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Three Keys: Broncos vs. Chargers

Posted Jan 12, 2014

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason breaks down his three keys to the Divisional Round matchup between Denver and San Diego.

DENVER – It's not as though the Broncos have spent their downtime muttering "38-35" and "Baltimore" to themselves for the last 12 months. 

The Broncos' coaches didn't channel Bo Schembechler and post that score in the locker room or on every player's practice uniform, the way the famed Michigan coach did to remind his 1969 Wolverines of the 50 points that rival Ohio State dropped on them one year earlier.

But that loss, which occurred exactly one year ago today, is in the Broncos' minds -- if not always at the front of them, then not far from their thoughts. It has been throughout the offseason and regular season. It's been the motivation for every bit of work that went above and beyond the required duty.

"We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our offseason training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squads, whatever it may be," said quarterback Peyton Manning. "We’ve used it on the practice field.

"I don’t think that you just get to this week and you start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before. I feel like we’ve done that and, like I said, we’re excited to be at this place right now.”

Manning knows about this situation. He's been here before. 

Since the wild-card round was established in 1978, sixteen teams that lost at home in the divisional round of the playoffs were at home to open their postseason run the following year. Fifteen of them won that first playoff game the following year. Nine of them went on to the Super Bowl the following season. Five of them won it all.

Two of those five were the 1997 Broncos -- whose tale is well-told -- and the 2006 Colts, to date the only Super Bowl winner of which Manning was a part. A year after losing to the Steelers 21-18 in the divisional playoffs, they began their postseason run with a wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs at the RCA Dome, followed by a win at Baltimore, an AFC Championship triumph over the Patriots and a Super Bowl XLI win over Chicago.

Much has been made of history repeating itself regarding the 2013 Broncos, compared to their 1997 brethren. But the 2006 Colts are equally instructive. And the 15-1 record of teams in the situation like the Broncos face Sunday -- and the legacy of these teams making the Super Bowl more often than not -- shows just how powerful the lingering sting of an upset playoff loss can be one year later.

Neither the Broncos nor the Chargers will lack for motivation today. But the Broncos have a little extra, and it has been exactly 12 months in the making. 

It helped the 1983 Raiders, 1988 49ers, 1990 Giants, 1997 Broncos and 2006 Colts to Lombardi Trophies. Now the Broncos will learn if they are the next in this redemption club.

To take the first step, there are three keys that stand out:

1. LIMIT THE LENGTH OF SAN DIEGO'S POSSESSIONS.

Easier said than done, right? No team has possessed the football more than the Chargers, which is largely due to their league-best third-down conversion percentage, which itself is because of their ability to avoid calamity and keep themselves in third-and-moderate yardage.

While the Broncos don't want to be besieged by explosive plays, it can be suggested that a Chargers scoring drive of two to four plays is less damaging than one that consumes 10 or more snaps and reduces the number of chances Denver's record-breaking offense has.

San Diego succeeded at limiting Denver's chances in both games toast fall. When kneeldown drives are eliminated, the Broncos averaged 10 possessions a game agains the Chargers, and 12.14 against all other opponents. 

The Chargers also held the Broncos to 2.40 points per possession -- 0.7 points below the overall average on Manning-led drives this year. But if the Broncos had enjoyed an average number of possessions against San Diego, their pace against the Chargers would have meant an average of 29.14 points per game, instead of the 24.0 they actually scored. 

The key might rest in the Denver defense's willingness to gamble when it does force the Chargers into third down. It might expose itself to some big gains, but disguised pressure might lead to a stop or an errant throw that becomes a turnover. 

2. CLEAN UP SPECIAL TEAMS.

In each of the last six games, the special teams were responsible for at least one significant negative play, from the punt that bounced off Tony Carter in New England in Week 12 to the blocked punt at Oakland six weeks later. In the two losses in that span, the gaffe arguably cost the Broncos the game; certainly the Week 15 loss to San Diego might have been avoided if an encroachment penalty had not allowed the Chargers to drain six minutes, 48 seconds more off the clock in the third quarter after the defense had forced a three-and-out.

The cliches about little things having big impact in the playoffs exist for a reason: they're tried and true, proven since time immemorial. For instance, if not for San Francisco's issues on punt returns late in the 2011 NFC Championship, we're not talking about the last three Super Bowl winners having a combined 29-19 regular-season record, with none better than 10-6. 

The special teams have proven capable of explosive, positive plays this year, most coming in the first 10 games of the season. They need to recapture that -- or, at least, avoid the mistake that could derail the Broncos' Super Bowl hopes.

3. "PLAY YOUR GAME." 

During the 1980 Winter Olympics, microphones caught U.S. ice hockey coach Herb Brooks repeating this mantra to his players. It's worth noting again, even though it's the Broncos who are the favorite, rather than the Chargers.

The offense cannot waste too much time worrying about whether the Chargers gobble up yardage and clock time. All it can do is not be forced to be something it is not, whether it's because of the Chargers' penchant for disguising their pass-rush intentions or because of the gusty winds that are forecast for Sports Authority Field on Sunday.

While the offense has proven it can ground and pound when the need arises, the Chargers' weakness remains their pass defense, which was one of the league's worst from a statistical perspective in 2013. 

The Broncos' passing game is merely the most prolific for a single season in league history, and with Wes Welker back in the lineup, has all of its skill components healthy for the first time since the first half of the 51-28 romp over the Titans on Dec. 8. Assuming good health Sunday, the Broncos can focus on what they did best. The closer the Broncos stick to the script that brought them to the postseason, the better their chances.

 

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