Three Keys to Broncos-Chargers

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The specific individual motivation for Sunday's game against the Chargers that each player will carry doesn't matter all that much. What matters is that each player in the Broncos' locker room finds it.

"There's a bunch of grown men in here, and everybody has their own personal reasons of what they play for and why they play," said running back Royce Freeman, who is expected to start in place of the injured Phillip Lindsay. "So I know the caliber of men that we have in this locker room and what they bring to the table week in and week out. Nothing really needs to be said, and it's a great environment to be around."

While the Broncos have struggled, their locker room has stayed strong and together, leading defensive end Adam Gotsis to dismiss the notion that there were issues with team culture.

"I don't think the culture is an issue. I think we've got a good culture here," he said. "The people that talk about the culture aren't in the locker room. They're not the ones that know the culture and feel the vibe in the locker room. I think we're a real tight team.

"I don't see any weakness in this team. I think we just lost the close games. We just didn't execute in a lot of the games at crucial moments, and when you lose those close ones, your record reflects that and it looks real bad. You win a couple more of those close ones, and you're sitting real nice, like the Chargers."

Indeed, the Chargers are 6-1 in one-score games, with their only loss coming to the Broncos in Week 11, when Brandon McManus' 34-yard field goal as time expired gave Denver a 23-22 win. The Broncos, meanwhile, are 4-6 in one-score games.

Some of those games were lost by plays that went astray late. But most of the Broncos' defeats also saw them struggle in the middle of the game -- particularly the second quarter, in which Denver has a minus-54 point differential that ranks 29th in the league. With 129 points allowed in the second quarter, the Broncos have surrendered nearly as many points in that quarter as they have in the third and fourth quarters combined (132).

The inability to play a full 60 minutes has dogged Denver.

"We'll come out in those first three or four drives, and we'll look pristine -- three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out -- and then it's like we wrinkle just a tiny bit and we start letting up these big 10-yard chunk plays and the team gets rolling, and then we give up a score," Gotsis said. "It's like we lose our hand on things, and then we're trying to claw to get it back."

Often, the Broncos failed to undo the mid-game damage. Against the Chargers in Week 11, they succeeded. What are the keys to success Sunday?

1. Win the turnover battle

Denver's two interceptions off Philip Rivers in Week 11 were crucial in giving the Broncos an opening to stun the Chargers. Von Miller's third-quarter interception was particularly vital and effectively served as a 10-to-14-point swing, as it ended a Los Angeles drive that seemed destined to end in points, and set up a Freeman touchdown run three plays later.

Prior to that game, Rivers had just one game with two or more interceptions in his previous 23 starts. Now he has three multi-interception games in his last six outings, including back-to-back two-interception performances against the Chiefs and Ravens in the last two weeks.

2. Force the Chargers to defend the full field

Since Emmanuel Sanders' season-ending Achilles tendon injury, Denver has struggled to run the football as defenses made heavy use of eight-in-the-box alignments to contain the Broncos' ground game. These formations have helped limit the Broncos to just 3.3 yards per carry in the three games they've played without Sanders.

Getting a vertical passing game unleashed without Sanders and with injuries at the tight-end position is difficult, but if the Broncos can move the ball through the air early, Los Angeles will have to abandon going heavy in the box, which would then generate more openings for Freeman and Devontae Booker as they see extra work in the wake of Lindsay's injury.

3. Hang loose, have fun

As former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts repeatedly uttered to Brent Musburger in "The Waterboy" from the broadcast booth, "Last game of the season, Brent; can't hold anything back now!"

In the past three weeks, hopes for the playoffs, a winning season and, finally, a .500 campaign evaporated one by one. But the locker room remained lively and spirits among players seemed high throughout the week. If they bring that sense of fun to Sunday – and maybe even show a few looks and run a few plays that haven’t been called before -- they can give their fans something to remember, even if the losing record will be one to forget.

"I'm just proud of the guys battling," Gotsis said. "Hopefully we can go finish this thing right."

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