Broncos must stop Chargers’ run game
Ahh, yes, here we are smack in the middle of the frozen tundra that is National Football League playoff football.
The first round of the playoffs gave us wintery conditions in Philadelphia (12 degrees at kickoff), Green Bay (minus-5) and Cincinnati (a balmy 35, sleet and rain in second half). The sole exception was the dome in Indy.
A second-round game is set for Sunday afternoon in Denver.
Feeling a chill?
Forget about it. Get rid of the memories of last season’s bitter cold defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in the minus-20 chill factor at New Mile High.
It ain’t happenin’ that way this time around.
Our friendly weatherperson — I am, if nothing else, politically correct — is telling us game temperatures as the Broncos and San Diego Chargers take to the field a third time this season will be in the mid-40s with zero chance of rain or snow and relatively light winds.
There is, of course, chance of change. After all, it is Colorado. But Sunday’s forecast is bracketed on both sides by 24 hours of similar mild, dry weather.
Peyton Manning will be able to wear his glove because he wants to, not because he has to.
The Chargers coming into Denver again is a mixed blessing.
Mike McCoy’s team finished the regular season with a mediocre 9-7 mark and is on no one’s list of Super Bowl favorites, not even after dispatching Cincinnati 27-10 on Sunday.
They are, however, on a five-game roll.
Everything has gone the Chargers’ way over that stretch, including a strangely efficient 27-20 win over the Broncos in Denver in a Thursday night game on Dec. 12.
In that one, running back Ryan Mathews had 127 yards rushing and Philip Rivers repeatedly hit short passes that helped San Diego control the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
Sunday against the Bengals, San Diego rushed for 196 yards and two scores on 40 attempts. And that came against the league’s No. 5 rushing defense.
During their five-game win streak, the Chargers have called 197 rushing plays and averaged 170 rushing yards a game.
That’s a scary thought for the Broncos, who were very efficient in defending the run earlier in the season with Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe in the starting defensive lineup. When both went down, the Bronco run defense suffered. They are still down.
That is the obvious task on Sunday for Denver: Slow San Diego’s suddenly terrifying run game.
Rivers, at one point a reckless, mistake-prone hothead, has mellowed under McCoy, preferring the dump passes to backs Mathews and Danny Woodhead to the repeated downfield gambles.
Rivers has been efficient, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes, but the Chargers are now beating people with their running game, not their passing attack.
This game for Denver will more resemble what has been playing against the Kansas City Chiefs of late — stopping Jamaal Charles and the run on first down and forcing the pass. That could indeed bring out the old interception-prone Rivers.
The other problem the Broncos will face will be San Diego’s revamped defense.
Two linebackers, Donald Butler and Melvin Ingram, are now healthy and creating problems. Butler had 11 tackles against the Bengals and Ingram had a sack and an interception as they helped frustrate Bengals QB Andy Dalton into two interceptions and a fumble.
For some reason, Manning has always had trouble with the Chargers, even when he was with the Colts.
In the Dec. 12 loss, Manning and the offense gained only 13 yards on the 13 plays after taking a 10-3 lead in the first quarter. On four drives in the second quarter, they went three-and-out three times and picked up a total of one first down.
It was downright ugly.
That was then, and those weren’t your mama’s Broncos.
Sunday will be the now, a warm, sunny opportunity knocking.
The Chargers are improved. They are not unbeatable.