Just as the AFC playoff seedings looked like they might be fairly settled the San Diego Chargers go and throw a spanner in the works. Not only improving their chances of stealing the final wildcard spot (though they need to run the table and get help from both Baltimore and Miami finishing poorly) but also sending the control of homefield advantage in the AFC to New England, for the time being at least.
Some might characterize this as a “good loss” for the Broncos that they aren’t going to sleepwalk into the playoffs and be under-prepared for the playoffs believing they are invincible but if this loss causes the loss of homefield advantage that sentiment might change in a month’s time. In the absence of Peyton Manning was holding on to the ball a little longer and the short, quick passing game didn’t have the same metronomic feel to it. Combined with an ineffective ground game the Broncos’ offense lost balance and couldn’t chase down the Chargers from behind in the second half. They didn’t help themselves with a special teams penalty in the third quarter that took away favorable field position and saw the Chargers wind another seven minutes off the clock, meaning Denver couldn’t reduce their comeback task in the fourth quarter.
This victory from the Chargers still leaves them as outsiders in the AFC playoff hunt, but with two home games to finish and tougher run-ins for the Ravens and Dolphins they aren’t out of the equation just yet. Rookie standout Keenan Allen established the lead with Philip Rivers in the first half while Ryan Mathews kept driving the offense forwards to shorten the game to help maintain that lead. The defense played its part in a team victory coming up with the plays in the second half to keep the Broncos at arm’s length and prevent the comeback.
San Diego – Three Performances of Note
After snagging 17 catches on 22 targets as the Chargers went 1-1 against the Chiefs and Bengals in Week 12 and Week 13 Keenan Allen has snagged just five receptions on eight receptions, netting less than 100 yards against Giants and Broncos combined having topped it against both Kansas City and Cincinnati. Four of those five catches have been scoring plays, however, having not grabbed a scoring pass in four games prior to Sunday’s victory over the blue side of New York. Allen certainly made sure that the plays he made last night were memorable ones, including an ever popular hurdle over a defender (Kayvon Webster the unfortunate victim on this occasion) in his first before making a smart in close coverage against Webster for his second just before the half. Though his production may not be consistent Allen is finding consistent ways to contribute and since his debut in Week 2 against the Eagles he only has one negative receiving grade for a single game. This performance marks his fourth straight game with a receiver grade of +1.1 or higher.
Wright Puts Performances Together
Though it is tough for players to get physically ready for Thursday night football on a short week it is also possible to carry positive momentum from a strong showing on Sunday into a game just four days later. One of those players to do that this week was Shareece Wright, following up a strong showing against the Giants (+2.7 coverage; 1 interception, 2 pass defenses) with another excellent display against the Broncos (+2.3 coverage; 2 pass defenses) last night. Wright’s close coverage down the field played its part in Peyton Manning’s inconsistent night trying to stretch the Chargers’ defense. He tracked Andre Caldwell down the field on a third down play midway through the second quarter breaking up a forced throw by Manning to punch the Broncos off the field in three plays immediately after Allen had tied the score at 10. Wright got a second pass defense early in the third breaking over and through Eric Decker on a hitch route to again see Denver off the field on third down. Since he gave up three touchdowns and 117 yards to the Broncos in their home defeat back in Week 10 Wright has notched six pass defenses and an interception allowing 50 yards or fewer in four of the five games since.
Yo-yo Final Drive
After Nick Novak’s 35-yard field goal gave the Chargers a 10-point lead with just more than two minutes remaining, the Broncos needed two scores and they needed them fast. Rather than challenge a prevent defense deep with low percentage plays, they put together a field goal drive built around short passing which brought Jarret Johnson into the game more in those two minutes than he had been in the prior 58. Nine of Johnson’s 23 snaps came on that drive and he got busy making positive and negative plays. On that drive Johnson missed two tackles on Broncos running backs but also popped up in immediate recompense with a pair of stops and a pass defense against Eric Decker to slow the Broncos’ progress, helping to leave as little time as possible for the second drive the Broncos would need to tie or win the game.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
Two Score Deputy
Though he took some of his snaps, Andre Caldwell did not take on Wes Welker’s target profile last night. Seven of Caldwell’s 10 targets were aimed 10 or more yards downfield including his touchdown to open the game where he comprehensively beat Richard Marshall on a double move to the left side of the end zone. Caldwell caught 100% of his passes targeted in what you would take as the “Welker Zone” (between the numbers, behind the line to 9 yards downfield) but was a less efficient target on those downfield targets coming up empty on two deep targets and dropping one of two incompletions on intermediate targets outside the right numbers. Though he hurt them with his two scores, the Chargers will surely have been delighted that Caldwell ended up being Peyton Manning’s most targeted receiver last night. His 10 targets were as many as Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker saw combined.
Ineffective Second Start
Nominally a starter now for the Broncos (he plays less than 50% of Denver’s defensive snaps) Paris Lenon didn’t carry his solid form from Sunday against the Titans forward to this divisional encounter. A strong play against Nick Hardwick early in the second quarter was isolated amid an ineffective display which also featured a missed tackle and plenty of plays where he failed to shed blocks. On the Chargers’ first play from scrimmage he was unable to scrape over the pile to Ryan Mathews adjusting the rush off left end breaking upfield for an 18-yard gain to kick start the San Diego offense on the night. Elsewhere he was sealed by linemen and tight ends alike with his missed tackle coming against Ronnie Brown late in the third quarter. Wesley Woodyard was certainly struggling as a three down linebacker and the Broncos needed to make a change, whether moving to Lenon is a change in the right direction remains to be seen but history would suggest it’s one of the few ways they could have got worse at middle linebacker.
Mixed Night for Miller
We’re used to seeing Von Miller being a one-man wrecking crew on the edge for the Broncos, but we’re used to seeing him do it against both run and pass or just as a pass rusher. Last night he was destructive as a run defender, though Ryan Mathews often found ways to get around his disruption to improvise solid gains, but he was invisible as a pass rusher. Last night Miller was shutout as a pass rusher for the first time since he went back to back games with no pressure against the Patriots and Bills during his rookie season. Against the run he notched four defensive stops and was a disruptive force against the Chargers’ tight ends on plenty of plays, but the rallying of the Denver defense to his disruption was occasionally inconsistent. This season Miller has been held without a hit or a sack only three times, all by divisional opponents. This marks the first time in six career games that Miller hasn’t recorded a sack against the Chargers, prior to last night Miller had 34 pressures (8 Sk, 2 Ht, 24 Hu) in five games against the Chargers.
– Not a vintage game for the pass rushers. Philip Rivers was pressured on only 7 of 23 drop-backs by the Broncos while his defensive team-mates pressured Peyton Manning on only 7 of 42.
– Chargers’ safety Eric Weddle (+0.5) graded positively in every facet of the game for the third time this season with only his penalty for a horse collar tackle preventing a higher grade.
– When the Chargers blitzed last night (13 of 42 drop-backs) they notched their sack, their interception and forced Peyton Manning into going 5-of-12 for 75 yards and an NFL passer rating of only 28.1.
PFF Game Ball
Short of a mention so far let’s rectify that by giving Ryan Mathews the game ball for a strong game on the ground turning potential negatives into positives and using the blocking when it was there for key plays at key moments.