When the Broncos have the ball
The Broncos boast the 1st-ranked offense against the Chargers 32nd-ranked defense. That should be about the end of the preview; instead, the Chargers defense has played the Broncos offense tough in two games, meriting a bit of deeper analysis.
Denver's best offensive strength will be a fully healthy, well-rested passing game. With Wes Welker back and two weeks to prepare, the baked-in excuses Broncos fans have been echoing for a month now since Denver's Week 15 loss to San Diego are wiped away. Look for Manning to target Shareece Wright when he can and spread the ball around otherwise; he has five players with 10 or more touchdowns in 2013 to give San Diego all sorts of matchup problems.
The Broncos will also need center Manny Ramirez to play better. Ramirez has played very well overall this season, but he struggled in both of his games against the Chargers, even though his San Diego opponents were some of the more lowly-ranked defensive lineman in the league. It's a head-scratcher that I'm hoping the Broncos coaches have soothed in their extra week of preparation.
Finally, anything the Broncos can do to offset Eric Weddle's impact will be key. An aggressive passing game will keep him from creeping into run support, and the Broncos have all the weapons to do it.
When the Chargers have the ball
Behold, the single stat that killed the Broncos last time.
For @MileHighReport Chargers used an avg on 30.4 secs of possession per play, 2nd most in NFL. Vs DEN, it was 34.4, most of any DEN opp— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 10, 2014
The Chargers will hold onto the ball. They won't snap the football until the playclock is well into single digits - ever. They played "Keep Away from Peyton Manning" with absolute precision last time, eating an average of 34.4 seconds of play clock per snap.
One asset to aiding their quest will be San Diego's running game, which has come on strong of late. The Chargers have run the well extremely well of late. SI's Andy Benoit breaks it down:
Week 14: 40 runs for 144 yards vs. the Giants
Week 15: 44 for 177 at Denver
Week 16: 37 for 148 vs. Oakland
Week 17: 36 for 186 vs. Kansas City
Wild Card: 40 for 196 at Cincinnati
Even if Ryan Mathews can't go, expect the Chargers to lean on their ground game. The emerging leadership of Terrance Knighton will be tested early and often, especially if conditions are windy.
Then there's Philip Rivers. Rivers has had a tendency to falter in the playoffs, but the Chargers are aware of this and are reining him in.
All of these signs point to San Diego wanting to run the football.
Although the Chargers' defense has been playing out of its mind of late, I just don't see the defensive talent to match up against Peyton Manning and company. I also don't think beating Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis in the playoffs is all that frightening.
The Broncos defense, awakened after the Week 15 loss, will emerge as a playoff-ready unit.
The Broncos offense will break through and put up its share of points, and the defense will hold the Chargers to a similar score as they did in previous games - around 24 points. Final score prediction: 41-24 Broncos.
Your prediction in the comments! Go Broncos!