Lightning did not strike twice in the Mile-High City as the Denver Broncos got past the San Diego Chargers to set up the widely predicted AFC Championship game between the Broncos and the New England Patriots next Sunday.
This game looked to be far more in hand than it ended up being as the Chargers found offensive momentum in the final stanza to bring the score back within one touchdown. Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, though, re-established control, making timely plays to run out the clock and deprive Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen the chance for a tie and some bonus football.
The Chargers’ ground game was the story of their victory here in Week 15, but a combination of an injury limiting Ryan Mathews, a two-score Denver lead before halftime and better first up tackling by the Broncos’ defense rendered it a non-factor this time around. The passing game picked up the slack but too late and the Chargers were always needing Denver to make more mistakes than they were going to on this night as they punched their ticket to the conference title game for the first time since 2005.
San Diego – Three Performances of Note
Another Double for Allen
On the Chargers’ last visit to Denver Keenan Allen walked away with only two catches but both of those were scoring plays in San Diego’s pivotal victory that set up their push to steal the AFC’s sixth seed. He repeated that trick with another two scoring plays but this time around added another four grabs to take his yardage for the game above 100 yards for the first time Week 13. On top of his two scores (which brought San Diego back in the fourth quarter) was a fourth-down conversion which took the Chargers from their own 25 to the Denver 26 as he got in behind Quentin Jammer for a 49-yard gain to shorten the Chargers’ second scoring driving of the final quarter considerably.
All of Allen’s nine targets in this game were aimed 10 or more yards downfield — no short passes, just intermediate targets and the one deep ball to convert on fourth down as the Chargers looked to get back in the game with big plays. Wrapping up a successful rookie season, though sooner than he would have liked to, Allen has added a successful playoff performance to an already impressive résumé from his inaugural campaign.
Defense Reverts to Type
Improved play from their defense has been one of the drivers for the Chargers’ late season surge, but they almost universally reverted to their form that dogged them for the first three months of the season. Of the defenders on the field for more than 30 snaps, only Jahleel Addae (+3.0), Richard Marshall (+0.3) and Bront Bird (+0.3) earned positive grades. Up front, the defensive line served a reminder that aside from occasional performances they have been a disappointment with the likes of Kendall Reyes (-2.4) and Corey Liuget (-0.9) failing to make a consistent impact as the Broncos’ offense — and particularly their line — dictated the tempo and the San Diego defense never seemed to have much in the way of a response.
The defense only missed three tackles against the run on 33 carries and didn’t give up a great deal after contact to the Broncos’ runners, but the 2.5 yards per carry they surrendered before contact show the problems they had in getting to the Denver ball-carriers quickly.
Too Little, Too Late
The San Diego Chargers didn’t see much of the ball in the first half, and when they did, they tried to ride the horse that brought them this far, but courtesy of improved defense and a hobbled Ryan Mathews, the ground game wasn’t efficient. With Mathews not featuring after a trio of runs at the start of the second quarter, the keys to the offense were turned over to Philip Rivers and the passing game but too late to spark a real duel with Peyton Manning to light up the final game of divisional weekend.
The Chargers’ offense really came to life when the Broncos lost Chris Harris from their secondary which brought former Charger Quentin Jammer onto the field for the duration of the fourth quarter. With just one pass defense in response, the Chargers got 95 yards and a score out of targeting their former teammate to open an avenue back into the game. There was little by way of mistakes from Rivers, but the control the Broncos had on the game meant that the most headway the Chargers ever gained was from stringing back-to-back drives together by cutting Denver out of the equation with an onside kick.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
Manning Controls the Short Area Again
At times you have to sit and wonder how Peyton Manning and the rest of this Broncos’ passing game make the field look so much bigger on short targets than the rest of the league seems to manage. Manning wasn’t particularly efficient on deep (1-of-4, 21 yards) and intermediate (4-of-9, 63 yards, deflected interception) targets, but on the short area he and his receivers once again controlled the game with a combination of well placed passes leading receivers to space and those receivers doing good work after the catch.
Manning went 17-of-20 on short passes, gaining 122 yards and both of his scores on these targets. He might not have the jaw-dropping stats, but this was Peyton Manning executing well in a playoff game to see his team through the first hurdle that they fell at last year.
Step 1 complete; let’s see what Bill Belichick has in store for Manning and how he responds. Surely Belichick and the Patriots’ defense will look to disrupt the short areas and try to keep the ball in Manning’s hands a little longer to allow their pass rush to pressure Manning a little more often than the three times (out of 36 drop-backs) that the Chargers’ defense got heat on him?
Production off the Bench
Along with Shaun Phillips notching a pair of sacks to steal the headlines from the box score the Broncos got solid pass rushing production off of the bench with Robert Ayers (three hurries) and Jeremy Mincey (one sack, three hurries) producing multiple pressures with Mincey’s coming on only nine pass rushes.
Mincey got himself off to a good start capitalizing on a complete breakdown in protection on the right side of the line to sack Philip Rivers on the fifth snap of the game. Right tackle D.J. Fluker let him go, spotting a slot blitz coming, but no-one else even looked to pick Mincey up with the slot threat a long way off at the time. The combined forces of Mincey and Ayers played the biggest part in a rough outing for Chargers’ left tackle King Dunlap, able to drive him back to Rivers at the top of his drop on a handful of occasions.
After being held with no pressure on his debut in Houston, Mincey has responded with nine pressures against divisional opponents in his next two games. Can he keep this form going and continue to be a crucial contributor on limited snaps next week?
O-line Sets the Tone, Backs Carry It On
In the Week 15 defeat that threatened to derail their path to homefield advantage, the Broncos lost the time of possession battle by more than a full quarter (38:49 to 21:11). From their very first drive, which lasted more than seven minutes, they showed their intent to not only prevent that happening again, but to reverse it. Thanks to the Chargers’ fourth-quarter comeback they didn’t quite match the Chargers’ margin of control from four weeks ago, but they did win the time of possession by nearly a full 10 minutes (35:27 to 24:33).
Working in tune with Manning’s short passing, the Broncos’ offensive line were able to establish the sort of consistent ground game for Montee Ball (+1.1) and Knowshon Moreno that never materialized in the first encounter in Denver. Ball, for example, only carried 10 times, never breaking a run so long as 10 yards, but while forcing three missed tackles he only had two runs shorter than 4 yards to provide a consistent pulse to keep the ball moving and keep the clock ticking over. With the offensive line (+7.8 run block grade as a group) and Moreno able to convert short yardage, most emphatically on the final play, the Broncos always had a handle on this game when they had the ball in their hands.
– Both defenses were led in defensive stops by defensive backs. Chris Harris (+2.5) and Jahleel Addae (+3.0) each had a game-high three.
– Finishing the regular season in good form, both King Dunlap (-0.7 and -2.6) and D.J. Fluker (-2.7 and -2.1) earned negative grades in both of the Chargers’ playoff games.
– The Broncos controlled this game through the same personnel for most of the game on offense. Of the Broncos starters, 10 played in excess of 70 snaps with only Montee Ball hitting double digits (20) off the bench.
PFF Game Ball
The Broncos had no balance on offense when they lost to the Chargers in Week 15. Thanks to a strong showing from their offensive line they had that balance this time around and they take this week’s game ball as Denver rolls on to the AFC Championship game.
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