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Ground Game Proved Key in this Match
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With his coat huddled over his shoulder pads, Ryan Mathews watched the game unfold longingly from the sidelines.
What he saw didn't look anything like the Bolts' last trip to Denver. This time, the Broncos set the line of scrimmage and established the run game. And this time, the Broncos were the team that emerged victorious.
The parallel between the two is now excruciatingly clear. In Week 15, the Chargers handed the Broncos their first home loss by handing the ball off. Led by Ryan Mathews, they gorged the Broncos to the tune of 177 rushing yards. No other team rushed over the century mark against John Fox's team all season.
No other team had shut down the Broncos' backs until that Thursday night upset, either. Knowshon Moreno toted the ball eight times for a measly 19 yards. Montee Ball lost a yard over his three touches.
Both Philip Rivers and coach Mike McCoy agreed after that game that the rushing attack helped seal the biggest win of the year. It only made sense to try and duplicate that productivity for this season's third installment of Bolts-Broncos.
Excluding a Rivers kneel-down to end the first half, McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt dialed up a running play to start five of their eight drives. But playoff football is notoriously tougher, and the Broncos had the Bolts in full focus when it came to handing the ball off.
When the Bolts had the ball, the Broncos defense was a much-improved unit.
Mathews unleashed an early run that started right, came to a standstill in the middle, and reversed left for 16 yards. But he only managed ten yards on four more carries and left the game for the entire second half.
The other Bolts’ backs didn't fare any better. They tallied 39 yards on 13 carries -- 10 of which came from three scrambles by Rivers. Ronnie Brown, the late-game hero from last week's Wild Card win, was held yard-less on a single carry after taking Mathews' spot in the rotation.
Meanwhile, Moreno and Ball reestablished the Broncos rushing attack. Moreno went for 82 tough yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Ball added 52 yards on 10 carries. Both marks helped the Broncos hold the ball for over 10 more minutes than the Bolts.
Five of those minutes set the Broncos apart. After an incompletion on first down, Peyton Manning set up shop with 10:52 left in the half and the Broncos up, 7-0. He promptly gave Moreno or Ball seven consecutive touches for pick up on all but eight yards of a 57-yard march that spanned nine plays.
That kind of play can wear any team out. And later in the game, when the Bolts desperately needed another possession to continue their comeback, the Broncos were able to hand the ball off and move the game further out of reach. Read