Considering how last season ended for Denver — losing at home in the divisional round to eventual champion Baltimore; a game the Broncos had all but won — this season has been Super Bowl or bust for Peyton Manning & Co. from the start.
San Diego is a scary opponent, though. The Chargers had to win their final four games of the season for a flicker of hope to make the playoffs, and everything broke their way. Counting last weekend's win at Cincinnati, the Chargers essentially have won five consecutive do-or-die "playoff" games. They are rolling, and that includes a cold-weather victory at Denver in December, the Broncos' only defeat at home.
Of course, the star of this game is Manning, who is coming off one of the greatest quarterback seasons in NFL history. He set league records for yards passing (5,477), touchdowns (55), and first downs through the air (289). What's more, he spread the football the way a Las Vegas dealer distributes cards — a league-record five Denver players scored at least 10 touchdowns.
The big question with Manning is, can he get it done in the postseason? Yes, he has a Super Bowl ring from his years in Indianapolis, but his 9-11 record in the playoffs is underwhelming.
He might be playing in Manning's shadow this season, but San Diego's Philip Rivers has had a phenomenal fall. He threw for 3,830 yards this season with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He is 10-6 against the Broncos over the course of his career.
A major factor in San Diego's success over the past five weeks is running back Ryan Mathews. He's the only back to top 100 yards against the Broncos this season, gaining 127 in 29 carries against them last month. But Mathews suffered an ankle injury against Cincinnati, and ran only once in the second half against the Bengals.
Mathews didn't practice in the week leading up to this game, although he held out hope he could face the Broncos for a third time this season.
"The more rest you get, the better everything gets," he said.
Rivers is keeping his fingers crossed.
"I'm not making predictions because I don't know where it stands, honestly, right now," the quarterback said. "But he's going to do all he can to play, to give himself the best chance to play four quarters. You just never know how things are going to play out."
By the numbers
How teams compare statistically. All stats are per-game averages, except for sacks and turnover differential, which is for the season (league rank in parentheses):
Category | SD |DEN
Points scored: 24.8 (12) | 37.9 (1)
Points allowed: 21.8 (11) | 24.9 (22)
Pass offense: 270.5 (4) | 340.2 (1)
Rush offense: 122.8 (13) | 117.1 (15)
Pass defense: 258.7 (29) | 254.4 (27)
Rush defense: 107.8 (12) | 101.6 (7)
Sacks: 35 (23) | 41 (13)
Penalty yards: 47.8 (9) | 62.5 (27)
Turnovers: -4 (20) | 0 (16)
This one could be a stunner. As near-impossible as it seems to win twice in Denver in a month, San Diego is capable. The Chargers have the same feel Baltimore did last season, a team catching fire at the right time. San Diego won bad/cold-weather games at Kansas City, Denver and Cincinnati this season, and could pull off a huge upset here, especially with Denver missing the pass rush Von Miller provides. What's more, few people know Manning and the rest of the Broncos' personnel as well as Chargers Coach Mike McCoy, who was the Broncos' offensive coordinator last season. CHARGERS 31, BRONCOS 28