 42 snaps while starting center Nick Hardwick was only in on 50 of his own as Rich Ohrnberger stepped in to finish the game. Overall, only one of the seven offensive lineman avoided a negative grade as Chad Rinehart stepped in with a neutral 0.0. Dunlap was having his struggles before departing as he surrendered a sack and a hit on his way to a -1.4 overall. Fluker started at his usual right tackle spot before sliding over to take Dunlap’s place, but he had problems on both sides on his way to surrendering a career-high six pressures to grade at -1.7 overall and -1.8 in pass protection. The moving offensive line pieces, combined with general ineffectiveness, made for a difficult afternoon for QB Phillip Rivers who was pressured on 19 of his 36 dropbacks. Figuring out the offensive line in the coming weeks will go a long way toward determining San Diego’s status in the AFC Wild Card race.
Woodhead Continues to Produce
Perhaps one of the most underrated offseason additions was that of Danny Woodhead who has continued to show the same penchant for finding the first down marker as he did with the New England Patriots. Whether in the running game or as a receiver, Woodhead continues to shine as he found the end zone for his fifth touchdown of the season. His 8-yard run at the 4:22 mark of the first quarter was a thing of beauty as made a quick cut once the initial point of attack was closed before sneaking through the line of scrimmage to find his way to the first down marker. His touchdown sparked the Chargers’ comeback attempt as he came out of the backfield isolated on Danny Trevathan and got inside him on the pivot route before getting under a group of four Broncos to find the end zone. Woodhead deserves some credit for Rivers’ strong season as he’s provided a valuable outlet out of the backfield all season and he continued his strong play on Sunday.
-Playing a career-high 46 snaps, Chargers rookie Tourek Williams flashed as a pass rusher at +1.2 but he struggled both against the run (-1.2) and in coverage (-1.9).
-247 of Manning’s 330 passing yards came on throws that traveled less than 10 yards in the air.
-In his first game against his former team, Broncos RG Louis Vasquez graded at +2.9 including a perfect day in pass protection.
PFF Game Ball
With three touchdowns and 108 yards through the air, Demaryius Thomas takes the game ball as this week’s weapon of choice for the Broncos.