But the fact that the Chargers won when they were outgained by 121 yards was largely irrelevant. That's because the Chargers didn't have far to march, particularly in the second half, when their average drive-start position was 12 inches into Bengals territory, just past the 50-yard-line.
That's what takeaways can do. A fumble recovery and an interception led directly to the field goals that put the Bengals behind two scores and forced them into desperation mode, which led to them going for it on two fourth downs from the San Diego 41- and 40-yard-lines, respectively. This had typically been absent from the Chargers' play this year; they lugged a minus-4 turnover margin into the playoffs. Until Sunday, they had forced at least two takeaways just four times, including one three-takeaway game (against the Giants, whose minus-15 margin is the second-worst in the league).
That was enough to allow San Diego's offense to overcome the fits and starts that plagued it Sunday, which belied San Diego's season-long performance.
Throughout 2013, the Chargers' offense was steady. Although they ranked fifth in the league with an average of 5.94 yards per play, they were remarkably consistent, gaining at least 5.0 yards per play in 15 of 16 games. Of the four teams ahead of the Chargers in yardage per play, only the Broncos matched that consistency.
But the revelation in recent weeks has been their defense, particularly the front seven.
Up front, the Chargers have mustered plenty of pressure with their front three in recent weeks. Much of the credit goes to the blossoming Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, who in recent weeks have shown why they were first- and second-round picks in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Liuget showed flashes of brilliance in 2012; he broke up nine passes, had 15 tackles for losses and notched seven sacks. His sack total declined in 2013, but his sack of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on Sunday gave him 3.5 since Nov. 24, when the Chargers began their current 6-1 run. (Liuget had three sacks in the season's first 10 games.)
Reyes was credited by ProFootballFocus.com with five quarterback hurries Sunday, giving him 13 in the last five games -- three more than he had in the Chargers' first 12 games combined.
San Diego's investment is paying off. Their ability to get pressure from inside enhances the opportunities available for outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram, each of whom delivered explosive plays Sunday. (Johnson had a sack; Ingram hit Dalton once and later intercepted a pass after he dropped into coverage and easily read Dalton's intentions.)
Ingram, a first-round pick in 2012, represents the main difference in the Chargers defense from Week 15 to today. He returned to the field in December after suffering a torn ACL during OTAs and has seen his playing time increase every week since he returned against the Giants on Dec. 8. Since being shut out in the pass rush against the Broncos on Dec. 12, he has hit the opposing quarterback at least once each game.
San Diego is a slightly different team from the one the Broncos saw on Dec. 12, but those tweaks will give the Broncos plenty to ponder as they prepare to break the deadlock in the season series.
NOT-NECESSARILY-RELEVANT-BUT-KIND-OF-INTERESTING HISTORICAL TRENDS:
… This will mark the fourth time in Broncos history that they have faced a division foe in the postseason (Raiders 1977 and 1993, Seahawks 1983 and Chiefs 1997). Denver is 2-2 in these games, and 2-1 when they split the regular-season series …
… The Jan. 4, 1998 duel between the Broncos and Chiefs -- won 14-10 by the Broncos -- marks the last time that two AFC West teams met in any round of the postseason. As with the Broncos and Chargers this week, Denver and the Chiefs grappled in the Divisional Round. You know what happened in the weeks after the Broncos won that game …
… Philip Rivers is 6-2 in his starts at Denver, and was on the winning side of both previous playoff games when
… This weekend, Indianapolis and San Diego became the seventh and eighth teams to win in the wild-card round by outscoring their opponents by more than 14 points in the second half after trailing at halftime. Just one of the previous six teams managed to win their next game: the 1992 Bills, who followed the greatest comeback in NFL history by winning at Pittsburgh the next week. The other three teams -- the 1992 Eagles, 1996 Steelers, 1997 Vikings, 2002 49ers and 2011 Saints -- all fell after making surges like the Colts and Chargers did. San Diego outscored Cincinnati 20-0 in the second half Sunday after trailing 10-7 at the midway point.