Breaking down how the Chargers (4-7) and Denver Broncos (3-8) match up on the field heading into Sunday’s game at Empower Field at Mile High:
When the Chargers have the ball
Philip Rivers has spent the last two weeks being told he’s fast approaching the conclusion of a career that figures to send him into the Hall of Fame. Rivers, however, insists he hasn’t heard — or, at least, listened to — the chatter regarding his sudden decline. Asked about the critiques, he said talk of his career crash landing “makes me laugh really.” All of this has come as the result of back-to-back losses during which Rivers’ accuracy and decision-making have been sharply dissected. He threw seven interceptions in those two games, half of his total for the season. Including his two lost fumbles, Rivers has 16 turnovers, the second-highest total among quarterbacks behind Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston. With the Chargers alive for a playoff berth only mathematically, Rivers should have plenty of motivation Sunday. When these teams met in Week 5, Denver won 20-13 after severely limiting Rivers’ deep options. That was the game in which running back Austin Ekeler caught 15 passes. Rivers threw 48 times, completing 32, and the Chargers somehow didn’t score a touchdown on offense. The veteran quarterback has a ton of reasons to want to play well and be productive this time around.
When the Broncos have the ball
The Chargers have faced running back Phillip Lindsay twice, and he has averaged 7.4 yards in 26 carries and scored three touchdowns against them. Undrafted in 2018 out of Colorado, Lindsay is the Denver edition of the Austin Ekeler story. “When he breaks through the line,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said, “he runs like he knows he’s fast.” Free safety Rayshawn Jenkins, coming off a stellar game against Kansas City’s speed, again will be counted on to take the proper angles and approaches to limit Lindsay. The Broncos rushedfor 191 yards and averaged six yards per carry against the Chargers in the teams’ first meeting. On the plus side, the Broncos are expected to start rookie quarterback Drew Lock, a second-round draft pick in April. Lock, who has been sidelined by a thumb injury, has yet to make his NFL debut. On the negative side, the Chargers already lost to a rookie quarterback, one making his first NFL start, during Week 6. Pittsburgh’s Devlin Hodges finished 15 for 20for 132 yards and one touchdown on a night when Steelers fans hijacked Dignity Health Sports Park.
When they kick
When these teams played each other in October, the Chargers’ only touchdown came on a 68-yard punt return by Desmond King. That play and a 43-yard kickoff return by King are about the only notable moments for the Chargers’ special teams when returning kicks this season. And King is coming off a game in which he struggled just to catch punts, an issue coach Anthony Lynn blamed on the Aztec Stadium lighting in Mexico City. Punting in the thin air of Denver hasn’t been an advantage for the Broncos’ Colby Wadman, who ranks 28th in the league in average (43.8 yards) and 32nd in net average (38.4).
Jeff Miller’s prediction
Picking the Chargers in this spot is difficult because they’ve lost five of the last six games in which they’ve been favored. That includes the first meeting between these two, when the Broncos’ defense stifled the Chargers. But, at some point, the Chargers should more closely resemble the team so many people thought they’d be this season. And now they’re matched up against a 3-8 Denver bunch dealing with a variety of injuries, turning to a rookie quarterback and lacking anything significant for which to play.
CHARGERS 20, BRONCOS 10