Morning links: First-down D has improved

Good morning. Bill Barnwell of Grantland breaks down the Chargers-Broncos AFC divisional matchup. Barnwell reveals why he believes San Diego’s defense has played much better during the team’s five-game winning streak – first-down defense.

Barnwell: “Where the Chargers improved, instead, is on first down. Through the end of November, San Diego allowed opposing offenses an average of 7.2 yards per play on first down. That’s terrifying: The league average is just 5.4 yards per first-down play. They were more than a half-yard worse than the league’s second-worst defense over that time frame (Dallas). A league-high 29.7 percent of plays on first down against the Chargers gained 10 yards or more. But from Week 13 on, the Chargers basically retreated to league average, allowing 5.3 yards per play on first down. It was a December miracle.”

Bill Simmons of Grantland takes the Broncos, 48-28. Simmons: “So the Chargers beat Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton in a playoff game. Wow! Congratulations, fellas! What an impossible task! Now they’re going into Denver and beating a fired-up juggernaut that just scored more than 600 points, and they’re going to be doing that for the second time in four weeks? And that’s happening because of the Pope and a general lack of belief in a team that, by the way, was 5-7 after 12 games????? Are you on drugs? No wonder you lost money all season.”

Mike Ditka is the lone ESPN NFL analyst to pick the Chargers this weekend.

Sterling Sharpe and Brian Baldinger of the NFL Network break down the Chargers-Broncos matchup for NFL playbook in this video link.

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated says to watch for Cinderella – the San Diego Chargers – this weekend.

Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders previews the AFC divisional round games.

Trey Cunningham of Pro Football focus gives us three things to focus on in the Chargers-Broncos game – San Diego’s receivers vs. Denver’s secondary, the Broncos’ receivers vs. the Chargers’ secondary and the pass rush.

Ricky Henne of Chargers.com gives us his five keys to the game for San Diego.

Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports says San Diego at Denver is the most intriguing matchup this playoff weekend.

Forrest Lee writing for USA Today talks with Philip Rivers, who says that Danny Woodhead will be a key to this weekend’s matchup.

Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego writes that the return of Melvin Ingram has given a boost to the Chargers’ defense. San Diego is 5-0 since Ingram returned from knee surgery.

John Gennaro of Bolts from the Blue dives into a Q&A on the Chargers-Broncos contest with Mr. East from the Mile High Report.