manning weddle2

You know about the records Peyton Manning mashed this year, and you know about the destruction of an offense which averaged 37.9 points per game, and there were six games when the Broncos scored 40 or more points. Inevitably that in turn led to many games that weren’t close at all, with the Broncos losing only three times, and of their 13 wins, only two ended in a margin of victory that was within a touchdown. Six others were decided by at least 20 points.

That’s swell, but today the Chargers present an opposition responsible for one of those losses, and they came just one point away from adding to the one-touchdown margin in the other game with their division rivals. If it’s a shootout you seek today, Philip Rivers is more than willing. He’s all about the BOLO with his YOLO.

The surface numbers show us two teams that are rather close, with two secondaries that can be diced with ease.

Chargers offense Broncos offense
Total yards P/Game 393.3 (5th) 457.3 (1st)
Passing yards P/Game 270.5 (4th) 340.2 (1st)
Rushing yards P/Game 122.8 (13th) 117.1 (15th)
Chargers defense Broncos defense
Total yards P/Game 366.5 (23th) 356.0 (19th)
Passing yards P/Game 258.7 (29th) 254.4 (27th)
Rushing yards P/Game 107.8 (12th) 101.6 (7th)

But looking just a little deeper, there’s a problem with leaning too heavily on the Chargers’ Week 15 win as a case study.

The other numbers that matter: Wes Welker sat out that game, leaving Manning without his trusted slot receiver, a position he’s historically relied on heavily. Andre Caldwell slid in with two touchdowns and was targeted a team-leading 10 times, further showing the importance of the slot receiver in a Manning offense, as prior to that game he had just five receptions on the season.

Even with that impressive yet sporadic boom from Caldwell, Welker is a significant upgrade after he’s been out for a month. Despite missing three games Welker still caught 10 of Manning’s 55 touchdown passes, nine of which came during a sizzling first-half stretch. However, during the first Chargers-Broncos meeting he was held to only 21 yards on three catches, mostly because of the fine work of Chargers nickel back Johnny Patrick.

But the even more glaring difference in this game will be Ryan Mathews. He’ll likely play, but judging by reports throughout the week, he won’t at all be the new Mathews we’ve came to know and love throughout the season. Which is a problem, because the Chargers primarily beat Denver through Mathews and his slashing.

In that game exactly a month ago, Mathews’ 124 yards easily compensated for a day when Rivers wasn’t really Rivers at all, and a quarterback who averaged 279.9 passing yards per game was held to only 166, making Vincent Brown the Chargers’ most productive receiver with only 54 yards. Mathews then accounted for 37 percent of San Diego’s total offense, and he did it against a defense that, while usually vulnerable to the pass, was stout against the run and allowed just 3.9 yards per carry.

The injuries that matter: Beyond Mathews (who didn’t practice all week and was seen wearing a boot on his ankle Friday), there’s a whole lot of health going around in this game. Dwight Freeney is long gone and still missed, but the Chargers survived their Nick Hardwick scare, and one of the league’s best centers will be available to protect Rivers after suffering a concussion last week. Eddie Royal is also expected to play through a toe injury despite his a questionable tag.

The Broncos will continue to play without two crucial pass rushers, with Von Miller gone for the season, and Derek Wolfe still not ready yet. Their absences will give Rivers plenty of time to hook up with Keenan Allen and his two tight ends (Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green) deep downfield.

The difference maker: Antonio Gates. Although he was held in check during the Week 15 game, that was a mirage. The real Denver defense is the one that’s routinely been pummeled by opposing tight ends, giving up the third most yards per game to the position (71.1).

The matchup to watch: Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard vs. Danny Woodhead. The diminutive running back is San Diego’s proverbial spark plug, and he may be smaller than one too. But although they may struggle against tight ends, linebackers Woodyard and Trevathan played a key role as Denver allowed only 35.0 receiving yards per game to running backs, which is slightly below league average according to Football Outsiders. More importantly, over their two meetings with Woodhead this year they held a running back who averaged 37.8 receiving yards per game and scored six times through the air to just 30 total yards.

The Broncos will win if… The offense does what it’s been doing all year long against one of only four secondaries that allowed 8.0 yards per attempt or more. The major concern is pressuring Rivers, and making sure he doesn’t find time to continually connect with Allen. The offensive rookie of the year candidate was limited two just two catches for 21 yards last week, but with his length and leaping ability he’s grown into a consistent red-zone threat. Of his eight touchdowns, five of them came over the season’s last four weeks.

The Chargers will win if… Eric Weedle continues to plug holes and limit how much Knowshon Moreno is able to burn clock if the Broncos get a lead. Moreno was held to only 84 rushing yards during the two Broncos-Chargers games.

Also, if this game becomes a shootout (a likely ending), Mike McCoy’s gameplan needs to involve a lot of targets for Gates, and Ladarius Green getting released down the seam a few times.

Fearless prediction you can maybe laugh at later (or now?): Broncos 28, Chargers 16