NFL Playoff Preview: San Diego-Denver

The final spot in the conference championship round of the NFL playoffs will be filled late Sunday afternoon when the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos renew their AFC West rivalry in the last game of the second round (4:40 PM ET, CBS). Here’s our nine points of preparation, the Notebook Nine, to take into the San Diego-Denver game…

          • *If you believe in historical trends, you have to like what you see in San Diego. Since Philip Rivers took over at quarterback in 2006, the Chargers are 5-2 in Denver, including a controversial loss in 2008 where referee Ed Hochuli took the blame afterward. The Bolts still returned the favor that year with a 52-31 win in Week 17’s winner-take-all battle for the AFC West, the biggest game in the history of this long rivalry prior to Sunday.
          • *Normally handicappers love these kinds of trends, especially when the most recent example just happened on December 12, but the betting market is flocking to Denver. The Broncos come into the game a (-9) favorite, the biggest favorite of the weekend. The Over/Under is the highest on the board, at 54. The two numbers equates out to a final score of 34-25. Let’s just make it a normal football score and Las Vegas is predicting Denver wins 34-24.

        • *The issue I’m hearing raised in the media is twofold—does Denver remember what happened on December 12 (it was a 27-20 loss on a Thursday night)? And does Denver remember what happened last year, when they rolled into the divisional round as a #1 seed with a 13-3 record—just like they will on Sunday—and rolled out with a crushing 38-35 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The question “will they remember” implicitly presupposes that Denver’s own focus is the only issue, and so long as they remember, they’ll blow the Chargers out of the building.
        • *If you hold to this view, the core of argument starts with the way San Diego matches up with Denver’s passing game. The Chargers rank poorly in terms of completion percentage allowed and yards-per-pass, a deadly combination of allowing high efficiency and big plays. Nor are they any good at pressuring the quarterback. Dare we say that’s a less than ideal way to play Peyton Manning?
        • *What’s more, Wes Welker was not available for that Thursday night loss due to a concussion. Welker is expected to go on Sunday, and he joins Demariyus Thomas and Eric Decker among the wideouts, and Julius Thomas at tight end to give Peyton most anybody to throw to.

      • *Denver is not a great defensive team—in fact, they’re in the league’s bottom third in points allowed. But the one thing they do is force incompletions, ranking 6th in completion percentage allowed. That’s the strength you want to have when facing a quarterback like Rivers who thrives on the high-efficiency passing game.
      • *Now let’s move to understanding why, even if Denver is focused, this might not be an automatic win. Manning can’t win the football game if he’s on the sidelines. San Diego is the best in the NFL in time of possession. This is just one reason that grading NFL quarterbacks solely on wins and losses is foolish—it’s not like basketball where they can be on the floor all the time. With Von Miller gone for the year for Denver, where do the big plays come from if San Diego starts grinding up the clock?
      • *San Diego is the hot team and we’ve seen in recent years how much that matters. The Chargers won four in a row to get to the playoffs, then nailed the Cincinnati Bengals in the most decisive win of the first round. This streak has directly coincided with Ryan Mathews taking over in the running game, running for 99-plus yards each of the last four regular season games. The bad news? Matthews left last week’s game and he remains questionable for Sunday. It’s still possible that he could play, and it’s possible Ronnie Brown or Danny Woodhead could pick up the slack.
      • *The Denver defense ranks 20th in rush average. If the Broncos don’t open up a two-score lead in the second half and the running games on both sides become more important, the edge is going to shift to San Diego and there’s going to be a whole lot of tension in the crowd—tension the Broncos did not handle well in last year’s playoffs. Maybe they’re better off not remembering.

If I were spending this weekend at a sportsbook in Las Vegas, I would not bet this game. I think Denver is going to win the game, but there’s just no way you can lay (-9) given the history of the rivalry and the style of play the Chargers of 2013 play so well. Then add in that divisional games are often tighter anyway because of the familiarity between teams.

I expect San Diego to keep this game close by two measuring sticks—the first one being the point spread. The second one by the fact that at some point in the fourth quarter they will have the football with a chance to take the lead. It’ll come up a little short, but this game will be worth watching.