Thursday Night Football Preview: A Classic Rematch
December 12th, 2013. It was a Thursday.
After starting the season 4-3, the San Diego Chargers were 6-7. The playoffs were a long shot. And in their way was a behemoth of a team - one that was making history.
Philip Rivers and his bolo tie didn't care. A Chargers team that couldn't stop the pass stopped the pass. A team that hadn't been run on was run on. And the Chargers won, on Thursday Night Football, beating the eventual AFC Champions.
October 23rd, 2014. It is a Thursday.
That same Chargers team, sitting at 5-2, will be facing off against that same Broncos team, sitting at 5-1. In Denver.
Will history repeat itself, or will Peyton Manning and company get their revenge?
Entering Week 8, the Broncos are tops in the league in Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP), while San Diego comes in ranking seventh. Denver's second in the NFL from a passing perspective, while San Diego ranks fourth. And from a rushing standpoint, the Broncos are seventh while San Diego is...30th.
If you recall, the last time these two teams met, the Chargers ran it down the Broncos' throats. Ryan Mathews ran the ball 29 times, 9 more than Philip Rivers threw. This happened despite the Broncos grading out as one of the best rush defenses in the NFL.
The Chargers were efficient on the ground last year though, which is something we haven't seen in 2014. Though Branden Oliver is running well for them, it may be difficult for the Chargers to establish the same type of rushing attack in this one - Denver still owns a sneaky-good rush defense that ranks sixth in the NFL according to our metrics.
So what kind of game will we see offensively? Well, the game's strongest predictors - or historical contests that compare favorably to the one we're about to see - show that we'll probably be in store for a high-scoring affair with great quarterback play. However, the top comparable game - one between the Giants and Steelers back in 2012, where Pittsburgh won 24-20 - shows a contest dominated by defense.
In that game, Ben Roethlisberger, who's playing as Philip Rivers in this case, managed a 216-yard, 2-touchdown and 1-interception performance. Meanwhile, his running back, Isaac Redman, ran the ball 26 times for almost 150 yards. A backup running back against a top-half rush defense doing some work? Maybe Branden Oliver isn't in such bad shape tonight after all...
Who Needs Cornerbacks?
Unfortunately, assuming any sort of low-scoring output from Manning and his offense may be a little foolish tonight, as the Chargers will be without both of their top cornerbacks, Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett.
Entering the week, San Diego's secondary had already been playing below average (23rd) when adjusting our metrics for strength of schedule. Meanwhile, wideout Demaryius Thomas sits third in the league in Reception Net Expected Points, only behind Jordy Nelson and Antonio Brown. It could get ugly.
Perhaps it'll get Patriots-Texans-in-2012 ugly, where the Patriots won 42-14. That's another one of our strongest predictors tonight - a December contest that saw Tom Brady, who would be Manning in this case, throw for 296 yards and 4 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Matt Schaub was pretty Matt Schaub-y in that game, throwing zero touchdowns and one interception.
Don't be surprised if we do indeed see a blowout through the air tonight, favoring the Broncos.
Is There Any Way San Diego Wins?
Obviously being able to stop Manning will be huge for San Diego - their pass defense will have to, somehow, step up. But as mentioned before with the Isaac Redman comparable, the Chargers also need to really establish a running game and try to hold the ball as much as possible.
It sounds obvious, but this is an even bigger deal for a team like San Diego. You see, head coach Mike McCoy hates fantasy football, so he creates these long, boring drives offensively, keeping the ball as long as possible. Through seven weeks, the Chargers are facing 64 plays per game on defense thanks to the offense holding the ball. Indianapolis and Dallas are the only two teams who haven't had their bye to have faced fewer plays.
Keeping opposing offenses off the field is important regardless of who you're facing, but it becomes an even bigger deal when you're facing Peyton Manning. The Chargers are built for this, and if they can get their running game going to sustain long drives, they could end up winning this thing.
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