Keys to the Game: Chargers vs. Broncos

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1. A Dog Fight in Denver – At 6-9, the Broncos take the field one final time on Sunday knowing their season comes to an end as soon as the clock strikes zero. However, the Chargers expect to face a team battling as if they have a playoff spot on the line. The Bolts know Denver would like nothing more than to end their season on a high note while also possibly costing the Chargers a shot at the top overall seed. They know they’re going to get the Broncos’ best shot, so they aren’t going into this game expecting it to be anything less than a dogfight. If they do, they know they’re in for a long afternoon. Just ask Philip Rivers, who knows Denver will be fired up come kickoff:

“The way I look at it from their standpoint, is how would I treat it? That's the only way that I know. You only get 16 (games) that you're promised and you play them all regardless of what is coming next. We've been in this boat somewhat — not exactly similar — and we were at Denver, out of it, and they were playing to be the No. 1 seed a few years ago. We came and fought like crazy to keep them from getting it. This is a division opponent. It's professional football, so I expect to get their best. We know that their best is dang good and they have a lot of good players. We're going to focus on us, ourselves this week and get ourselves ready — but I think, at the same time, I'm certainly preparing for a heck of a Broncos defense and a tough opponent.”

2. Protect 17 – Speaking of Rivers, the quarterback has been under duress in recent weeks, which is something the team knows it must improve as it enters the playoffs. Well, they’re in for another tough test on Sunday facing the Broncos’ top-tier tandem of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. A perennial All-Pro, Miller has 14.5 sacks on the year while his rookie phenom bookend has 12.0. Miller in particular has been a thorn in the Bolts’ side, including earlier this year when he had one sack plus a pivotal 42-yard interception to completely swing the game. In addition, he made a terrific play late in the game to force Rivers to throw the ball away, giving Denver one-last chance for what proved to be the game-winning drive. The Chargers know they have to do a better job protecting number 17 than they did last week, and Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is confident they’ll do just that:

“Philip has always done a great job (when blitzed). He's not afraid to hang in the pocket, make the throw at the last second. We're all familiar with that. We know he does that. That's the way we operate, and we've had really good success with that this year up until last week. So we're going to continue to do what we feel like we've done well this year, and just play a little better.”

3. Same Team, Different Personnel – The Chargers defense faced off against the Broncos offense only six weeks ago, but they’re facing a very different unit this time around. Emmanuel Sanders and Phillip Lindsay are both out with injuries. Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker will carry the load at running back while rookies Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton are Case Keenum’s top weapons in the passing game. While the names may not be the same, they’re making their fair share of plays for the Broncos down the stretch. Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley explained how “unique” it is to be this unfamiliar with personnel when playing a division opponent you’ve already faced once this season:

“It is (unique) and that's part of it. We all know there are injuries in the NFL, but they took some hits there with some really good players. I think what's impressive on tape is just how competitive they are. You see guys that are stepping up in positions. I know we've had that, where a guy went down and another guy stepped up. There are stories that take place throughout the year with guys and how well they do, and I think there are stories like that (for them). They're finding some other guys that are stepping up and doing some really good things for them.”

4. Rolling Royce – As just mentioned, Royce Freeman figures to see the lion’s share of carries this week. He’ll wrap up an impressive rookie campaign that flew largely under the radar because of fellow rookie running back Phillip Lindsay’s Pro Bowl season. However, Freeman has been a load for opposing defenses to handle. The third-round pick has toted the rock 113 times for 461 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry with five touchdowns. Containing the powerful back is of the utmost importance as Head Coach Anthony Lynn explained what makes Freeman so good:

“(He gets) yards after contact. He's a good runner. You look at Royce and you look at Booker, they're averaging five yards-per-tote against us (after the first game). Our hands are going to be full trying to stop those two. Denver, they've always been able to run the football. That's been one of their strengths, and it is this year."

5. Road Warriors – The Chargers are still in contention for the top seed in the AFC. However, there’s a chance that even if they finish with the best record in the conference, they’ll still be the five seed. That, of course, means they’ll have to win on the road three straight times in order to make the Super Bowl. The Bolts have been road warriors all year long, winning seven games outside of ROKiT Field at StubHub Center. They’ll look to make it eight in another hostile environment at Mile High, which will be a tune-up for the road warrior mentality they’ll need if they are the five seed. Overall, Bradley summed up what’s made the Chargers so successful on the road while acknowledging how tough it is to play in Denver:

“There is a certain belief in (our team), and you get that belief when you win big games like that. You go into environments and you find a way to win. It's a very close group. I know that's it, too, but I think as far as close, they really trust each other on the field. They know where everybody's going to be. They know the challenges everybody faces on the field, and at times they help each other. It may not look like the coverage we put in at times, but I think they're starting to know it so well and some of the issues that we face that the conversations that take place. So I think they're a pretty close-knit group as far as trust aspect, and they've had some success in those environments, so they believe.”

Browse through the top practice photos as the Chargers get ready to face the Broncos in Denver.

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