The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs ends with this contest between divisional rivals the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos are at home, but that didn’t stop them from losing to this same team in Week 15, which was also a prime time game. It also didn’t stop them from getting upset last season in this same spot to the eventual Champion Ravens.
The Broncos did beat the Chargers in San Diego five weeks prior to that, and swept them last year. Peyton Manning, now near the end of his second season in Denver, has lost to Philip Rivers twice in their pair of playoff meetings, but he was with the Colts then, and that was a few years ago. Here are three key factors in the last game of the last weekend with four NFL games.
Chargers Receivers vs. Broncos Secondary
In order to pull of this playoff upset, the Chargers receiving corps will most likely have to win this match up. Standout rookie WR Keenan Allen had four catches for 41 yards in the first meeting, and only two catches in the rematch, but both of those catches were for scores. Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal pitched in for a combined 11 catches for 171 yards in eight quarters against these Broncos (Royal also had a drop). Danny Woodhead had Rivers’ only TD catch in the first game, but just a single 13-yard catch in the rematch. Long-tenured TE Antonio Gates had 85 yards receiving total vs. Denver, while Ladarius Green, who caught a TD last week, had a 25-yard grab in the first meeting but wasn’t even targeted in the second.
Veteran CB Champ Bailey didn’t play in either game vs. the Chargers this season, leaving rookie Kayvon Webster to get picked on by Rivers (allowed 11 catches for 142 yards and a TD, as well as getting leap-frogged by Allen on another TD that wasn’t his primary coverage). Bailey has been dealing with injuries all year, appearing in only five games, but is set to start this game. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, by far the best coverage defender on this unit, inexplicably allowed Allen to run free over the middle for that 19-yard TD, but otherwise only allowed an 8-yard catch in both games. Chris Harris has the second best coverage grade here and came away with a +0.8 coverage grade combined for both those games. Rahim Moore, the best coverage safety, hasn’t played since being injured in Week 11, leaving Mike Adams (-0.5 coverage on the year), Omar Bolden (-2.8), and Duke Ihenacho (-5.3) in a rotation.
Broncos Receivers vs. Chargers Secondary
Denver’s receiving threats vs. the Chargers defensive backs will also be a battle to keep an eye on. Demaryius Thomas blew up in the first meeting with a trio of scores and 108 yards on seven catches, but only managed 45 yards on four catches in the rematch. Eric Decker was not a factor in either contest, combining for five catches on nine targets for 94 yards and a drop. TE Julius Thomas chipped in with 96 yards – including a 74 yard catch-and-run score – the first time, followed by 49 yards the next time.
Of course the big difference between the Week 10 and 15 games was the absence of slot WR Wes Welker. Welker did not contribute much in Week 10, just 21 yards on three catches and a drop on six targets; he sat out the Week 15 game after suffering another concussion. Welker’s snaps went to Andre Caldwell, who did not make an impact in the first game on 12 snaps, dropping his only target despite being wide open. In Week 15 he saw 37 snaps and hauled in six of 10 throws for 59 yards and two scores, though he also once again had a drop. With Welker back, it remains to be seen just how many snaps he sees on Sunday.
On the other side of the ball, Shareece Wright, Richard Marshall, Marcus Gilchrist, and Eric Weddle will likely have a say in the outcome. Wright was the weakest link in the initial game (-4.3 coverage grade), but rebounded five weeks later (+2.8). Of his two pass defenses in the rematch, one would have been a pick had Caldwell not intervened. Marshall, who’s been around the league since 2006, did not impress in either game, earning a combined -4.7 coverage grade. Gilchrist only allowed a 1-yard completion to Moreno in his primary coverage in Week 10, but missed a tackle on Demaryius Thomas’ 34-yard screen pass TD, then 50 yards on all three passes thrown at him in the rematch.
Finally, there’s Weddle, one of the best and most versatile safeties in the league, he actually tied his worst coverage grade of the year in that game (-1.5) with two first downs and 28 yards allowed to Moreno and his role in the 74-yard Julius Thomas score (he took a bad angle and then appeared to simply give up).
Peyton and Phillip earned the two best passing grades of the regular season, which is high praise, but they aren’t perfect; Manning’s PFF passer rating drops from +39.2 to +3.0 when there’s pressure, while Rivers’ drops from +22.8 to +7.0. Which, if either,defense can generate a dominating pass rush this Sunday?
The Broncos’ best pass rusher was Von Miller, despite missing the first six games to a suspension. The former Defensive Rookie of the Year unfortunately tore his ACL in Week 16, leaving defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Terence Knighton as the most productive pass rushers on this unit – they have a combined 10 sacks, 13 hits, and 54 hurries. Robert Ayers, a first-round pick from the brief Josh McDaniels era, also has a green grade in this area. However, he has also failed to generate any pressure in three games, not including his meager one hurry contribution in the Week 15 loss to San Diego.
Starting linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan also helped in this department (five sacks, five hits, and 26 hurries between them via 155 blitzes). Ex-Charger Shaun Phillips has not been a consistent rushing the passer though, despite his 11 sack, 4 hit, 32 hurry 2013 resume. In the Week 1 opening night win over the Ravens, Phillips got three sacks, a hit, and three hurries; over the next three games he could only muster a sack and five hurries. Since Week 12, he has four ‘red’ graded games rushing the passer. Still, he did get a sack and a hurry in both games against his former team. Without Miller on the field, a lot of eyes will be on Phillips.
Like their rivals, San Diego’s most productive pass rusher (Dwight Freeney) will also not be playing in this game. Their 2011 first round DE Corey Liuget has the next highest grade in this department, and got three hits on Peyton in their two games, one of which led to an interception. Otherwise, there is little consistency on this defense harassing opposing QBs.
Ex-Raven Jarret Johnson had a sack last week, but only put QBs on the ground five times throughout the regular season, Donald Butler has blitzed 75 times and only has a sack, five hurries and a batted pass to show for it. Meanwhile, NT Cam Thomas registered no pressure in half of the games. However, they did get former first round OLB Melvin Ingram back recently after a preseason ACL tear, and he paid dividends last week with a sack, a hit, and two hurries.
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