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Thursday Night Football Preview: Who Has the Edge in This AFC West Battle?

The Chargers have spent a lot of time leading games, but they haven't been able to close the deal. Can they knock off the defending champs?

As we head into tonight's matchup, it would appear on paper to be a mismatch between a 4-1 squad and a 1-4 team.

The San Diego Chargers, however, have led for the most time this year in the NFL, and yet they still find themselves 1-4. The Denver Broncos, at 4-1, suffered their first loss of the season last week at the hands of the upstart Atlanta Falcons.

Which team can right the ship this week?

Quarterback Breakdown

In reviewing the quarterback position, the edge goes to the Chargers.

Philip Rivers has been one of the league's best, and the Chargers passing offense is certainly not to blame for their 1-4 start. Rivers ranks 8th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back among quarterbacks who have recorded at least 100 drop backs.

In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs that improved his team's chance to score -- Rivers again ranks among the league's elite quarterbacks as 49.7% of his drop backs have been successful for the Chargers, which checks in 9th among signal callers with at least 100 drop backs.

For the Broncos, the situation is a little murkier as Trevor Siemian returns from an injury. Siemian has been very good for a first-year starter, ranking 13th in Passing NEP per drop back and 5th in Success Rate.

While Siemian has shown some positives through five weeks, any player coming off an injury always raises some level of concern. Rivers, meanwhile, even without his top receiver, Keenan Allen, continues to operate at a high level, although he has a tough matchup against the Broncos' stingy pass defense.

Running Back Play

In looking at the two backfields, we feature one situation that has a clear lead back, and one that seems to be heading towards more of a timeshare.

For the Chargers, Melvin Gordon is the lone horse in the stable because of the injury to Danny Woodhead. After struggling through a very difficult 2015 campaign, Gordon has emerged as a fantasy stud in the San Diego backfield. However, it doesn't mean he's been the most efficient runner. In terms of Rushing NEP per play, Gordon checks in at -0.10 per rush, which is 21st among running backs who have recorded 50 or more rushes.

On the Denver side, the Broncos appear to be headed toward a timeshare between C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker. In Week 5, per Football Outsiders, Anderson saw the field for 36 snaps (51%) while Booker played 29 snaps (41%).

After a strong opening week, Anderson has struggled, and Booker is starting to see more work. Anderson has ran the ball 84 times with the same Rushing NEP per play as Gordon, checking in at -0.10 per rush. And while the sample size is significantly smaller (29 rushes), Booker has been moderately better at -0.07 Rushing NEP per carry.

Both teams lean on the ground game quite a bit as San Diego checks in at 18th in pass-to-run ratio while Denver ranks 23rd.

Defensive Matchup

This matchup may be decided by the defenses -- with one team holding a clear edge on that side of the ball.

Denver showcases a fierce unit that has been fantastic in 2016. In terms of our metrics, the Broncos rank third in the league in Adjusted Defensive NEP per drop back. Denver has been stout against the pass this season, ranking second in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. The run defense, however, has left a little bit to be desired as they check in at 22nd in the league in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play.

San Diego, meanwhile, has been a fairly good defense, ranking 12th in the league in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP per play, which may surprise folks considering the Bolts are 1-4. As a pass defense, they sit 12th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per drop back, but they slide a bit against the run, slotting in 17th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play.

Spearheaded by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos pace the league in sack rate this season at 10.2%. The Chargers, however, rank just 17th in the league at 5.4%. Denver's ability to harass Rivers may be a difference maker tonight.

Historical Comparisons

According to our models, there's only one game that ranks as a match of 90% or greater, which is a contest in December of 2013 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.

That one ended up being a 30-20 home win for the Steelers, which in this case would be the Chargers.

Pittsburgh raced out to a 21-point first-quarter lead. Antonio Brown went bonkers in the first quarter with a punt return for a touchdown and a touchdown reception. That was too much for the Bengals to overcome, even as they scored 13 points late in the fourth.

Following this same scenario, the home Chargers would cover a similar 3-point spread, but is there any value here?

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