Exorcising the demons that haunted Sports Authority Field at Mile High since last January’s shocking playoff loss to the Ravens, the Broncos played a solid game against the Chargers, flipping the script in terms of ball control and pace en route to a win and a berth in the AFC Championship next week. A late run by the Chargers made things interesting, but in the playoffs, a win’s a win.
What went right: Peyton Manning wasn’t sacked and was only even pressured twice in his 36 passing attempts; proof of a terrific effort from the Broncos’ offensive line. Manning’s 25-for-36 (69.4 %) afternoon was solid, if not spectacular. Tight end Julius Thomas had four clutch catches on third-downs and the return of Wes Welker from a concussion paid immediate dividends — “The Slot Machine” had six catches for 38 yards and a touchdown.
What went wrong: Manning’s 230 yard total was pedestrian, even in the windy conditions. His throw to Eric Decker in the end zone was intercepted by linebacker Donald Butler after it bounced off Decker’s chest. Decker’s mistake came shortly after he tripped over himself in the open field on a punt return that would have otherwise gone for a touchdown.
What went right: The Broncos used the run to dominate the Chargers in time of possession (35:27 to 24:33), a complete reversal from the previous two games against San Diego. Knowshon Moreno was effective enough, gaining 82 yards and a touchdown, but Montee Ball stood out yet again, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and running with power that the Broncos haven’t seen from one of their backs in years.
What went wrong: Moreno’s 3.6 yards-per-carry average didn’t impress, as he lowered the team average carry to a middling 3.9. The Broncos will need better consistency than that going forward.
What went right: Philip Rovers was held to only a single net passing yard at the half, as he was harassed mercilessly by former teammate Shaun Phillips and the rest of the Broncos’ patchwork defensive line. The Broncos sacked Rivers four times and held him to 217 yards passing, while the loud crowd noise disrupted the Chargers’ snap counts, leading to a few entertaining tantrums from the histrionic Rivers.
What went wrong: Chris Harris Jr. suffered a torn ACL that will end his season; a massive blow to the Broncos’ defense. Quentin Jammer, who replaced Harris at cornerback, was torched repeatedly by Rivers and rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen. Allen had five catches for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone, which should send shivers up the spines of Broncos fans, considering the Patriots’ Tom Brady is next on the docket.
What went right: An injury to Ryan Mathews in last week’s Wild Card playoff win over Cincinnati had dire consequences for the Chargers on Sunday. Matthews was limited to only five carries and 26 yards, and his replacements fared no better, as Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown gained only 29 yards on 10 carries. The Broncos’ focus on stopping the run was clear, and it paid off.
What went wrong: Mathews still averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his cameo appearance, but it’s hard to complain when the Broncos held the Chargers to only 65 yards on the ground.
What went right: In windy conditions, kicker Matt Prater hooked a 45-yard field goal through the uprights with skill that a professional golfer would have praised. The Broncos never had to punt — a first in their playoff history — and the choice to deploy Eric Decker as the punt returner instead of fumble-prone Trindon Holliday was a wise one.
What went wrong: Decker’s almost comical stumble on what would have been a game-breaking score from a punt return. The slip-up, coupled with Decker’s whiff on a pass that was intercepted after it bounced off of him, kept the Chargers in the game and enabled their comeback.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Broncos earned the win — and their first trip to the AFC Championship since the 2005 season. The loss of Harris is devastating; the Broncos are likely to face the Patriots’ explosive offense without five of their starters (Harris, Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe), and it’s impossible to forget how badly Brady carved them up for 344 yards and three touchdowns in November, when they had Harris, Moore and Vickerson on the field.
The Broncos were good enough against the Chargers, and the weight of last season’s one-and-done postseason has been lifted. They’ll need to step up their game against a far more dangerous and experienced Patriots squad if they expect to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Fortunately, they’re capable of exactly that.
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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