The San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos will be battling for control of the AFC West on Monday night when they square off at Qualcomm Stadium. Don’t forget, last year both of these teams finished with the same record; however, it was the Broncos who ultimately got a trip to the playoffs thanks to the fact that they owned the tiebreaker. And we all remember what happened once they were there, right?
These games matter.
As it stands, Denver is coming into tonight's outing one win shy of being tied for first place in the division. The Broncos’ schedule was extremely frontloaded to start the year, but it will get exponentially easier following this game. After outings versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and New England Patriots at the beginning of the season, the toughest foes this squad is going to face from here on out are the heartbroken New Orleans Saints, the chronically underachieving Carolina Panthers, and the injury-riddled Baltimore Ravens.
San Diego, meanwhile, is going to have just as light a schedule from here on out as it had up to this point. The powers that be took it very easy on the Chargers when plotting their match-ups, so it’s a bit strange that these guys can’t create any space between themselves and the rest of this division. Nevertheless, on paper, Philip Rivers and Co. seem to have all of the weapons necessary for success. And given how easy the next two and a half months figure to be for them, if they find a way to turn it on, nobody -- including Denver -- will be able to catch up to them. (Presuming they win tonight.)
Here are three things to watch for from each team heading into tonight’s showdown:
San Diego Chargers
1. How does Ryan Matthews look?
The Chargers’ handling of Ryan Matthews ever since his Week 3 goal line troubles has been embarrassing. His weaknesses are what they are – that doesn’t change the fact that he is the best back on this team. San Diego needs to utilize him tonight against a very inadequate Broncos rushing defense. On the year, they’re giving up 120 yards per game – good for 21st in the league. Last week against New England they gave up 251 yards rushing yards. Matthews averages 5.1 yards per carry. Let. Him. Do. Work.
2. Can Philip Rivers keep dominating Denver’s defense?
According to the Denver Post, Philip Rivers sort of owns the Broncos. Per their report, Rivers has thrown for 3,062 yards and 20 touchdowns on 63.8 percent completion through 12 games versus these guys. (102.7 passer rating.) His record in those 12 games? 9-3.
3. Can this defense slow Peyton Manning down?
People have been confusing the fact that Peyton Manning can’t throw the long ball anymore with Peyton Manning not being able to throw at all. Despite the fact that he isn’t playing with any Hall of Fame wide receivers in Denver, and despite the fact that his offensive line is nothing to write home about, Manning has thrown for 1499 yards and 11 touchdowns this year. (101 passer rating.) The Broncos are sixth in the league in passing yardage per game with 287.2. San Diego, conversely, is 22nd in opponent passing yardage. (They give up 260 yards per game.) If the Chargers don’t find a way to show Manning down, this has the potential to get ugly early.
1. Can they defend against the run?
This team’s ineffectiveness against the run was really apparent last week versus New England. Again, the Patriots’ mishmash of Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Danny Woodhead combined for over 250 yards on the ground. If the Broncos let Ryan Matthews run free on Monday night, that is going to give Philip Rivers (who is prone to making mistakes when he’s nervous) a lot of room to take his time and make better throws. This defense knows how to limit passing yardage (eighth in the league), but it won’t get the opportunity to do it if the Chargers running game has a green light to do whatever it wants.
2. Can this offensive line protect Peyton Manning?
This offensive line has given up 10 sacks and 20 quarterback hits this year. Both of those numbers are decent, but also have a lot more to do with Peyton Manning being great at getting the ball out of his hands early than any major accomplishments by the protection. Bottom line: San Diego’s defense is third in the league against the rush. You become a top-three rush defense in the league by controlling the line and wearing the other team’s front seven out. This could be a long night for Manning if his protection doesn’t stay strong throughout the entire game.
3. Can this team hold on to the ball?
Denver lost two fumbles inside the Patriots’ 20-yard line and one inside their own 20-yard line last week. That can’t happen tonight. This team isn’t good enough to be lazy with the football.