SAN DIEGO -- For the San Diego Chargers to have a realistic chance of making the playoffs, they have to protect home field starting Sunday.
The Chargers have five of their last eight games at home, and five games left against AFC West opponents. So San Diego still controls its own destiny. But in order for that to continue, the Chargers have to win division games at home against tough opponents like the 7-1 Denver Broncos.
It won’t be easy. The Broncos are favored by seven points and have the most potent offense in the league. To make matters worse, quarterback Peyton Manning had two weeks to prepare for this game, so he’ll be ready.
Yes, the Broncos will be without head coach John Fox, who’s out indefinitely after having heart surgery. Jack Del Rio will serve as interim head coach. It’s minor, but not having Fox on the sideline helps the Chargers.
San Diego also has an advantage in head coach Mike McCoy, who worked for four seasons as Denver’s offensive coordinator, including one season with Manning. McCoy should have intimate knowledge of Denver’s personnel and tendencies, including what Manning likes to do in critical situations. We’ll see if it helps.
Generate pressure with four rushers: Manning pretty much slices and dices defenses when they bring pressure. He has a league-leading 92.8 quarterback rating when teams bring five or more rushers. So the Chargers need to figure out a way to create pressure with just four rushers. One way defensive coordinator John Pagano can do that is by using the zone blitz. Nickel defensive backs Johnny Patrick and Jahleel Addae have been effective blitzing off the edge, so look for Pagano to put his disguise-and-disrupt strategy in motion.
Get Mathews 20 touches: Ryan Mathews ran for 100-plus yards in back-to-back wins for the Chargers. He finished with just seven carries for 34 yards in a loss against Washington last week, including one carry in the second half. And, of course, Mathews did not get a touch during San Diego’s three-play failure to get the ball into the end zone from a yard out at the end of regulation. Mathews needs at least 20 touches to help San Diego control the clock and keep the ball way from Manning.
Win on third down: Defensively, heading into last week’s game, the Chargers had been effective on third down, allowing Indianapolis and Jacksonville to convert on just 5 of 21 opportunities (24 percent). But against Washington last week, San Diego was carved up on the money down, allowing the Redskins to convert 12 of 17 chances on third down (71 percent). That can’t happen today against Manning. And on the other side of the ball, Philip Rivers needs to continue to be effective in the short passing game in order to move the sticks on third down. The Chargers have a 48 percent conversion rate offensively on third down, second only to the Broncos.
Score TDs in the red zone: As offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt mentioned this week, the Chargers were 2-of-3 scoring inside the red zone against Washington. But that one missed opportunity on the goal line became the focal point because of when it happened during the game. The Chargers cannot afford to settle for field goals in the red zone against a Denver offense that seems to score every time it touches the ball.
Make impact plays: It’s the reason Pagano said he benched cornerback Derek Cox in the second half against Washington. The Chargers are not making enough impact plays on defense, particularly in the secondary. It’s a risk/reward proposition against Manning, who makes defenses pay for mistakes by scoring touchdowns. But the Chargers will have chances to create sacks and turnovers this afternoon. And when the ball bounces their way, defenders have to anticipate and be in a position to make a play.