By forcing timely turnovers on defense, managing the game on offense, and taking advantage of John McDaniels' desperation, the Chargers grind the Broncos into the ground and reclaim 1st place in the AFC West.
Not counting lat year's regular season finale, could a regular season game have more at stake?
Denver, desperate to maintain control of the division and stave off collapse.
San Diego, on a 4 game winning streak and playing their best football of the year.
When you factor in earlier losses in the day by Baltimore and Pittsburgh, with Cincinnati pulling off a monumental choke against the Raiders later, the winner would not only have control of the division, but would also find itself in good position to chase a high playoff seed.
In a span of 5 games, the Chargers have gone from teetering on the edge of collapse to contending for a 1st round bye in the playoffs. No team in the league plays better with their backs against the wall than the San Diego Chargers. Crow has never tasted so sweet.
Aided for the 3rd straight week by an opponent's poor decision making (Broncos Head Coach Josh McDaniels this week), the Chargers controlled this game from start to finish, and now find themselves in position to make a run for the #2 seed in the AFC. Grades are below the jump...
Similar to the Eagles game, Philip Rivers was not asked to carry the offense, rather, his job was to manage the game and protect the football. In a surprise, Denver elected not to blitz Rivers the way they did in San Diego - Rivers responded by keeping the offense on schedule, converting pass plays to keep the chains moving. During the 1st half and into the 2nd half, Rivers converted 12 consecutive pass attempts. None of his throws were close to being intercepted. Only 2 plays could have been better, he missed WR Vincent Jackson on a go route against Champ Bailey in the 3rd quarter, later on the same drive, he missed FB Jacob Hester on a flat route that would have given the Chargers a 1st and goal. In reality, neither miss hurt the Chargers, as the score was 20-3 and the game was all but over.
Running Backs: A-
On the first drive, and later in the 2nd half, LaDainian Tomlinson was more than effective running the ball. Several of his carries went for more than 5 yards, and his effectiveness increased as the game continued. He finished with 20 carries for 73 yards and a TD. Darren Sproles again had limited opportunities, and really didn't capitalize on any of them, as the Chargers were unable to get him the ball in space. The surprise here, was the play of FBs Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester, who chewed Denver's defense to shreds in the 3rd and 4th quarters. Tolbert finished with 58 yards on 7 carries and a TD, while Hester chipped in with 46 yards on 7 carries. Denver chose not to blitz for most of the game, and blitz pickup by the RBs was not much of a factor. The group contributed 203 yards rushing.
Wide Receivers: A-
For the 2nd straight week, the Chargers were limited in their opportunities to attack downfield. However, the receivers as a group were more than effective in the short and intermediate zones. Further, the essential component of a ball control passing game is that the receivers make the catch when the opportunity is presented. Jackson contributed 56 yards on 4 catches, one of which was a great play on a back shoulder fade route. Floyd was huge, converting 1st downs on all 4 of his catches. WR Legedu Naanee contributed 1 reception for the opening TD, a terrific stop and go quick post for 2 yards. TE Antonio Gates also contributed 3 catches for 41 yards. None of the receivers were guilty of a dropped pass.
Offensive Line: A+
Hands down, the best the offensive line has played this entire season. No sacks allowed, 43 rushes for 203 yards, and almost 38 minutes in time of possession. While the running game didn't jell early on, the Chargers front wore the Broncos defense down as the game went on. Denver DE/OLB Elvis Dumervil, who terrorized the Chargers in October, was a total non-factor. RG Louis Vasquez is making noticeable progress from week to week, while the overall play of LT Marcus McNeill, and LG Kris Dielman has improved. C Scott Mruczkowski has become at least an adequate replacement for Nick Harwick. The only negative was the loss of RT Jeromey Clary for the rest of the season due to a severe ankle injury. As of this writing, the Chargers have signed veteran RT Jon Runyan - hopefully he has 9-10 games left in the tank.
Defensive Line: B
Denver's best success in this game was running the ball, and there were stretches when Denver's offensive line blew the Chargers off the ball. An early injury to Luis Castillo further diminished their effectiveness. In the 1st quarter, however, Castillo was terrific in occupying the right side of Denver's offensive line, which allowed OLB Shaun Phillips to attack Denver QB Chris Simms from the blind side. Overall, the defensive line managed to open lanes for blitzing linebackers, and push the pocket a bit. DT Ian Scott and DE Jacques Cesaire combined for 4 tackles.
Early in the game, Shaun Phillips made the biggest play of the game, hitting Simms from the blind side and forcing a fumble that killed Denver's opening drive. Phillips was so effective in rattling Simms that Josh McDaniels pulled Simms after three possessions. ILB Kevin Burnett played a marvelous game, contributing 8 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 tackles for losses. Burnett was also good in coverage ILBs Stephen Cooper, Tim Dobbins, and Brandon Siler all played well, contributing 7 tackles. OLBs Shawne Merriman and Larry English were handled by Denver's terrific LT Ryan Clady.
CBs Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie closed down the perimeter of the field for the entire game, limiting Denver WRs Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall to a combined total of 55 yards on 7 catches. Cromartie added a crucial INT at the end of the 1st half to ensure Denver went to the locker room without points or momentum. Nickel DB Steve Gregory was targeted throughout the game. He had a few mistakes, but they were offset by recovering 2 key fumbles to kill Denver scoring opportunities in the 1st half, as well as 3 passes defensed (a couple of these were near interceptions). FS Eric Weddle contributed 6 tackles, one of which kept Denver RB Knowshon Moreno from scoring a 3rd quarter TD. As a group, they also took away Chargers' killer TE Tony Scheffler, holding him to 1 catch for 12 yards. Safties Paul Oliver and Kevin Ellison also played well.
Special Teams: B+
Frankly, the only knock on this group was allowing a late XP attempt to be blocked. Otherwise, this group was excellent. P Mike Scifres only punted 3 times for a 44 yard average, while K Nate Kaeding converted on FG attempts of 28, 47, 28 and 19 yards. The real improvement was in coverage, where coverage teams maintained lane control and prevented Eddie Royal from breaking any long returns. On kickoffs, Kaeding was aided by three unsportsmanlike penalties which pushed his kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 45. Special credit goes to Legedu Naanee for recovering Denver's onside kick attempt, which resulted in a short field and led to the Chargers' decisive TD drive.
Norv Turner continues to pass to set-up the run. In this game the strategy worked to near perfection. Turner also emptied the playbook, continuing to make limited use of the Wildcat and adding a flea-flicker for good measure. Since Denver elected not to blitz, he merely took what Denver gave him. Also, it must be said that Turner schooled McDaniels on the concept of calculated risk. Turner called for the Wildcat plays as well as the flea-flicker, plays that had huge upside with limited downside. Contrast this with McDaniels' call for the onside kick, still trailing by 10 points, not to mention playing injured QB Kyle Orton through the 2nd half - even after the outcome had been decided. Defensively, Ron Rivera attacked the hell out of the right side of Denver's offensive line. The combination of attacking opposite Ryan Clady, as well as Simms' blind side put the Broncos' offense in a funk it never really worked out of. As the game wore on, Rivera allowed Denver to take nickel and dime throws which ate the clock. After being badly outcoached by McDaniels and Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan in the first meeting, this role reversal was quite welcome.
Hidden Plays (Non scoring, non-turnover plays that directly affected the outcome):
- Josh McDaniels' failed onside kick conveyed the desperation on the Broncos' sideline - consequently, the TD drive San Diego started following the recovery all but killed Denver's chances for a comeback.
- In the 3rd quarter, on 3rd-and-Goal, Shawne Merriman hit QB Kyle Orton below the knees, but was not called for roughing the passer. This forced Denver to kick a FG, instead of having 1st down inside the Chargers' 5-yard line.
- Trailing 10-0, Denver draws a defensive holding call against Quentin Jammer, but the penalty is nullified by a holding penalty on Ryan Clady. Denver fails to convert on the repeated 3rd and 11 from their own 19 yard line.
- On Kaeding's 1st FG attempt, Denver DT Marcus Thomas is flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. As a result, Kaeding kicks off from his own 45-yard line, guaranteeing bad field position for Denver's next drive, already trailing 10-0.
- Eric Weddle's TD-saving tackle on Knowshon Moreno in the 3rd quarter eventually leads to Denver kicking a FG.
- Defense kept Denver from scoring TDs on all 4 of their redzone opportunities.
- Chargers' offensive line kept Rivers clean and took control of the game in the 2nd half.
- Improved kick and punt coverage by the Special Teams.
- Norv Turner turning the tables on Josh McDaniels - Turner was terrific in his calculated risks, while McDaniels was excessive and desperate.
- Virtually eliminating TE for the first time in recent memory.
Biggest Areas of Concern:
- Run defense continues to be an issue.
- Offense only converted 3 TDs on 6 trips inside the redzone. This allowed Denver to hang around much longer than was necessary.
- Slot receiver coverage was marginally improved, but is still a liability.
Looking ahead to:
Watching the Chargers play in person for the 1st time since watching them play at Lambeau Field in 2007, and the 1st time at Qualcomm since That Game (January 14, 2007). I will get to see the Chargers honor their 50th Anniversary team and continue their push for a 1st round bye against Kansas City. It may actually help the Chargers that Kansas City beat the Steelers last Sunday - this should help prevent the Chargers from taking the Chiefs too lightly.