Next Sunday, when the top-seeded Denver Broncos host the sixth-seeded San Diego Chargers in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, it will mark the one-month anniversary of the Broncos’ most surprising loss of the season — a 27-20 defeat at home to the very same Chargers.
In that December game, the Chargers followed their game plan to perfection: run the ball early and often, keeping the game close and keeping Peyton Manning off the field.
Ryan Matthews gained 127 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries, and the Chargers’ other running backs — Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown — each contributed to San Diego’s dominant 44-carry, 177-yard ground attack. The effectiveness of the Chargers’ running game meant that quarterback Philip Rivers only had to throw 20 passes, completing 12 of them for 166 yards and a touchdown.
Those aren’t the kind of passing numbers most fans associate with the gun-slinging, mouthy Rivers — let alone numbers that should be able to overcome the Broncos’ record-setting offense.
But they were. And make no mistake — it could happen again.
While the Chargers all but backed into the playoffs thanks to confluence of unlikely events, they’re in — and they used the same game plan to dispatch the third-seeded Bengals in Cincinnati on Sunday.
While Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton certainly helped the Bolts with his pair of interceptions and a fumble, the Chargers’ final offensive stats were eerily similar to the ones that stunned the Broncos three weeks prior:
at Broncos (12/12/13) at Bengals (1/5/14)
Rushing attempts 44 40
Rushing yards 177 196
Pass attempts 20 16
Pass completions 12 12
Pass yards 166 128
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy has shortened the field for Rivers, who led the NFL in completion percentage at a 69.5 clip. As a result, Rivers has played within himself, rarely trying to do too much as McCoy has essentially reprogrammed the software of the 10-year vet. The results — a 32-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 105.5 quarterback rating — speak for themselves. This season, Rivers has been the AFC’s best quarterback not named Manning.
The resurgence of running back Ryan Matthews — who finished second in the AFC in rushing with 1,255 yards — has made the Chargers’ offense both versatile and practically old-school in its late-season approach. Against the Bengals, Matthews ran for 52 yards, Woodhead ran for 54 and Brown collected 77 — 58 of those on what amounted to a game-ending touchdown scamper. The Chargers have been coming at teams in waves on the ground of late; keeping their backs fresh — and defenses gasping for air.
The Broncos, who are suffering from attrition in their defensive ranks due to injury — and weren’t that stout to begin with — have already proven that they’re vulnerable to the Chargers’ clock-eating attack. Unlike Dalton’s turnover fiesta on Sunday, the Broncos had only one turnover in their loss to the Chargers — but due to a 17-minute, 38-second advantage in time of possession, Manning was limited to 289 yards, his second-lowest total of the season in which he played a full game (Manning threw for 266 yards against the Raiders in the regular-season finale, but didn’t play in the second half).
Against the Ravens last January, the Broncos looked overconfident and complacent, and they didn’t seem to realize the threat they faced until it was too late to thwart it. Losing to the Chargers last month — in Denver — might be a blessing in disguise, because the Broncos now realize the real danger to their Super Bowl dreams that the Chargers represent.
That’s a very good thing indeed, because the last thing the Broncos want is for history to repeat itself — twice.
Shawn Drotar is in his 20th year as a national sportswriter and editor, and his work has appeared on ESPN, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, Yahoo! Sports and in the USA Today, among others. He’s appeared on television on ESPNEWS and the Altitude Sports Network, and can currently be heard on Denver’s KKFN-FM/104.3 The Fan as a sports-talk radio host.
Follow Shawn on Twitter: @sdrotar
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