Thursday Night Preview - Week 15
Divisional matchups have been the flavor of the week recently on Thursday Night Football, and tonight’s game is no different, with the 11-2 division-leading Denver Broncos playing host to the 6-7 San Diego Chargers. This is an important game for both team’s playoff outlook, as Denver is trying to lock up a first-round bye and the AFC’s top seed, while San Diego sits in eighth place currently behind the 7-6 Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens.
Neither team can really afford a loss at this point, with the New England Patriots breathing down the Broncos neck and possessing the tie-breaker after their wild Week 12 finish, and the Chargers need to win-out their last three games, as well as get some help from Miami and Baltimore, to get into the playoffs – one more loss and they’re all but eliminated. With all of that in mind, here are two huge factors in deciding the outcome of tonight’s game.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this season, then you already know about the prolific passing offenses that will be on display tonight. The Chargers have the top-rated pass offense in the league with a +70.0 grade and the Broncos are right there with them in third with a +68.3. Both teams are also in the top four in passing, averaging over 288 yards per game and 8.4 yards per attempt. So we don’t need to spend a lot of time on that, we know we’re in for a good ol’ fashioned shootout.
The best way to keep the passing game strong and the opposing defense on their toes is to establish a strong running game and play action, which will be paramount to avoiding falling into easy traps through the air. Denver is currently 16th in rushing offense with a +4.9 grade and rank ninth in run blocking with a +2.4, and are also 12th in the league with an average of 124.4 yards-per-game and 4.0 yards-per-carry. Knowshon Moreno and the Broncos shouldn’t have a problem getting things going on the ground against the Chargers 29th rated run defense, currently sporting a -40.4 grade and giving up 115 rushing yards-per-game, the 13th most in the league.
On the other side of the ball, San Diego has done just enough to get by on the ground this season, which might not be enough against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The chargers are ranked 28th in rushing offense with a -0.7 grade and are averaging just 111.8 rushing yards-per-game, the 12th fewest in the NFL. To make matters worse, Denver is ranked 11th currently with a +29.9 grade in run defense and are one of just seven teams allowing less than 100 rushing yards-per-game. San Diego will definitely need to step things up to keep Denver from sitting back on the pass.
With two of the top-four passing offenses in the league going head-to-head tonight, obviously defense, particularly against the pass, is a huge area of concern. Denver’s 12th-ranked overall defense, which currently has a +45.9 grade, has done well generating pressure on the quarterback, ranking 12th with a +10.8 grade and recording 34 sacks on the season, the 15th-most. However, they’ve struggled against the pass, giving up 274.3 yards per game through the air, the fourth most in the league and are currently sitting at 13th with a +1.1 pass-coverage grade – which would be much worse if it weren’t for their 15 interceptions, the seventh most in the NFL this season. Denver will need their run defense and pass rush to be on point, otherwise Philip Rivers could dissect their secondary and keep the Chargers in the game, much like Tony Romo and Tom Brady did earlier this season.
Unlike the Broncos, and luckily for Peyton Manning and company, the Chargers struggle heavily in every aspect on defense. They’re currently the 30th ranked overall defense with a -96.0 grade, 31st in pass coverage with a -54.8 and 23rd in pass rush with a -12.2. They’re allowing just eight-less passing yards than Denver, are ranked 18th with 31 sacks and 24th with just nine interceptions. San Diego is going to have to play their best defense of the season if they hope to keep things close for Rivers on offense.
Fantasy X-Factor: Antonio Gates
Gates is the elder statesman of the Chargers offensive weapons and has always been the favorite target of Rivers. Gates has managed to stay healthy throughout the season and has put up 776 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 68 receptions — currently sitting as the ninth-best fantasy tight end on the season. Denver has had an incredibly difficult time stopping tight ends this year, surrendering 953 yards and five touchdowns on just 75 receptions and nearly nine fantasy points-per-week, the fourth most. Look for Gates to be a big part of the Chargers offensive gameplan tonight and he should finish in the top-five among tight ends this week.