ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Other offenses were more explosive against the Broncos than San Diego's. The Giants and Patriots amassed more first downs than San Diego, which had 20 in Week 10 and 24 in Week 15. The Cowboys had more points in one game against the Broncos than the Chargers did in two. Eight teams averaged more yardage per play.
But no one converted more key third downs and did a better job of playing keep-away from the most prolific offense in league history than the Chargers, who were the only team to possess the football for more than 35 minutes against the Broncos -- and did it twice.
The results were obvious. Against every other foe, the Broncos ran between 66 and 91 plays. Against the Chargers, they ran just 53 and 60. With fewer snaps and fewer possessions, San Diego's deliberate offense helped limit the Broncos to two of their three sub-30-point games in 2013. It was a game of keep-away, and it worked.
The Chargers are uniquely qualified to run this sort of game, thanks to a third-down conversion rate that is the league's best in two years, and by gaining first downs on 31.4 percent of their offensive plays, the second-highest percentage in the league. And with five fourth-down conversions in six attempts -- including a first-possession fake punt against Denver in Week 10 -- the Chargers' drive-sustaining percentage of 51.46 from when they get to first down is the league's best, and 10.10 percent above the average. (All of the top four teams in drive-sustaining percentage are still alive: San Diego, Denver, Carolina and New Orleans).
San Diego's passing game has gotten the attention throughout the season, and rightfully so. Quarterback Philip Rivers looks for perceived mismatches, which is how he focused on finding where rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster was lined up when the Broncos were in the nickel package and throwing at the man he was covering.
But the ground game has been equally damaging against the Broncos, even though it doesn't match the league rushing leaders.
When running back Ryan Mathews has gotten to the edge, he's been dangerous. His two longest runs this year against the Broncos -- gains of 35 and 23 yards -- saw him wait, then bounce to the outside. In each case, he was aided by a Broncos error: a missed tackle on the 35-yard run in Week 10; a too-late sprint to the sideline by a safety in Week 15.
Those jaunts represent nearly one-third of the Chargers' output of runs to gain at least 20 yards this year. San Diego has just seven runs for 20-plus yards, and their ratio of one run for at least 20 yards every 69.43 carries ranks 29th in the league.
The Broncos can expect this again until they prove they can stop it, although the Chargers might tweak their alignment.
"A lot of times you have the greatest success by running the same plays from different formations and different sets and disguising it," said San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt at his Thursday press conference. "Offensively, we get to motion and shift and move around a lot, and that helps do that."
That is noticeable to cornerback Chris Harris, Jr.
"Even from the first game -- I go back and watch the first game -- they run the same plays they ran the second game. We just didn't execute it right," he said Every team, they're going to hide it and try to get back to the same play. But we just have to be aware of what they like to do.
"Even from the first game, we shut some of the stuff down, but they still came back and ran it again the second time. We just didn't execute it right."
Like its defense, San Diego's offense will try to catch the Broncos off-guard with motion, misdirection and disguised intentions.
"They're going to have some things that will be counters for what we did in the game and hopefully some of the things we're adjusting to try to anticipate what they'll do will work," said Whisenhunt.
But ultimately the Broncos' hopes of advancement Sunday will rest on whether they can prevent the three- and four-yard gains from creating the third-and-shorts that become clock-chewing plays after the Chargers convert.