SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (10-7)
at DENVER BRONCOS (13-3)
AFC Divisional Playoffs
Kickoff: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Line: Denver -10, Total: 54.5
The sizzling-hot Chargers try to win their fourth straight road game in Sunday's divisional playoff game when they visit the top-seeded Broncos for the second time in a month.
San Diego's 27-10 blowout win at Cincinnati to open the playoffs gives the team at least 26 points in each of five straight wins overall. During that run, the club held a 177 to 18 rushing advantage in its 27-20 upset victory in Denver on Dec. 12. That was the Broncos' lone home loss this year, where they are 5-2-1 ATS and have racked up 39.5 PPG and 456 total YPG. Denver QB Peyton Manning is 9-9 in his playoff career, including 0-2 versus the Chargers, but since joining the Broncos, he has torched San Diego for 300 passing YPG, 12 TD and 3 INT in four meetings. San Diego QB Philip Rivers is a mediocre 4-4 in his playoff career with 244 passing YPG, 9 TD and 9 INT, but he has usually played very well in this series, going 10-6 with 232 passing YPG, 27 TD and 13 INT in his career versus Denver. Since 1992, the Chargers are 19-8 ATS (70%) when the total is at least 49.5 points, and 39-23 ATS (63%) after 3+ straight wins. But the Broncos are 8-0 ATS off a road victory versus a division rival in the past three seasons, and John Fox is 21-4 ATS (84%) after two straight games with a turnover margin of +1 or better as an NFL head coach. San Diego has major injury concerns as top RB Ryan Mathews left last week's game with a recurring ankle ailment and is questionable for this contest. Two key offensive linemen for the Chargers, OT D.J. Fluker (foot) and C Nick Hardwick (stinger) were also injured in the win over the Bengals and are questionable for the game. Denver is pretty healthy after its bye week, with WR Wes Welker (concussion) cleared to play and DE Derek Wolfe (illness) also listed as probable. But C Steve Vallos (concussion), S Duke Ihenacho (concussion) and CB Kayvon Webster (thumb) are all questionable for Sunday's game.
Will the Broncos get payback with a sizable victory on Sunday? For the answer, connect to NFL Best Bets for all the StatFox Experts picks throughout the 2013 season and playoffs. The experts closed out the regular season in style, combining for a 60% ATS record (68-45-7) over the final eight weeks, including 77% ATS (24-7) in Weeks 16 and 17. StatFox Brian was 8-1 ATS in Best Bets in the final two weeks, has a 67% ATS (31-15-3) mark since Week 7, and is 59% ATS (39-27-5) this season. StatFox Scott is 59% ATS (31-22-1) in Best Bets since Week 4, and is also a robust 63% (22-13) in NFL Totals since Week 9. StatFox Gary's 3-0 ATS mark in Week 17 gave him seven perfect weeks in Best Bets since Week 4, and is 70% ATS (15-7-2) in Best Bets since Week 10. The experts combined for a perfect 5-0 ATS record in NFL Totals during Wild Card weekend.
The Chargers offense was very efficient during the regular season, leading the NFL in both time of possession (33:35) and third-down conversions (49%), but in last week's win, they had the ball for just 29:28 and converted only 4-of-12 third downs. San Diego was outgained 439 to 318 by the Bengals, but was able to win easily thanks to a +4 turnover margin. Even with RB Ryan Mathews missing a good part of the second half last week with his ankle injury, the team still rushed for a season-high 196 yards on 40 carries (4.9 YPC). That gives the Chargers 140+ rushing yards in each of the past five games (170 rushing YPG), including 177 yards on 44 carries (4.0 YPC) in the win at Denver on Dec. 12. Mathews had 127 of those yards, but if he cannot play, RB Danny Woodhead and veteran RB Ronnie Brown will look to build on their combined 129 yards on 21 carries (6.1 YPC) last week, including a 58-yard TD scamper from Brown to seal the victory late in the fourth quarter. San Diego should also be able to move the football through the air, as it had the NFL's fourth-best passing attack (271 YPG) during the regular season. QB Philip Rivers has been outstanding in his nine road games this season, completing 72% of his passes for 2,624 yards (292 YPG), 8.8 YPA, 16 TD and 6 INT. He has also thrived in the Denver thin air in his career, going 6-2 and completing 64.4% of his passes for 2,001 yards (250 YPG), 8.9 YPA, 13 TD and 7 INT in his eight career visits to Sports Authority Field. In the Dec. 12 victory there, he threw for only 166 yards, but still tossed a pair of touchdown passes to dynamic rookie WR Keenan Allen. Rivers also leans heavily on Woodhead and TE Antonio Gates, as all three players had more than 70 receptions during the regular season. Gates has had a wonderful career, but his numbers versus the Broncos aren't that special (48 receiving YPG, 6 TD in 19 games). San Diego's defense has done a great job of keeping the Broncos' explosive offense in check this year, holding them to 24.0 PPG on 346 total YPG, which is well below their season averages of 37.9 PPG and 457 total YPG. But this defense still has plenty of holes. Despite being on the field for just 27:42 per game this season, this unit has allowed 371 total YPG, including 107 rushing YPG on 4.5 YPC and 263 passing YPG on 7.5 net YPA. The Chargers have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 66% of their passes for 24 touchdowns. These numbers have been even worse on the road where they surrender 399 total YPG on 4.8 YPC and 7.8 net YPA. But the defense has done a great job of forcing turnovers recently, compiling 14 takeaways over the past seven games. San Diego is 6-1 (SU and ATS) when it wins the turnover battle this season, something that is obviously key going up against what is clearly the best offense in the NFL.
The Broncos are known mostly for their passing offense orchestrated by Peyton Manning, but they have been able to run the ball effectively for the most part this season with 12 games of more than 100 rushing yards. Two of the exceptions were against the Chargers though, when they averaged a paltry 51.0 rushing YPG on 3.1 yards per carry. But RB Knowshon Moreno finished the year with 1,038 rushing yards and 10 TD, while adding another 548 yards and 3 TD through the air. In his seven career games in this series, Moreno has rushed for 307 yards on just 70 carries (4.4 YPC), while gaining another 194 through the air. The Broncos have just punished teams with their air attack all season with 340 YPG on 8.3 YPA. Manning is coming off the best statistical season in NFL history, completing 68.3% of his throws for 5,477 yards, 55 TD and only 10 INT. But in his 9-9 playoff career, his numbers are below his lofty standards (292 passing YPG, 7.7 YPA, 31 TD, 21 INT). But in his two seasons with the Broncos, Manning has played 17 home games where he's completed 68.4% of his passes for 5,492 yards (323 YPG), 8.1 YPA, 52 TD and just 10 INT. This includes his 290 passing yards, 3 TD and 2 INT in last year's home playoff loss to Baltimore, which marked the eighth time in Manning's career that he lost his first postseason game. To prevent that from happening again, he will continue to spread the ball between his four talented receivers, WRs Demaryius Thomas (1,430 rec. yards, 14 TD), Eric Decker (1,288 rec. yards, 11 TD) and Wes Welker (778 rec. yards, 10 TD), and TE Julius Thomas (788 rec. yards, 12 TD). Despite all these players catching double-digit TD passes this year, none of these four receivers scored a touchdown in the Week 15 loss to San Diego, as WR Andre Caldwell (200 rec. yards, 3 TD) caught both Manning TD throws that day filling in for the injured Welker. Defensively, the Broncos have had their problems, especially in the red zone where they ranked 25th in the NFL by allowing 62% of their opponents' drives to end in touchdowns. They have stopped the run pretty effectively, ranking among the top-10 teams in the league in both rushing YPG (102) and YPC allowed (3.9), but have been burned through the air for 254 passing YPG (27th in NFL), 6.6 net YPA and 29 touchdowns (T-7th most in league). Denver has also seen a substantial decrease in sacks this year (41 sacks, T-13th in NFL), compared to a league-high-tying 52 sacks last season. The Broncos do have some playmakers on defense though, posting multiple takeaways in half of their games this season, including 15 takeaways in their past nine contests.