ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **The year has changed – and so have the stakes – but for Chargers Head Coach Mike McCoy, the approach to Sunday's AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Broncos in Denver remains no different from when the teams last met a month ago at Sports Authority Field in Mile High.
"It's another game to us," McCoy said during a conference call with the Denver media on Wednesday. "When you look at it, we're going to play the same. It's another game you've got to go in and play. We're going to do what we do, the coaches are going to put their best game plan together, and go out and have the players execute it."
The Chargers emerged from that Dec. 12 showdown with the Broncos victorious – just as they have in each of their last five games. Last Sunday, they went into Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati and defeated the NFC North-champion Bengals 27-10 – traveling a course that has led them from being on the verge of elimination from playoff contention at the onset of December to a January rematch with the Broncos, with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line.
"I think they've done a great job of buying in, working extremely hard, having good weeks of practice," McCoy said. "That's where we've been, as you mentioned, for the last six weeks of the season and everyone is in that same boat right now. Everybody is in the same boat of 'It's all or nothing' and, 'If you lose, you're done.'"
For Philip Rivers, the gut-check that the Chargers underwent after dropping to 5-7 after a 17-10 loss at home to Cincinnati on Dec. 1 caused the veteran quarterback to question whether San Diego would miss the postseason for a fourth consecutive year – after making the playoffs in each of his first four seasons as a starter from 2006-2009.
"When you're sitting at 5-7 and even when we got to 7-7, there's no denying, it's human nature—you have that thought in the back of your head that, 'Are we going to be four years in a row out of the postseason and another year is going to pass?'" Rivers said. "There was never that quit in us, but that thought crosses your mind."
Instead, the Chargers responded by reeling off four consecutive victories – including a 27-20 win over the Broncos in Week 15 – and then knocked off the Bengals on the road in the Wild Card Round. It's a late-season surge of momentum that Rivers noted is beneficial for the Chargers entering their biggest game to date – but also a momentum surge that, alone, won't clinch a victory on Sunday.
"Certainly the emotion factor is positive," Rivers said. "We're playing with a lot of confidence, but at the same time, it's challenging and you've got to sustain it. But I think it's not very hard getting in this round of the playoffs to be mentally prepared, focused and excited. I don't think that's a problem as far as from a mindset standpoint – us fading. Obviously we've got to go play our best game to date to find a way to win this game."
It's a task that Rivers and the Chargers were able to achieve last Sunday in Cincinnati. Despite only attempting 16 passes, Rivers threw a key third-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Ladarius Green that gave the Chargers a 14-10 lead they would never cede – and San Diego rushed for 196 yards in reeling off 20 unanswered points.
"I think we just played it the way we had to win the game," Rivers said regarding the Chargers' win in the Wild Card Round. "That's what the objective is all the time but especially in playoff football you just find a way to win, whatever that may be."
He was quick to add, however, that he doesn't anticipate the Chargers' offensive attack against the Broncos on Sunday will shake out the same way.
"I wouldn't expect that there will only be 16 attempts this week," Rivers said with a laugh. "But obviously, see how the game goes."
In the Chargers' Week 15 victory over the Broncos, San Diego held the ball for a nearly 18-minute advantage in time of possession and kept Denver's offense on the sidelines for much of the game. McCoy noted, however, that San Diego's plan entering the third matchup of the season (the Broncos defeated the Chargers 28-20 in Week 10) won't necessarily be the same.
"The plan changes each week and you go with the flow of the game and see what you're doing well at that point and time, 'What do you think going to the game plan of what are you going to expose, how are you going to attack a certain team?'" McCoy said.
One of the keys in that game – running back Ryan Mathews, who rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown in Week 15 – will again be in action for the Chargers.
"He is going to be healthy on Sunday," McCoy said.
He also updated the status of center Nick Hardwick, who was injured in last week's game.
"He's working through the normal protocol like everybody does when you get (a concussion)," McCoy said.
And while Rivers will once again play counterpart to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning on Sunday, the Chargers quarterback noted that the game isn't about their individual matchup – and that their head-to-head history has no bearing on this game.
"It's not me versus him by any means and this is a new team and he's in a new place, new deal—I think all those things," Rivers said. "I know history there's certain records and things as far as how you stack up against certain opponents and you mention since I've been here what our record has been in Denver, but I really think every game stands alone and all that stuff throws out the window, especially in a playoff game."
Similarly, McCoy noted that his own familiarity with Manning – after working with the quarterback during the 2012 season, when he was the Broncos' offensive coordinator – wasn't the reason for the Chargers' victory Week 15. Instead, he cited his team's execution on the field – which he noted will again be crucial to determining how the Chargers fare on Sunday.
"We could call out every play, or call out every defense, whatever it is," McCoy said. "The players have to go out and execute it. Peyton is good enough, he knows where to go. He sees a certain coverage and knows where to go with the ball. So it's all the players, give the players all the credit for the way they played last time. We've got another big test against them this week. We've got to play our best to win."