For the second time in six weeks, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos will square off, with each team working through its postseason checklist.
The Broncos (11-2) want the division title and the AFC's top seed. Due to a loss to New England last month, they will likely have to win out to get both, unless the Patriots stumble down the stretch. The Chargers (6-7) know the time is now if they are going to snag an AFC wild-card spot, so much so that Jarret Johnson called Thursday night's game "a playoff scenario for us."
ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Thursday night's game.
Legwold: Eric, former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels once called the Chargers the "measuring stick" of the division, but the Broncos are 4-1 against San Diego since John Fox replaced McDaniels and 3-0 since Peyton Manning became Denver's quarterback. How is former Broncos coach Mike McCoy framing this one, especially with the Chargers clinging to at least some postseason hopes?
Williams: McCoy has done a good job of making sure his players are staying in the now and not looking too far ahead. But with their postseason aspirations on life support, San Diego players view the trip to Denver as a playoff game. Defensively, the Chargers are frustrated with how sloppily they played against Manning in Week 10, giving up several big plays in the passing game. San Diego's secondary has played much better in the past two games, allowing just two touchdown passes. So the Chargers are looking to redeem themselves on Thursday.
Wes Welker will miss Thursday's contest due to lingering concussion symptoms. How will Denver replace his production?
Legwold: Even in the Broncos' ultrabalanced attack in the passing game, Welker will certainly be missed given he's second on the team in targets (111), receptions (73) and touchdown catches (10). But how the Broncos deal with that should look familiar to McCoy because the Broncos figure to field a lineup similar to the one McCoy called plays for here last season. The Broncos will move to a two-tight end look with Jacob Tamme working out of the slot. Tamme caught 52 passes last season, with the majority of those receptions coming when he was lined up as a slot receiver. It was a job he did well enough that Manning called him one of the most important players in the offense last season. Manning has confidence in Tamme -- they played together in Indianapolis -- and Manning threw to Tamme this past weekend in many of the situations where Manning usually throws to Welker.
The Chargers' secondary had a quality day against the Giants this past Sunday. How do you think they'll line up against the Broncos?
Williams: Cornerback Derek Cox was replaced by eight-year veteran Richard Marshall in the starting lineup two weeks ago, bringing stability to the back end defensively. San Diego has given up 20 passing touchdowns this season, but just two touchdown passes in the past two games. The Chargers had just four interceptions through the first nine games, but have hauled in five picks in the past four. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said his defensive teammates just made too many silly mistakes against the Broncos earlier this season, and that they need to make Manning work for Denver's touchdowns by playing sound fundamental defense with multiple looks up front.
How has Broncos coach John Fox made the transition back to the sideline after heart surgery?
Legwold: Fox had surgery to repair a condition that was diagnosed during his time with the New York Giants in the late '90s, so he knew the surgery was coming at some point. He has also lived with the difficulties a faulty aortic valve brought on. He says he now feels better than he has in 20 years. Doctors cleared him to return to work the Monday before the Titans game and he worked through the week without any difficulties. He coached from the sideline during the game this past Sunday and was on the field last week even though the team practiced outside in below-zero temperatures for three days.
Manning is five touchdowns away from tying the NFL single-season record, but Philip Rivers has two three-touchdown days over the past three games. Do the Chargers feel like they left some points on the field the last time these two teams met?
Williams: Yes, that's certainly the case. Rivers mentioned this week during his conversation with reporters here in San Diego that even though the Chargers had the ball for more than 38 minutes the last time these two teams played, the Chargers scored only 20 points. Rivers understands that can't happen again on the road at Denver. The Chargers seem to have a better plan for how they will attack teams when they get into the red zone. Running back Ryan Mathews has emerged as more of a focal point of the offense when they get near the end zone. Mathews has scored four touchdowns in San Diego's past seven games.
While Denver's offense purrs, the defense continues to sputter. What has Fox done to change his fortunes on that side of the ball?
Legwold: The Broncos have surrendered at least 17 points in every game this season and four times they have trailed by at least 11 points in games they eventually went on to win. They have certainly missed cornerback Champ Bailey, who has played in just three games this season, and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, one of their best run defenders up front who is now on injured reserve. Fox juggled things some this past weekend when he essentially benched linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a team captain, in the base 4-3 look, playing veteran Paris Lenon there instead. Fox also switched out Duke Ihenacho at safety, putting in Omar Bolden instead. Woodyard will still play the specialty packages, but the Broncos have juggled things in the base. Von Miller has had a dominant half against the Patriots and a dominant half against the Titans, but the Broncos are still waiting to see the impact player he can be for an entire game. The last time they played the Chargers, they were in the nickel most of time -- 42 snaps in all to go with 11 in the dime. They are far more consistent in those looks and have struggled more against teams that make them play out of their base defense.