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NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
There are more than enough numbers to illustrate that the difference between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers is far less than the four games that separate them in the standings: Philip Rivers' 6-2 record at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, a cumulative score of 48-47 for the two regular-season games that the teams split, a series history that has seen six of the last seven games decided by a touchdown or less.
But as is the case with many aspects of the aerial circus that has been the 2013 season, it's all about the quarterbacks.
Both the Broncos and Chargers are blessed with elite quarterbacks that had career seasons this year. Rivers and Peyton Manning are well into their thirties, and have narrow windows left to complete their legacy. But while Rivers' season could be the start of a renaissance for the 33-year-old passer, the 37-year-old Manning's campaign was equal parts testimony and success.
Manning's football mortality has been at the forefront of his two seasons with the Broncos; he glimpsed into the abyss of the end of his career after multiple neck surgeries in 2011, and had to rebuild his mechanics from the ground up. He has referenced the likelihood that he wouldn't be around to play against younger brother Eli one more time, meaning that he wouldn't linger until 2017, but his career span could be much shorter than that, depending on injuries and other circumstances.
As Manning's 13th playoff appearance nears, it would seem he has everything. He set league single-season touchdown pass and yardage marks this season. He was Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. He's been a Super Bowl winner, a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, and is a virtual certainty to become the league's first five-time MVP, giving him two more than anyone else.
But the failures of the postseason are the blight on his otherwise flawless resume. There's the 9-11 playoff record. There's his struggles in extreme cold or blustery conditions in the postseason; he's 0-4 in the playoffs when the temperature was under 40 degrees, 1-7 when it's 60 degrees or cooler and 3-7 in postseason games played outdoors. There's his head-to-head playoff record against other star quarterbacks of his era: 1-2 against Tom Brady, 0-1 against Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, and 0-2 against Rivers. There's also the hex of the divisional round; he's 3-5 in this round of the postseason, including 1-4 at home.
None of those losses appeared to affect Manning and his team more than last year's 38-35, double-overtime defeat to Baltimore in temperatures that plunged through the single digits -- none, that is, except the 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh in the 2005 playoffs, which was the first of three previous instances in which a Manning-led team was the top seed in the AFC postseason.
The Colts used that defeat as fuel, and won their only world championship since moving to Indianapolis the following season. That loss motivated them, just as the defeat to Baltimore last Jan. 12 powered the Broncos.
"We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our offseason training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squats, whatever it may be," Manning said.
"I don't think that you just get to this week and you start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before. I feel like we've done that and, like I said, we're excited to be at this place right now."
Excited, but not satisfied.
"I would say that there's a lot more confidence in the locker room this year than last year," said wide receiver Eric Decker. "We've had some bumps in the road but I think that adversity has helped us as a team and grow together as a team."
SERIES HISTORY: 109th meeting. Broncos lead series, 58-49-1, and this is the first playoff meeting ever. Denver has won five of the last six games in the series. The most notable meeting between the two teams was on Dec. 17, 1979, when the Chargers defeated the Broncos 17-7 in the regular-season finale to clinch their first division title in 14 years and consign the Broncos to the wild-card round, which saw them lose at Houston 13-7 six days later.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
--It's doubtful that the Broncos' battered defense would even be a shell of its expected self without the contributions of offseason pickups like defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and defensive end Shaun Phillips, neither of whom were considered in the elite class at their position when they were on the market.
The motivation is different for each Sunday. Knighton, an ex-Jacksonville Jaguar, is dealing with the emotions of making his playoff debut after four seasons in which Jacksonville failed to break .500.
"I'm trying to hold them back (and) save them for Sunday," Knighton said.
Phillips' motivation revolves around being cast off by the only team he had known since being drafted in 2004. San Diego opted not to bring him back, expecting that 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram could shoulder the pass-rush load. But their plans were waylaid by Ingram's torn ACL, which he suffered during OTAs in May. By that time, Phillips had already signed with the Broncos, and finished the season as the team's leader with 10 sacks.
"Yeah, it's definitely a chip on my shoulder," Phillips said. "I think I've had good games both times we played them. I always want to play well every game.
"It's no hard feelings because they're a great organization. They brought me in, they drafted me and they treated me well. So I'm not saying anything negative at all. But of course, anytime you play against your old team, you always have a little chip on your shoulder, a little extra edge to get after them."
--The Chargers' 10-7 record heading into this game belies their recent success: a five-game winning streak that has pushed them from the brink of postseason elimination to being separated from the AFC Championship Game by just 60 minutes.
Their win streak is the longest of anyone in the postseason, thus leading to the notion that they are the "hot" team, and thus, a more problematic foe than others. That's a notion the Broncos dismissed.
"I'm not sure I understand what that really means. What does 'hot' mean?" quarterback Peyton Manning said on a conference call with San Diego media Wednesday.
Does "hot" mean a long winning streak? Or does it imply playing well for a long stretch? Teams like the Broncos and Seahawks lost games at home late in the regular season, but neither has endured a losing streak longer than a solitary game this season.
"We won 13 games this year so I don't know what you consider us if you consider them a hot team," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We went on our streaks here and there, we had our bumps in the road and I think that's made us a better team. We faced a lot of adversity this year and now it's time to put up or shut up.
"All of the injuries and guys not playing or things like that -- no more excuses."
BY THE NUMBERS: 15-1 -- Record of teams since 1978 that lost to a wild-card winner at home in the divisional round the previous year, then opened the postseason at home a year later.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not really worried about them winning (five) games in a row or anything like that. We won 13 games, so I consider us a pretty damn good team, too. You can call it what you want." -- Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--QB Peyton Manning has career mortality at the front of his mind as he prepares this week. While retirement does not appear to be imminent, Manning said, "The light is at the end of the tunnel for me, no question," and cited that as a reason why he is trying to enjoy this week and the magnitude of the postseason more than he did in previous years.
--RB Montee Ball can expect to see plenty more work Sunday. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase said he wants Ball and Knowshon Moreno to have their repetitions split in "that 50-50 range, if we can." Since Knowshon Moreno's 37-carry night at New England Nov. 24, Ball has 45 carries and Moreno 54.
--DT Sylvester Williams' improved play at defensive tackle in recent weeks is primarily because of two factors: the experience he's accumulating and the tutelage of Terrance Knighton. The two starting defensive tackles have spent time away from team headquarters watching game footage, with the five-year veteran Knighton focusing on teaching Williams what to look for at the snap.
--RB Knowshon Moreno was featured on one of the regional covers of Sports Illustrated this week. The cover image is a stylized representation of his tear-covered face prior to the Dec. 1 win at Kansas City. Moreno was not bothered by the cover image, and described it as "pretty sweet."
--WR Demaryius Thomas admits that the Week 15 setback to the Chargers was "a good loss." Thomas was limited to 45 yards on four catches in the defeat, which came in Week 15 -- the same week in which each of the previous four world champions tasted defeat.
--G Louis Vasquez was not the highest-paid free agent at his position last season, but he has been the most effective one, finishing the season with no sacks allowed. That allowed him to become the first Broncos guard ever named a first-team All-Pro.
--WR Andre Caldwell led the Broncos with six receptions for 59 yards and two touchdowns in their Week 15 loss to San Diego, but is unlikely to play much unless one of the Broncos' top three receivers is injured. Caldwell was forced into extensive duty that night because of Wes Welker's second concussion in four games.
--KR/PR Trindon Holliday could be an X-factor in Sunday's game -- assuming he can overcome his proclivity for bobbles. Holliday returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in last year's divisional playoff loss to Baltimore and has two touchdowns this season, but has fumbled five times this year -- once every 12 returns.
--WR Wes Welker has passed the league-mandated post-concussion protocol and has participated in all five practices since the end of the regular season, including Thursday's work. Welker is expected to play against the Chargers this week after missing the last three regular-season games following a concussion suffered Dec. 8, his second in four games.
--DL Derek Wolfe has missed five consecutive games after suffering seizure-like symptoms on Nov. 29, two days before the Broncos' second win over the Chiefs this season. Wolfe practiced on Dec. 25 and 27, but has not practiced since then, and remained sidelined Wednesday and Thursday.
--CB Champ Bailey is expected to continue in his role as the Broncos' slot cornerback, continuing work that he has handled since returning from his foot injury in Week 16. Bailey fully participated in practice this week, even though he was listed with a shoulder injury.
--DE Shaun Phillips returned to practice Wednesday after sitting out Monday's work. Phillips was sent home that day because of a fever. He has not been limited in this week's practices and is expected to play Sunday.
--S Duke Ihenacho has participated in the last five practices after suffering a concussion against Oakland. Ihenacho returned to the starting lineup in Week 16 after being benched, but his work is limited to the base defense.
--CB Kayvon Webster has not missed a practice since sitting out the last two games of the regular season because of a fractured thumb. Webster has practiced with a cast on his right hand since undergoing surgery Dec. 13, one day after suffering the fracture against San Diego.
--C Steve Vallos missed Week 17 because of a concussion incurred when he was hit by Houston's Jared Crick on a first-quarter kickoff return on Dec. 22, but has participated in the five practices the Broncos have held since Jan. 2 and is expected to play Sunday.
--S Rahim Moore is eligible to practice, but did not take part in the Broncos' on-field sessions last week and this week. Moore has been on injured reserve since Week 12 after suffering from compartment syndrome in his leg, which necessitated surgery hours after the Broncos' Nov. 17 win over the Chiefs. Fox said Moore is "improving every day." He has the Broncos eligible-to-return injured-reserve designation.
In no other playoff game will pace be so important. The Chargers want to cobble together long drives and play keep-away, as they did in Denver on Dec. 12, when they pieced together five drives of at least seven plays -- including three of 11 or more snaps -- while the Broncos were plagued by three-and-outs, allowing them to dictate the game's tempo. But injuries could make that task difficult. The Chargers practiced Wednesday without center Nick Hardwick and right tackle D.J. Fluker. If they can't play, San Diego could have difficulty keeping Broncos defensive tackles Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams from defusing the change-of-pace runs that worked so well Dec. 12. The two have become more effective working together since Kevin Vickerson's season-ending hip injury, and Williams has been effective enough to take advantage of the double-teams Knighton has drawn, with three tackles for losses in Weeks 16 and 17. If the Chargers can't mount long drives to shorten the game, the Broncos' passing game, which is back at full strength, should wear out the Chargers' No. 29 pass defense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Broncos CBs Chris Harris, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey vs. Chargers WRs Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal -- In Week 15, Philip Rivers targeted Kayvon Webster, a rookie working as the nickel cornerback, throwing at him eight times -- seven of which were completed for 91 yards and a touchdown. Rivers found little success throwing at Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie, who have become one of the AFC's best coverage duos at cornerback. But instead of picking on the rookie, Rivers may have to throw at Champ Bailey, who missed 11 games in the regular season because of a sprained foot, but is healthy enough to play just over half of the snaps, leading to his move to nickel cornerback. Bailey was beaten for a pair of touchdowns in last year's divisional playoff, but by working inside, he won't have to contend with as many deep routes and can focus on using his 15 years of experience and eight years of games against Rivers to try and jump routes. It will be more difficult for Rivers to find the soft spot of the defense if the Broncos' top three cornerbacks are healthy.
--Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker vs. Chargers CBs Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright and S Marcus Gilchrist -- In Week 15, the Chargers contained the Broncos' receiving corps -- which did not include Welker. Barring an unexpected setback, Welker is expected to play Sunday, which places the onus squarely on Gilchrist, who moves to slot cornerback when the Chargers go into the nickel. San Diego will need Gilchrist to handle Welker one-on-one. If he needs help, then the Broncos' outside targets will be open for longer gains.