NFL Playoff Preview - San Diego (10-7) at Denver (13-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Super Bowl or bust.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has played at such a high level in his career that the expectations surrounding him and his teams are usually far higher than others have to deal with yet the soon-to-be, five-time MVP is actually underwater as a starting signal caller in the postseason.
In a lot of ways Manning and his Denver Broncos are facing two opponents this week in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, the San Diego Chargers and themselves.
Few know Manning as well as San Diego head coach Mike McCoy.
Manning and the Broncos' record-setting offense had been outscoring opponents by a gaudy average of 20.4 points per game while compiling a 7-0 record in the Rockies before McCoy, the offensive coordinator in Denver from 2009-12, and his Chargers spoiled the perfect home mark back on Dec. 12, edging a Wes Welker-less Denver team, 27-20.
Now, McCoy will try to best his old pupil and the heavily-favored Broncos for the second time in a month on Sunday with a berth in the AFC Championship Game on the line.
"It's tough to say you're confident knowing what you're going against," Chargers Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle said when discussing the game. "Do we believe we can win (a second time)? ... Yes.
"Do we know what a tough challenge it is and how great we have to play? ... Yeah."
The Broncos won the AFC West and secured home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a 13-3 record, compiling 606 points on the season, the most in the history of the NFL and the only team ever to crack the 600-barrier.
Manning passed for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both single-season NFL records and Denver became the first team in history to have four different players with 10-or-more touchdowns, actually trumping that number and finishing with five (running back Knowshon Moreno (13), wide receivers DeMaryius Thomas (14), Eric Decker (11) and Welker (10), along with tight end Julius Thomas (12)).
"All the records and all the stats go out the window," Denver head coach John Fox said when asked about his team's resume. "It's a whole new season. The key is playing the best football during the playoffs. It's a single- elimination tournament, so you can't have a bad day. You have to be on your game from beginning to end. The team that usually does that is the team that usually wins it all."
A lot of that caution can be traced back to last year's postseason when the favored Broncos lost in the divisional round at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, 38-35, in double-overtime after Denver safety Rahim Moore allowed the Ravens' Jacoby Jones to pop the top off the defense with just 31 seconds left for a 70-yard touchdown game-tying touchdown.
This weekend's affair against the Chargers will mark the one-year anniversary of the collapse, one in which downgraded Manning's overall playoff record as a starter to 9-11.
"I know it's easy to summarize -- to take a whole bunch of football seasons and lump them together. I don't personally believe in that theory," Manning said. "I think each season takes on its own identity and different things occurred along the way at different points in my career. In anybody's career. This is the 2013 season, and it's its own chapter. We're looking forward to writing it for a number of more weeks."
San Diego has already taken down one high-powered offense which didn't bring its 'A' game to the postseason, upsetting the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-10, in the wild-card round last week.
Philip Rivers wasn't his explosive self but played mistake-free football as the upstart Chargers took advantage of three second-half turnovers from Bengals QB Andy Dalton in that one.
Dalton got sloppy when a mix of rain and snow began falling at Paul Brown Stadium, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble, developments that the Bengals, who have not won a postseason game since 1991, couldn't overcome. It was the first loss at home by Cincinnati the entire season.
Rivers threw for a modest 128 yards but had a passer rating of 118.8 and tossed a go-ahead touchdown pass to Ladarius Green in the third quarter which started a string of 20 unanswered points that earned San Diego the trip to Denver.
"It was an outstanding team effort," said McCoy. "We knew it was going to be a slugfest from the first snap all the way through the game."
The Broncos and Chargers, long-time AFC West rivals, have faced one another 108 times with Denver holding a 58-49-1 advantage but this will be their first meeting in the postseason. This year, the clubs split the season series. San Diego took the game at Denver in Week 15 with Rivers throwing two touchdown passes but the Broncos bested the Chargers in Southern California, 28-20, back in November.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
McCoy and the Chargers laid out the blueprint for beating Denver back in December, halting the Broncos' 10-game AFC West winning steak with a ball-control mentality, keeping it for nearly 39 minutes while converting 6- of-12 third downs opportunities.
"Time of possession is only important if you're scoring," Rivers, who now has a 4-4 postseason mark, said when talking about his team's impressive performance the last time they were in the Rockies.
Without Welker. who missed the last three games of the regular season with a concussion, Denver tallied 127 yards on its first two drives of its setback to San Diego, but totaled just 168 yards the rest of the way. The Broncos' 295 total yards and 20 points were a season low.
"The longer you keep the ball and the less he (Manning) has it, the better off you're going to be," McCoy said.
Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano and McCoy will want to implement a similar plan against a team that averaged a stunning 37.9 ppg during the regular season and was held under 30 on just three occasions. San Diego did it twice, however, certainly a feather in the cap of Pagano and his defensive unit which has picked it up since the return of outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jarret Johnson
"It taught us a lesson," Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme said of the loss to SD. "We did kind of reboot after that and yes, I think we know that we need to play our best ball going forward and that's what we're planning on doing."
Getting the Broncos off the field on third down could be tougher in Sunday's game with a clear-headed Welker on the field. The slot star is Manning's go- to-guy on third downs and Denver has converted at an amazing pace when Welker is in the lineup.
"A lot of times teams will decide to go ahead and double Wes," said Demaryius Thomas. "It opens up things for me. If I have single-man coverage, it's something that I definitely enjoy and look forward to. Wes brings a lot to this offense and we're excited to have him back."
A ball-control plan needs two aspects working in concert and the other part that needs to be firing on all cylinders for the Chargers is the running game, something which could be hampered by the balky ankle of Ryan Mathews.
San Diego has run for an average of 170.2 yards during its current five- game winning streak and the club's effectiveness on the ground is usually a barometer for its success. The Chargers are 10-2 when rushing for 102-or-more yards and winless (0-5) when they don't get to that mark.
Mathews, who has five 100-yard efforts in seven career contests against the Broncos and finished the regular season with a career-high 1,255 rushing yards, did not practice on Wednesday and is considered day-to-day.
"You're not going to be 100 percent," the former first-round pick said. "There's a difference to playing hurt or injured. You've just got to keep going."
Most believe the Chargers are playing with house money while Manning and the Broncos will be facing enormous pressure, especially after last season's late- game divisional-round setback to Baltimore.
"Going on the road in a playoff game is not going to be easy, regardless of who you're playing," McCoy said. "We're just worrying about ourselves right now, it's about us, and we're going to keep taking it one week at a time and just keep going, keep plugging away."
The harsh reality is that Manning has lost his last three postseason games and is just 4-6 in his past 10 games against the Chargers, including playoff losses during the 2007 and 2008 while he was with the Indianapolis Colts. Conversely, Rivers is 6-2 all-time in Denver with a 99.1 passer rating in those games.
All that said, this Denver team is capable of making multiple mistakes and still coming out on top. The margin of error is far greater for the Broncos this time around and San Diego won't be able to keep up for 60 minutes,
"Maybe as you get older you think more along the lines of, this is a very unique opportunity," Manning said. "To be in this position, to be one of just a few teams playing. It'll be a great atmosphere on Sunday, playing a good football team -- there's nothing else I'd rather be doing than being in that opportunity."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 34, Chargers 24
01/09 12:18:24 ET