Thursday night, the Broncos will host the Chargers and attempt to win their 11th straight divisional matchup. The two teams first met in Week 10, when Denver jumped out to a 28-6 third-quarter lead thanks to three straight touchdown passes from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas, and then held on for a 28-20 victory.
Each team enters the rematch coming off a big win - San Diego's a 37-14 drubbing of the visiting Giants, and Denver's a 51-28 comeback win over the Titans at SAF@MH.
While the media has overstated the ‘guarantee’ of a win that Mike McCoy supposedly promised for Thursday, the Chargers would no doubt relish the chance to be spoilers of the Broncos’ drive for a Super Bowl berth.
Quarterback - Philip Rivers (17) is having a very good bounceback year after two mistake-filled seasons. His QB rating of 106.4 is the highest since he became a starter, and his 26 TD passes already match his total from last year. His completion rate of 70.3% is by far his best, while his interception rate of 1.9% matches his career low, previously set in 2009.
Rivers has a long history of making teams pay for blitzing, so getting to him with four rushers will be important to Denver. According to PFF, his QB rating is a stellar 103.4 when he’s blitzed.
Every QB reacts to pressure, though - according to PFF, that rating drops to 81.0 when Rivers is pressured. Hello, Von Miller...
Running back - Both Danny Woodhead (39) and Ryan Mathews (24) have been having good years - they concern me as much as Rivers does. Mathews had two broken collarbones last year, but you couldn’t tell from this year’s performance. He did land hard on his right shoulder in the first quarter of the Giants game and had to sit out for a while - it’s likely to be sore, but he’s practicing fully.
Woodhead has been an excellent pickup by SD and has 864 yards on 149 touches, plus eight touchdowns - when he’s in, you can’t fail to account for him as a receiver. Mathews has 1,042 yards and five scores, on 227 touches.
The pair has accounted for 85 of Rivers' 325 completions; he loves a running back screen and will usually run at least one a half.
Offensive Line - San Diego’s line is more stable than the last time they faced Denver. King Dunlap (77) has returned to his left tackle role, letting D.J. Fluker (76) return to his natural right tackle slot. Fluker did struggle at times against the Giants on Sunday, giving up two sacks.
Center Nick Hardwick (61) has struggled with a neck injury, but he continues to be the rock in the middle for the Bolts. Left guard Chad Rinehart (78), who’s playing in place of rookie Johnnie Troutman (63), and right guard Jeromey Clary (66) are probably the weakest links for San Diego.
Clary has moved inside from right tackle, but still has the same weaknesses that he did on the edge - you just have to run a stunt or twist to take advantage of his slower feet.
Tight End - Antonio Gates (85) continues to be productive as a receiver, with 68 catches for 776 yards and three touchdowns, although he’s fumbled twice.
Ladarius Green (89) is Gates’ backup - he adds 16 receptions for 354 yards and scored a touchdown in each of the two games prior to Sunday's.
John Phillips (83) is generally limited to blocking.
Wide Receiver - Rookie Keenan Allen (13) is the Chargers' leading receiver in terms of yardage, with 902 (and five touchdowns) coming on 61 catches. If you want to slow him, you have to press him hard at the line. For a rookie, he’s unusually skilled at beating press, so it’s important to get into him early and hard at the snap.
Vincent Brown (86) hasn't been a major threat, with 36 receptions for 380 yards so far.
Former Bronco Eddie Royal (11) is having a decent year, with 37 receptions for 497 yards and seven TDs, although five of those came in the first two weeks of the season.
You can already tell that Mike McCoy’s ability to match up players with schemes that work for them is coming into play for the Chargers. That’s been especially true of the offense, where McCoy has put in several of Peyton Manning’s favorite plays - off base 11 personnel, with two wideouts to the left, and one to the right. They don’t run a lot of play action compared to Denver, but have tried to include it at times with good success.
If Mathews and/or Woodhead get going and force the defense to respect them, Rivers can get hot and put a lot of points up quickly. The Chargers need better receivers (sorry, Eddie) and better guards, but recently they’ve gelled into a decent squad.
Coming into Denver in December won’t be an easy task, but the Bolts are happy to play for the outside possibility of a Wild Card berth.
The Broncos will need to minimize turnovers and penalties (big surprise) while getting penetration on the line of scrimmage.
Check back later today, and we'll cover the defense and special teams.