Chargers’ rookie receiver Keenan Allen hurdling a Broncos defender for the touchdown.
Thursday Night Football
Holding on to playoff hopes, San Diego surprised everyone last night, maybe even themselves. In the December cold, the Chargers made the trip on a short week, carrying last week’s momentum over in beating their AFC West rival. It was a controlling victory by a team that has gone back and forth with their identity, which might be the case because they’ve been banged up all season long. Stud rookie receiver Keenan Allen caught a pair of passes and took them to the house, as the table was set by Ryan Mathews moving the chains in prime time action. You could tell that Denver gameplanned to contain Danny Woodhead, and his teammates rose to the occasion. Philip Rivers is having a Pro Bowl season with a quarterback rating of 106.9. Hopefully he and head coach Mike McCoy can make due without offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who is expected to draw head coaching interest in the offseason.
Emotions ran high after stealing a win in Kansas City, as quarterback Philip Rivers threw the game-winning touchdown to Seyi Ajirotutu with little time remaining. That snapped a three game skid that nearly dashed realistic playoff chances, moreso after playing flat against a Bengals team the following week. There are no excused in this league, but there sure are advantages. Cincinnati had two weeks to prepare for the Bolts, heading to San Diego after their bye week. They flat out won that game, pounding the ball to seal the deal in the 4th quarter. Splitting games against playoff teams like the Chiefs and Bengals seems optimistic, the thing is that the Bolts found themselves in a hole to dig out of.
Chargers’ running back Ryan Mathews finding daylight for the score.
The past couple of games however, we saw what Head Coach Mike McCoy was trying to identify his team as. The best plan of attack for the offense has been flashed throughout the year, rather inconsistently, and that is to get the running game going early and often. As quarterback Philip Rivers stated, the team had to buy in and when you look at both sides of the ball, the offensive line and linebacker core are finally healthy enough to play together. So, the Chargers hand the ball off to running back Ryan Mathews, a high pick that has had a so-so start to his career. The kid was given the keys to the offense, posting triple digit yardage and a touchdown in wins over the Giants and Broncos. Kicker Nick Novak has been a weapon this year drilling 28-31 field goals, but they key has been finishing drives for touchdowns.
Patriots Blueprint on Broncos
One thing is for damn sure, we might not have the answers as to what the secondary’s gameplan was in particular, but that they used the blueprint New England revealed when they beat Denver a few weeks back. Dating back to that game, the Patriots shot themselves in the foot after turning the ball over and gift-wrapping short fields for Peyton Manning and company. The Patriots came out in the second half trailing 24-0, only to hold Denver to a touchdown the rest of the game in a comeback victory. That’s the same game Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno touched the ball 36 times for 230 yards, but the quarterback and receivers were out of rhythm and didn’t make plays to hold onto the lead. New England gave them everything underneath, dropping into coverage and virtually allowing Manning to take himself out of the game with more hand-offs than passes (47 hand-offs, 36 passing attempts).
Chargers’ backfield mates, Philip Rivers and Danny Woodhead.
What the Chargers avoided on Thursday Night Football, they didn’t lose the field position battle nor cough up turnovers. Coach McCoy’s team has been relatively mistake prone, taking advantage of a vulnerable Broncos defense. What most didn’t know is that the Chargers have been ranked second in offense all year behind the Broncos, out of AFC teams. They’ve been top 10 all season and top 5 for a good portion of it, same can be said about their time of possession and those statistics go beyond just the AFC (the entire NFL). Since that shootout in Kansas City, the defense has held opponents to 51 points the past trio of games (Broncos 20, Giants 14, Bengals 17).
A big difference maker has been the evolution of the front-7. Safety Eric Weddle and linebacker Donald Butler are the leaders, they have made plays but lacked production for the supporting cast. That is until some young players stepped up (defensive lineman Kendall Reyes, linebackers Manti Te’o, Reggie Walker, and Thomas Keiser) and the defense got healthier (linebackers Jarrett Johnson and Melvin Ingram). Although the secondary couldn’t possibly play any worse than they’ve been performing this season, there has been a leap of improvement perhaps an adjustment in scheme. Rotating the cornerbacks in the secondary, since they don’t have that upper echelon talent, has kept their legs fresh and the competition is paying off.
Chargers’ defense contains Eli Manning and Peyton Manning in back-to-back victories.
Winning three of the last four games is a big deal for the franchise as a hole, as they are taking incremental steps forward with a new regime and coaching staff. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates are back to being dependable leaders, Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead compliment each other well out of the backfield (when Mathews is healthy), and some young weapons on the outside are coming through for Rivers. Keenan Allen is the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, running polished routes and bursting into open space with a nose for the endzone. Second tight end Ladarius Green is slowly but surely arriving onto the scene, chipping in when called upon as a versatile piece to Coach McCoy’s puzzle. The stats may not suggest much of receiver Vincent Brown, but the hometown product looks like he’s finally gaining separation and his speed back. A healthy Eddie Royal finding the seams will further stretch a defense.
AFC Playoff Implications
The Super Chargers have been fool’s gold in recent seasons, underachieving when expected to make a playoff push. With a little help, they face the rival Raiders then the rival Chiefs to end the season. Both are winnable games, they dropped the first meeting in Oakland and departed Kansas City with a huge W. The Bolts are breathing on the backs of Baltimore and Miami, the Dolphins beat the Chargers a few weeks ago and own the tie-breaker. Miami also finishes out the year against all division opponents (vs Patriots, at Bills, vs Jets). The Ravens final three games come against teams that are in the playoff picture as well (at Lions, vs Patriots, at Bengals). This has the Chargers thanking Bill Belichick and the Patriots for the blueprint on the Broncos, and now rooting for them to knock off both the Ravens and Dolphins. New England has every incentive to do so, they can thank San Diego for giving Denver another L because they clinch home-field advantage by winning out. At this pace, if San Diego sneaks in the sixth and final seed while New England clinches the top seed in the AFC, these two may clash in the divisional round (second round) if the Bolts can return the favor to Cincinnati (most likely to be the third seed).