ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Slow starts for the Broncos are not a persistent problem; one needs only to rewind back to Nov. 24 to find a game where the Broncos sprinted to an early lead.
But after spotting the Chiefs and Titans second-quarter leads of 21-7 and 21-10, respectively, it is an issue the Broncos want to correct, and is endemic of the inconsistency -- particularly on the defense -- that the Broncos know they must correct between now and the postseason.
Putting those quick 21-point bursts on the defense is short-sighted and inaccurate, considering that in each of those cases, one touchdown was created by long kickoff returns -- 108 yards in Kansas City and 95 yards by Tennessee's Leon Washington on Sunday. But that is of little solace to a defense that has already yielded more touchdowns (38) through 13 games than it did in 16 last year (30).
"I don't think we're where we need to be on defense to win a championship right now," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "The great defenses, whatever they're faced with, those touchdowns are field goals. We've got some improvement there.
But one of the many luxuries of having an offense on pace to break a slew of league records is the belief that at some point, it will produce enough points to give the defense a chance to regain its footing. That's why the Broncos are 4-1 when they have faced a deficit of at least 10 points, and why a fast start is not necessarily what one would consider a "key" to the game.
But there will come a day when the offense struggles -- and against one of just two defenses to hold it below 30 points this year, the Broncos defense might need an improved performance to hold up its end of the burden.
"Once we realize that there will come a week where our offense isn't going to put up 50 and we have to make a stand, then things will be better," said Knighton. "Until then, it will be a dogfight and we'll have to show up the second half a lot better than we do the first half."
And now, three keys to Thursday's game:
1. PROTECT THE FOOTBALL -- AND KEEP THE CHARGERS FROM DOING THE SAME THING.
It was a lost fumble on a sack of Peyton Manning that got the Chargers' comeback going last month; San Diego scored two plays later on a Danny Woodhead touchdown catch after being set up at the Denver 11-yard-line, and the Broncos didn't cross midfield again until 22 minutes and 51 seconds later, when they were trying to run out the clock and clinch the win.
San Diego can be opportunistic, and its best chance for a win could lie in forcing the Broncos into a costly mistake.
2. BE PATIENT.
This helped the Broncos last month in San Diego, when the Chargers failed to knock Denver's offense off rhythm with its long drives. San Diego chewed up at least eight plays and four minutes, 45 seconds of clock time on five of its 10 non-kneeldown possessions that day,
Denver responded with brisk, effective possessions, averaging 54.0 yards a series and 9.53 yards a play on their first six series -- while keeping the ball just 10 minutes and 57 seconds. The process wasn't time-consuming, but the result was ideal: a 28-6 lead that was too steep for the Chargers to overcome.
- DON'T GET FLUSTERED BY THE SHORT WEEK.
Of course, there's little chance of that, and if the Broncos falter against their long-time rivals, it will have little to do with the day of the week.
And it's worth noting that Manning is utterly unruffled by the short week, which he's faced seven times in his career -- not counting season-opening Thursday games, which have a normal lead time, with preparation beginning over the previous weekend. Manning's teams are undefeated in the short week, and he has a career 21-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in those games.
But that being said, it was also on a Thursday night last year that the Broncos endured their only sub-30-point game in a 14-game stretch that extended from Dec. 2, 2012 to Nov. 10 of this year, when the Chargers held the Broncos to 28 points. The 26 points on a Thursday night in Oakland last Dec. 6 remains the Broncos' low in their last 19 games.