LOS ANGELES — Can the Broncos bounce back?
As Denver approaches a critical matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers, that is the question that will define the Broncos' Week 14 matchup — and potentially their season.
Following the Patriots' win over the Steelers on "Thursday Night Football," the AFC wild-card race is quite crowded. Depending on the results of this weekend's slate, as many as seven teams in the conference could hold a 7-6 record.
The Broncos are currently one of four AFC teams with six losses, and they face a critical matchup with the Chargers. With a win, the Broncos' playoff odds would jump to 47 percent, according to the New York Times' playoff simulator. With a loss, the Broncos would not be eliminated from playoff contention, but their chances would drop to 15 percent.
"When I first got into coaching, a lot of the time teams would divide the season into quarters because it was 16 weeks," Head Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "Now, it's 17 [weeks]. We're in that last quarter pole, and there are a lot of teams that are kind of sitting where we are. This stretch will be important, and it's pretty obvious."
In Sunday's meeting with the Chargers, the Broncos will have a chance to rebound from a loss to the Texans and earn their first division road with since 2019.
As Denver looks to get back in the win column, here's a look at a question for the Broncos to answer, a matchup to watch and a stat to know.
ONE BIG QUESTION:
Can the Broncos rebound on third down?
The Broncos struggled on third down in their loss to the Texans, as they did not convert on any of their 11 chances. In prior weeks, Denver found more success on the pivotal down. In seven of their last eight games, the Broncos converted at least 40 percent of their third downs, and they were 6-of-14 in the previous week's win over Cleveland.
"It's a turnover down, obviously," Payton said Wednesday. "When you have a really good offense, you're up in the 40 [percent conversion rate]. We have been north of 50 [percent] before. It's the reason you're able to get to 70 and 80 plays some games. It's the reason you are only at 59, 60 or 61 plays. The field position changes with a punt, but nonetheless, there's a lot that goes into it. You put a pretty lengthy game plan together. If you are not having success on third down, you don't get to a lot of those items."
The challenge for the Broncos won't get easier in Week 14, as the Chargers boast the league's third-best third-down defense. Los Angeles has allowed conversions on just 34.6 percent of attempts, and Denver must find a way to find success to stay on the field and maintain drives.
The Broncos did put themselves in position to convert third downs, as they gained yardage on early downs. Denver faced four third downs of three yards or fewer and another three that were five or six yards. If the Broncos can continue their early down success and then make key plays in critical moments, they should be able to rebound in Week 14.
MATCHUP TO WATCH:
Denver's cornerbacks vs. WR Keenan Allen
Already a five-time Pro Bowler, Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen is on pace for the most productive season of his career. Allen has recorded a league-leading 102 catches, and he has posted five 100-yard games this season, including an 18-catch, 215-yard performance in Week 3. The Chargers' main offensive weapon following a season-ending injury to Mike Williams, Allen has posted at least 10 catches and 100 yards in three of his last four games.
Allen posted eight catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns in last year's season finale against Denver, but the Broncos still found a way to earn a win. In two meetings in 2021, Allen posted a combined 11 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.
"He's obviously one of their best weapons," Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday. "Every game plan we have is to take away their best weapon and their best concept. It goes through him. That's definitely part of the game plan. How we do it, I won't share that. He's definitely one of their best players right now as far as numbers and targets and those things. We'll have a plan to hopefully minimize him on Sunday."
Part of the plan could include All-Pro cornerback Pat Surtain II, who has found success against the Chargers in the first two seasons of his career. Nickel cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian may also see reps against Allen, who has a proclivity for playing in the slot.
In Week 14, Denver's defensive unit will look to get back to its prior level of success against opposing receivers. With his breakout game in Week 13, Nico Collins became the first receiver since Week 4 to record more than 75 yards against Denver.
STAT TO KNOW:
The Broncos' defense came within inches of recovering a crucial fumble in Houston territory in Week 13, and it could be critical to get back to forcing turnovers against the Chargers. The Broncos are 5-1 this season in games in which they force at least two turnovers, and they're just 1-5 when they don't hit that threshold.
Denver leads the league with 15 takeaways since Week 8, and the team used short fields to put opponents away during its five-game win streak. The Chargers are tied for the sixth-fewest takeaways through Week 13.
Equally as important will be Denver's ability to avoid turning the ball over. The Broncos are 6-2 in games in which Russell Wilson does not throw an interception. The Chargers have recorded just six interceptions this season, which is tied for the second-lowest mark in the league.