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Three Keys to Broncos-Chargers

Last year, the Chargers' home venue changed, but on the field, they looked similar to the San Diego versions of themselves during their final years before relocation -- at least when the Broncos saw them firsthand. Denver faced the Chargers twice in the 2017 season's first seven weeks, a time in which the Chargers started 0-4 before rebounding. The teams split their 2017 series, and and after nine games apiece, both carried 3-6 records.

 n the weeks that followed, the Chargers found their power source, while the Broncos continued to stall. A 6-1 close to the season pushed them within an eyelash of their first postseason trip since 2013, but they lost on a tiebreaker.

Now the Chargers stand tall. Only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs have fewer losses this season. Over the last 16 weeks of regular-season play, no one has a better record than the Chargers' 13-3 mark.

They win by forcing mistakes and limiting their own. In their last 16 games, Los Angeles is 11-0 when it has a positive turnover margin. They are 2-1 when it is even and 0-2 when it is negative. The most consistent aspect of their play in this regard has been their ability to avoid giveaways; they had no turnovers in nine of their last 16 games.

"They changed a lot of things up," Will Parks said. "Their offense is kind of similar. You don't see Rivers back there doing too much; you see him back there making his normal checks. The offensive line got tuned up a little bit; they've got a better O-line there."

In its last 16 games, Los Angeles has built a steady, balanced offense and a defense that has held 10 opponents to 20 or fewer points -- including the last five in a row. Over the last two seasons, no AFC team has held opponents to fewer than 20 points more often than coordinator Gus Bradley’s unit.

But all of those trends are about just over two dozen games over two seasons. The Broncos, at 3-6 and clinging to hopes of a revival, just need to win one.

"You see around the facility, we've got all these '1-0' things up," defensive Adam Gotsis said, referring to the “1-0” messages displayed on flat-screen TVs throughout UCHealth Training Center. "It's just establishing that mindset again and almost brainwashing us into thinking, 'We know who we are and what we bring.'"

What the Broncos have brought is effort and performance that brought them close to turnaround wins over the Rams, Texans and Chiefs. Similar work at StubHub Center on Sunday would yet again give them a chance at a statement win -- if they can close the deal.

"Obviously, we know our record, but we get to go in with a clean slate. We've got a lot of games left -- seven games left -- and we plan to win all of them," Parks said. "In order for us to do that, we've got to come in ready to go."

"If we just do what we are supposed to do, we might be in a good position at the end of the year," outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett said.

But the Broncos can't be in that position without taking the first step. What are the keys to victory Sunday?

1. Force Rivers into mistakes

Based on the last year, this could be a difficult task. Rivers has just four interceptions this season, and Los Angeles has won 12 of its last 13 games in which Rivers did not throw an interception.

The Chargers have lost four of the seven games in that span in which the opponent intercepted Rivers at least once, so if the Broncos can force him into a giveaway, they will give themselves a chance to steal a crucial road win. 

But miscues have been rare for Rivers this year; his 115.4 passer rating is the highest single-season mark of his career. So if he reaches that point Sunday -- an average game for him, based on this year's standard -- he puts the Chargers exactly where they want to be, as they are 54-7 when he has a single-game passer rating of 115.4 or better (including playoffs). When Rivers doesn't hit that mark, they are 63-86, including 13-41 when his rating drops below 80.0.

So the Broncos have to make Rivers uncomfortable. The Chargers are 63-29 when Rivers is sacked just once or not sacked at all, including wins in nine of their last 11 such games. Their record drops to 45-41 when he is sacked two or three times and 9-23 when he is sacked on four or more occasions.

"If Philip Rivers is going to stand back there and pat the ball, we've got to get to him," Gotsis said. "I've got faith in our corners and our coverage that we're going to tighten up on these guys, make them one-dimensional and hopefully cause him to throw a couple of picks.

"He's been pretty good with protecting the ball and getting it out quick, [making] safe throws, but I feel like if we can get some pressure on him and shut down that run game early, we can really change the game, and hopefully get a couple of turnovers and put our offense in a good position."

2. Keep running

Under Anthony Lynn, the Chargers are 14-2 when their opponent runs the football less than 45 percent of the time, and 2-7 when their foe exceeds that mark. 

With massive changes on the offensive line in the wake of recent season-ending injuries to guards Ron Leary and Max Garcia and center Matt Paradis, the Broncos need to sustain a ground game to allow their young interior line to find its footing. If they do that, they can dictate the tempo of the game while setting up more opportunities for Case Keenum to execute play-action fakes, which can also get him outside of the pocket, further helping left guard Billy Turner, center Connor McGovern and right guard Elijah Wilkinson find some sense of stability in their first game together.

"We've just got to get them to play the game that we want them to play, instead of their game," Barrett said.

3. Limit Melvin Gordon

Just as the Broncos want to run, so do the Chargers. They are 8-0 under Lynn when they run on more than 45 percent of their snaps, and have won 11 of their last 14 games in which Gordon scores at least one touchdown.

The Chargers are also just 10-19 since 2015 when Gordon touches the ball on fewer than one-third of their plays in a game. 

"He can do it all," Barrett said. "He can run you over. He can jump over you. He can shake you and then his speed -- he's a complete back, and it helps out a lot in the scheme that they're in."

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