- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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1. Get loose: Over the previous eight seasons, six of the Super Bowl winners have played on wild-card weekend, including the past three champions. While there is a talent factor there -- or in the case of the past three Super Bowl winners quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco -- there is also the matter of the favorite feeling pressure. The top two seeds wait and the pressure builds around them, as their opponent has already worked through the butterflies and earned a win. It could be even more of a factor for a team like the Broncos. For many fans, last January’s double-overtime loss to the Ravens overshadows all the broken records this season. How the Broncos work through that this week and deal with it early on Sunday -- on all fronts from the head coach down -- will have a lot to do with whether they advance. They just need to live up to coach John Fox’s words to Peyton Manning in Houston when the quarterback was staring at the touchdown record in the game’s waning minutes: "Go play ball."
2. No keep-away: No opposing coach worth his headset needs to be reminded of the troubles that come with giving Manning the ball too often. Having been the Broncos' offensive coordinator with Manning behind center, Chargers coach Mike McCoy has a better working knowledge than most. The Denver offense has run fewer than 65 plays in two games this season -- both against McCoy’s Chargers. In San Diego’s win in Denver on Dec. 12, the Broncos ran a season-low 54 plays, including penalty snaps. Their average drive start was the 19-yard line. Sunday the Chargers’ first two touchdown drives against the Bengals went for 12 and 10 plays for 86 and 80 yards respectively. The Broncos' defense has to get San Diego off the field. The Broncos' odds of winning go up if their play count on offense is north of 65 plays.
3. Arrive early: The Chargers are going to want to slow things down and shorten the game. But the sooner the Broncos can squash the threat of an upset the better. The Chargers are not built for comebacks filled with explosive plays, so if the Broncos open with some precision in their speedball game they can get the pace they want. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has largely chosen coverage over pressure against Manning this season, banking on the idea they can get to Manning out of a three- or four-man rush before he can find room against seven- and eight-man coverage looks. The Broncos must protect Manning better than they did last month against San Diego -- especially against the Chargers' interior pass-rushers when Pagano attacked the left side of the offensive line, and got to work right out of the gate.