Tue, Jan 19, 2016

Phase-by-Phase Preview: Chargers at Broncos

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ILB Manti Te'o. Photo by Shana Siler, SDBoltReport.com.

Season finales are supposed to be dramatic, and yet the Broncos (11-4) have already made the playoffs and the Chargers (4-11) are eliminated.

Even so, Philip Rivers knows the value of every game and continues to play every game like it his last (it may have actually been his last in San Diego).

The Chargers are winless against the AFC West this year and are looking to steal one before the season ends. San Diego may be without several studs due to injury (OG Orlando Franklin, C Trevor Robinson, CB Jason Verrett), but health has not been an excuse this year and it won't be in the last game of the season.

When the Chargers Run

After rushing for 72 yards last week against Raiders, the Chargers have dropped into last place in rushing yards per game (83.2). It's been 15 grueling weeks watching Melvin Gordon (now on injured-reserve), Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown run straight into the pile.

It's not like the Chargers don't run the ball enough, because they do. They have 364 attempts this season, ranking 22nd in the league. It's just that when they do, the packages are so obvious opposing defenses put eight or more defenders in the box to stop it. Rivers sets up in the shotgun so often that whenever the Chargers set up in a single-back formation under center, the defense can smell a run a mile away.

Due to the fact the Chargers haven't convinced anyone they can run in the first place, it has rendered the play-action pass useless. Plainly, the Chargers are worst rushing team in the NFL and it's taking its toll on the entire team.

The Chargers should use this week to experiment, tinker and try new things offensively as stakes are as low as they've been all year. Almost all of San Diego's losses have been decided within the last two minutes of the game, so they're not far from succeeding.

When Gordon returns from his ankle injury, Frank Reich should incorporate him more in the passing game or balance the offensive schemes to better suit his available parts. As of now, the Chargers just run for the sake of running, as if someone told Reich how important running the ball was, but they left out all the parts about how to do it effectively.

Earlier this month, Maryland interviewed Reich to fill its head coaching vacancy. As the coordinator of one of the most unbalanced offensive systems in the league, I'm unsure as to how he earned an interview, but Reich would certainly not be missed.

When the Chargers Pass

Rivers, when asked if he was motivated to get the team its first divisional win this season, reminded us why he is the unequivocal leader of this team.

"I don't really need any of those things to help me play," he said. "We get to play in Denver, one of the best stadium atmospheres in the NFL. We get to play an NFL football game. If you told me that when I was 10 years old, my first question during Week 17 wouldn't have been, 'What's our record?' It would have been, 'When's kickoff?'"

Although this will only be Rivers' second losing season in 10 seasons as a starter, he sets a great example of how to be resilient in the face of failure. Rivers, 34, is undoubtedly the team's most valuable asset but may only have a few viable seasons remaining. We can only hope he has Brett Favre-like durability in the coming years. All signs are promising, though, as Rivers hasn't missed a start since he took over in 2006.

With thoughts now turning to 2016, it is important the Bolts do a better job of surrounding Rivers with superior pieces up front -- protecting him should be a top priority. Rivers' play has been elite all year and it is time for his teammates to meet him at the top.

One of Rivers' teammates who has risen to the occasion is sophomore receiver Dontrelle Inman. Last week against the Raiders, Inman tallied his first career double-digit target game (13) and was able to reel in eight of them for 82 yards and score. Although he is not of the same deep-ball pedigree as the departing Malcom Floyd, Inman's large frame (6'3'') allows him to separate well and make plays in important moments.

If Keenan Allen can recover completely from the kidney injury he suffered in Week 8, the Chargers should be happy with their receiving corps. With weapons such as Woodhead, Inman, Antonio Gates, Allen and an increased role from Ladarius Green, Rivers should have no problem continuing his success through the air next season.

When the Broncos Run

After giving up over 100 yards to an opposing rusher four times in the first six games, the Chargers have not allowed any over the last nine.

After giving up 13 touchdowns to opposing running backs over the first 10 games, the Chargers have allowed only two over their last five.

The improved play of linebackers Denzel Perryman, Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu has allowed San Diego's previously porous run defense to salvage some pride before the end of the season. The last time the Chargers excelled at run defense was in 2012 when they boasted a top-10 defense that limited the opposition to 96.4 rushing yards per game.

In San Diego's Week 13 battle with the Broncos, Ronnie Hillman rushed 19 times for 56 yards (2.9 ypc). The Broncos do not have a very venomous rushing attack and are in the playoffs solely because they have the best defense in the league. That said, the Bolts did well to limit Hillman and C.J. Anderson in the last contest and should continue to stymie the Broncos' tame ground game.

With Corey Liuget on injured-reserve, replacement Ricardo Mathews has faired well in his absence. Liuget certainly deserves to start once he is healthy, but it is promising to see backups play well when called upon. With the litany of devastating injuries that Bolts have witnessed this season, you begin to praise every healthy body that delivers ... Mathews has done it in spades.

When the Broncos Pass

After taking over for Peyton Manning in Week 9, sophomore Brock Osweiler's reign as the starting QB continues. In seven career starts, Osweiler has averaged 247 yards, a 61.7 percent completion rate, 1.3 TDs and 0.5 INTs. Nothing spectacular, but nothing to scoff at. To Osweiler's credit, Manning is actually healthy and active this week but will serve as Osweiler's backup. Amazingly enough, over Manning's illustrious 17-year career, this will be the first time he has ever served as a backup.

With elevated play from rookie sensation Jason Verrett and former first-round pick Patrick Robinson, the Chargers have mustered up a solid pass defense down the stretch. Ceding only 232.9 yards per game, this banged-up bunch enters the last week of the season with the league's 10th ranked pass defense.

Something to watch for is whether Manning reclaims his starting role once the playoffs begin. It's hard to argue against Manning's credentials, but he led the league in interceptions before he went down. Do you start an exceptionally green quarterback with no playoff experience who has played well in recent weeks? Or do you start a former Super Bowl champion, certain to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer who has struggled of late?

If (when?) the Broncos lose this postseason, this decision will surely haunt them.

Just for Kicks

Out of the 1,033 offensive snaps the Chargers have seen this year, only 54 of them have gained over 10 yards (5.2 percent). Statistically speaking, the Chargers are the least explosive team in the league. Compare this to the league-leading Bills, who are almost twice as explosive (10.2 percent of all plays gain 10-plus yards).

Rookie K Josh Lambo has had a so-so rookie campaign, missing 10 kicks (six field goals and four extra points), but has nailed two game-tying field goals late in regulation. His accuracy (80 percent) certainly can be improved, but you can't teach clutch. What is more valuable? Well, ask four-time Super Bowl champion Adam Vinatieri -- his accuracy was 77 percent his rookie year.

What are your thoughts on the Chargers-Broncos matchup? Discuss inside our message boards!

Jesse Cohen graduated from the UCSD, where he studied Astrophysics. This scientific background helps Jesse to find insight through a statistically comprehensive and analytical view of the topics he covers. In addition to writing for SDBoltReport.com, Jesse is a contributing columnist for CampusSports.net, where he reports mainly on Pac-12 and West Coast college sports. When not covering sports, he plays ultimate professionally for the San Diego Growlers. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Diebler.

Antonio Gates, Corey Liuget, Danny Woodhead, Denzel Perryman, Donald Brown, Dontrelle Inman, Frank Reich, Jason Verrett, Jeremiah Attaochu, Josh Lambo, Keenan Allen, Ladarius Green, Malcom Floyd, Melvin Gordon, Melvin Ingram, Orlando Franklin, Philip Rivers, Ricardo Mathews, Trevor Robinson
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