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Who deserves the blame for the San Diego Chargers' loss to the Denver Broncos?

Richard Wade examines which side of the ball played the bigger part in losing at Denver in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The most popular meme among San Diego Chargers fans after their 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in Denver has been that the offense failed because of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was preoccupied with his head coaching interviews that took place on Friday and Saturday before the game. This explanation is unsatisfying for a number of reasons.

Whisenhunt is a professional. Mike McCoy is a control freak. The odds that these two men would allow the Chargers to go into a playoff game without a fully formed gameplan are astronomical. The Broncos are simply a better football team with a strong homefield advantage, and they were heavy favorites for a lot of reasons, none of which had anything to do with the Detroit Lions head coach opening.

The question as to what the Chargers did and failed to do is still present. The final score, at first glance, seems to suggest the defense did a pretty decent job of reining in a high powered Denver offense and that the offense failed to keep up. But what happens if we break this game down to individual drives? Those numbers tell a different story altogether.

Team Drives Yds/Dr Pts/Dr TOs/Dr INT/Dr FUM/Dr LOS/Dr Plays/Dr TOP/Dr
San Diego 8 33.13 2.13 .000 .000 .000 27.63 6.13 3:00
Denver 7 49.43 3.43 .286 .143 .143 34.86 8.86 4:31
Lg Average 11.63 30.21 1.86 .129 .084 .045 27.85 5.72 2:35
DEN Season 12 38.22 2.98 .115 .052 .062 27.70 6.07 2:30

Well, that certainly undermines the theory that the offense played particularly poorly. The Chargers offense was above average in every metric except for the one outside of its control, starting field position. If you compare their output to the season averages for all teams, they'd rank 9th, 10th, 1st, 1st, 1st, 19th, 4th and 3rd. Their points per drive are also held down pretty substantially by Nick Novak slipping on his first field goal attempt. That missed field goal is the difference between 10th best and actually outperforming their season average of 2.46 (which was second best in the NFL).

You can certainly make an argument from watching the game that the Chargers could have or should have adjusted their gameplan earlier than they did given that they struggled so much before really hitting their stride late. That said, on the whole, you can't suggest that the offense is what killed the Chargers when they were as productive as ever while not committing a single turnover.

Denver actually had an eighth possession at the end of the game where they were just running clock to end the game. I did not include that in the table above. In Denver's seven possessions where they were actually trying to score points, they were better than average in the non-turnover categories. They were pretty bad as far as turnovers go, but they were otherworldly good when it comes to yards, points and time of possession in spite of the turnovers.

Averaging over 48 yards per drive is 8 yards better than San Diego's league-leading figure. Averaging 3.43 points per drive is 0.45 points more than Denver's league-leading figure (which lead second place San Diego by 0.52 points per drive already). Even more disgusting is that the Chargers defense is benefiting from a missed field goal by Denver. If Prater makes that field goal, Denver's points per drive balloon to 3.86, which is basically insane.

Averaging over four and a half minuter per drive is similarly crazy and helped to keep the total scoring of this game down. If both teams magically hit the average number of possessions per game while maintaining their scoring averages, this is a 40 to 25 (rounded to the nearest point) game, which better captures that the Chargers offense played pretty well and the Chargers defense got its doors blown off.

I'm sure we'll find 100 more ways to dissect this game in the days and weeks to come, but the drive stats are a good place to start.