San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos (-10.0)
The final game of the Divisional Round this weekend features teams that are very familiar with each other, as AFC West rivals San Diego (9-7) and Denver (13-3) meet for the third time this season. The teams split their regular season series, with the road team winning each game, including a 27-20 upset victory for the Chargers in Denver on December 12th. San Diego is once again a big underdog this weekend against the top-seeded Broncos, but the Chargers are arguably the hottest team in the AFC, having won five games in a row, including last week’s Wild Card victory at Cincinnati.
Vegas odds makers have the over/under on this matchup as the highest for this week’s slate of NFL playoff games, and recent history makes it easy to see why that is the case. Since Peyton Manning’s arrival in Denver, battles between the Chargers and Broncos have averaged almost 52 combined points per game, and neither matchup this season resulted in fewer than 47 total points being scored. While a high-scoring affair would seem to favor a Broncos team that just set a record for the most points scored in a season, San Diego also had a top-five offense in 2013 and the Chargers are feeling confident going into the weekend.
San Diego Chargers Game Plan
The Chargers led the NFL in time of possession during the regular season and need to keep Peyton Manning on the sideline as much as possible on Sunday. Only five teams had more rushing attempts than San Diego this year and Chargers running backs carried the ball 41 times in their Week 15 win against the Broncos. In that game, San Diego dominated the clock, possessing the ball for almost 39 minutes, which kept the ball out of Manning’s hands and had him out of rhythm when he was on the field. Look for the Chargers to utilize the same approach this weekend, with a heavy dose of Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead.
Keys of the Game
- Run the Ball Effectively – In San Diego’s victory over the Broncos last month, Ryan Mathews tied season highs for carries (29) and rushing yards (127), and the Chargers rushed for 177 yards as a team. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers attempted just 20 passes, his fewest in any game during the regular season. Against the Bengals last week, River threw just 16 passes, while the Chargers ran the ball 40 times for 196 yards. Rivers had a bounce-back season in 2013, but against high-powered offenses, San Diego would rather control the clock with an effective ground game than engage in a shootout.
- Pressure Peyton Manning – Denver gave up the fewest sacks in the league this season and only one team allowed fewer hits on the quarterback for the year. The silver lining for San Diego is that the team allowing the fewest quarterback hits was Cincinnati, and the Chargers were able to get to Andy Dalton in last week’s win, with six hits and three sacks. It’s not easy to move Manning off of his spots, but if San Diego’s defense can apply pressure like they did against the Bengals in the Wild Card round, the Chargers have a much better chance of continuing their Cinderella run in the playoffs.
Prop Bet I Like
Total Receptions – Keenan Allen (O/U 4.5): I’ll take the under. Allen has exceeded three catches just once in San Diego’s last five games, and the Chargers are going to run the ball as much as they can this week.
Denver Broncos Game Plan
After winning 13 games this season and earning the top seed in the AFC, it’s fair to say that Denver is likely to win as long as they are able to play their kind of game. The defense has to play well enough to get the ball in Peyton Manning’s hands as much as possible, and his production this year suggests he’ll take care of the rest. The Broncos will look to limit San Diego’s ground game, preventing them from controlling the clock as they have done in previous meetings. Denver will likely focus on their own running game as well, in an effort to flip the time of possession battle and force San Diego away from its preferred game plan.
Keys of the Game
- Make Philip Rivers Throw the Ball – Under first-year Head Coach Mike McCoy, Philip Rivers has enjoyed his best season since 2010, throwing for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns. However, the Chargers recent hot streak has come as Rivers throws the ball less often. After San Diego’s first 12 games, the team was 5-7 and Rivers was attempting 36.2 passes per game. During the Chargers’ current five-game winning streak, Rivers is averaging just 25.2 throws. If Denver can limit San Diego’s ground game, the Chargers likely won’t be able to sustain the kind of clock-killing drives that have frustrated the Broncos in previous matchups. And as good of a season as Rivers might be having, Denver will be happy to force him into a shootout against Peyton Manning.
- Keep Scoring in the Second Half – You wouldn’t think a team that set the NFL record for points in a season would need to worry about scoring, but the Broncos have had trouble against San Diego this year, most notably in the second half of games. For the season, Denver averaged 19 points per game in the first half and they were held only modestly below that level in two games against the Chargers, averaging 15.5 points by halftime. But whereas the Broncos averaged 19.9 points in the second half of games for the season, they managed a total of just 17 third and fourth-quarter points verses San Diego this year. Not only was this instrumental in Denver’s loss to the Chargers in December, but it also allowed San Diego to erase a 22-point third-quarter deficit in Week 10 before the Broncos ultimately prevailed 28-20.
Prop Bet I Like
Total Yards Rushing – Knownshon Moreno (O/U 67.5): Since his 37-carry, 224-yard explosion in Week 12, Moreno hasn’t topped 15 carries in a game, while averaging just under four yards per carry during that stretch. Additionally, Montee Ball has been cutting into Moreno’s carries over the last five games and I simply don’t think Moreno will see enough volume to reach 68 yards rushing.
Playoff Prediction: Broncos 31, Chargers 27
The spread on this game seems way overblown to me and I’m taking the Chargers with confidence from an against-the-spread perspective. They should be able to have success offensively, which will keep them in the game. However, in the end, I think Denver will chip away at the time-of-possession edge that San Diego has enjoyed in previous matchups, giving Peyton Manning the opportunity to build a lead that the Chargers won’t quite be able to overcome.