How do you blueprint a victory against a division opponent you haven’t beaten since 2013? The last time we saw the San Diego Chargers take it to the Denver Broncos and escape with the win, Ryan Mathews was still the Chargers’ bellcow running back and Keenan Allen was just making a name for himself as a rookie.
Of course, that was head coach Mike McCoy’s first season at the helm of the Chargers after leaving his post as Denver’s offensive coordinator, leading his club to a playoff berth where they eventually lost to the same Broncos in the divisional round. But San Diego’s sole win that season against Peyton Manning in their three tries — ironically, in a Thursday night game — was distinct in its formula.
Playing against the league’s top offense run by its eventual MVP, San Diego was forced to play a game of keep away to allow itself to have a chance late. Mathews rushed for 127 yards and Rivers played a near-perfect game to spring the Chargers to the 27-20 victory, simply sapping enough time off the clock on offense to force the Broncos into needing to march down the field in each of their few opportunities.
That’s not going to be the approach San Diego can take this Thursday night into its game against Denver. This year’s Broncos team is vastly different than the one Manning was leading a few years ago, having fully made the transition from a high-powered offensive juggernaut that relied on Manning’s arm to today’s manifestation of the Broncos that boasts one of the more impressive defenses in recent history. And so to escape Week 6 with its first division since 2014 and first victory over the Broncos since that Thursday night game in 2013, the Chargers can’t expect to dominate ball possession and execute 10-12 play drives consistently.
San Diego’s offense under McCoy — and specifically with the direction of Rivers consistently getting his team into the correct play at the line of scrimmage after reading the defensive alignment — has been incredibly-proficient on third-down conversions. But against Denver, expecting to convert two or three third downs on each drive isn’t going to materialize in the Chargers putting a significant dent in the scoreboard. The Chargers still need to make sure Melvin Gordon remains a significant part of the offensive gameplan though, as a healthy offensive line is plenty capable of carving holes for Gordon to run through.
But it’ll come down to how Rivers goes about attacking Denver’s vaunted secondary, and the situations in which he takes advantage of his side’s strength. With all-around threat Keenan Allen gone, San Diego’s receiving game has been hit-or-miss lately. When secondaries aren’t allowing Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin to get behind them, San Diego’s encountered trouble moving the ball.
The Chargers can’t expect to come into Thursday night and completely abandon what makes their top two receivers dangerous, but it’s vital that Ken Whisenhunt throws in a number of short crossing routes for the pair of receivers to get them in position to not just beat teams over the top, but take advantage of space underneath and use their speed to gain chunk yards.
When San Diego challenged the Broncos in Qualcomm Stadium in Week 17 of last season — remember, the game that saw Manning come off the bench to lead Denver to a victory — they did so by taking advantage of occasional holes in the secondary for deep shots, not by throwing it deep every drive and hoping receivers catch more than they miss. If the Chargers can commit to Gordon in the run game while using the talents of Williams and Benjamin outside of the deep passing game, McCoy may be able to pull off another Thursday night miracle — this one to save his job.