They say it’s not how you start but how you finish. Most of the time, that’s true; for two AFC West teams, how they’ve finished games has been the driving force in how their season has gone and where they currently stand. The Denver Broncos have been strong in the 4th quarter all season long, and as a result they are in control of the AFC West at 6-3. On the other side, the San Diego Chargers have faltered late in games, and as a result they are playing catch up in the division and in the AFC wildcard race with their 4-5 record.
To say that the Broncos have been a dominant fourth quarter team this year would be an understatement. After nine games this season Denver has outscored its opponent 115 – 30 in the final quarter of games. Their offense is averaging close to 13 points per game in the fourth quarter, which ranks second in the, while their defense has given up the second fewest points in the fourth quarter. For Denver, both the offense and defense have been equal contributors to the team’s success in the fourth quarter, as the defense has closed out games while the offense has extended leads.
Of course, part of the reason Denver has excelled late in games is they’ve been forced to be good late in games after falling behind early, but Denver’s no-huddle offense led by Peyton Manning has been as impressive as any no-huddle offense Manning has run in his career. While not all of the Bronco’s fourth quarter comebacks have ended with a win, they’ve proven that whether they’re ahead or behind they own the fourth quarter
As for the Chargers, they have been outscored in the fourth quarter in six of their nine games this year. In three of their last five games San Diego has held a lead heading into the final quarter, but lost the game, including this past week against Tampa Bay. But it hasn’t all been the defense letting leads get away, the offense has also been to blame. After being known as a fourth-quarter quarterback early in his career, Philip Rivers has yet to lead San Diego to any come-from-behind victories late in games this season. In fact, it has been Rivers’ turnovers that have contributed to the Charger’s recent failures in securing fourth quarter leads.
Of course there is nothing more emblematic of Denver’s triumphs and San Diego’s failings late in games than the Monday night game between the two teams back in week six. In that game, the Chargers let a 24-0 halftime lead dissolve into a 35-24 defeat. Even heading into the fourth quarter San Diego led 24-14, but all four of their fourth quarter drives ended with a turnover, including one that led to a touchdown scored by Denver’s defense.
Denver’s offense, meanwhile, scored two touchdowns in the final quarter of play and put their defense in position to ice the game with one final turnover. For the Chargers, it was the game that got away, and the epitome of their struggles in crunch time. For the Broncos, it was just one more example of how they’ve been able to save their best for when it matters at the end of games.
The two teams will meet again this Sunday, in a game that the Chargers must win to have a chance to win the division. In order to secure victory, San Diego will have to reverse their fourth-quarter fortunes and find a way to overcome Denver’s fourth-quarter prowess. Until San Diego can put together a full 60 minutes of football, the biggest difference between the Broncos and the Chargers will remain their play in the fourth quarter, and the Chargers will remain behind the Broncos in the AFC West.