When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.
Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.
It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons.
ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.
Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?
Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.
How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?
Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.
Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?
Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.
You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?
Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.
Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?
Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.
San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?
Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.