By Norm Elrod
The usually competitive AFC West isn’t all that competitive this season. Going into Week 11, the Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) and San Diego Chargers (7-2) are running away with the division, while the Denver Broncos (3-6) and Oakland Raiders (1-8) seem to be running from it. The Chiefs and Chargers are likely playoff-bound, though, with tough matchups among both teams’ remaining games, seeding is far from determined. The Broncos remain mathematically alive for now, while the Raiders soldier forth in full-on tank mode.
This week’s AFC West matchup finds the fading Broncos in Los Angeles to face the surging Chargers. The teams have yet to meet this season. The Broncos are 1-2 in the division, after losing a couple close games to the Chiefs, while the Chargers are 2-1, after beating the Raiders twice. The early spread hovers around seven points, which seems small given the teams’ trajectories. Then again, these division rivals know each other well.
The Broncos’ story this season could have played out very differently. Four of their six losses were by seven or fewer points to teams currently leading their divisions. The offense under Case Keenum has, unsurprisingly, struggled to put up points, outside of the 45 they hung on the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7. The defense, however, remains relatively stout, keeping games within reach.
The Broncos offense, averaging 22.8 points per game, doesn’t scare anyone. Keenum, who put up strong passing numbers with the Minnesota Vikings, has looked pedestrian in Denver, tossing almost as many interceptions as touchdowns. Denver has moved the ball well, but converting that yardage to points has been a problem. Scoring touchdowns in the red zone at a rate of 54% improves on last season, but still puts them firmly in the bottom tier of NFL offenses. Turnovers and poor conversion on third down haven’t helped.
Keenum has some weapons at his disposal, including Emmanual Sanders, who’s pulled in 56 catches, and Courtland Sutton, who’s replaced the traded Demaryius Thomas. The rushing attack has improved with the addition of rookie Phillip Lindsay. The undrafted free agent is averaging 5.4 yards per carry after 110 attempts, even while splitting time with Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker.
The Broncos’ strength remains the defense, anchored by two of the League’s best pass rushers. Outside linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb have combined for 17 sacks, putting them third and eighth in the NFL respectively going into Week 11. Denver’s defense gives up a modest 232.4 yards per game in the air and a not-so-modest 131.6 yards on the ground. Stats aside, the Broncos do enough to keep games close.
That’s important against an efficient offense, like the Chargers’. Philip Rivers is having another stellar year in what will turn out to be a Hall of Fame career. His 115.4 passer rating is among the best in the NFL this season, and one of the many reasons this offense is humming. Rivers has thrown 21 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, while completing 67.3% of his passes.
He’s certainly had lots of help, including strong play along the offensive line. The unit has allowed only 13 sacks to date, fourth fewest in the NFL, and 41 QB hits. And when Rivers isn’t under pressure, he can do some serious damage. Keenan Allen leads all Chargers receivers with 53 catches, and Melvin Gordon has added 36 catches and four touchdowns out of the backfield. Gordon, of course is just as big of a threat to run. The all-purpose back has racked up 672 yards on the ground, with seven more scores.
The Chargers defense, playing without Joey Bosa, has been surprisingly strong. The star defensive end has yet to play this season (though he hasn’t yet been ruled out for Sunday), still the defense has tallied 26 sacks so far. Credit Melvin Ingram for dealing with additional blockers and still picking up 5.5 sacks. Like the Broncos defense, this unit gives up yards, but proves stingy with the points; their 20.7 points allowed per game put them in the top 10 of the League’s teams. But unlike the Broncos D, those yards are more apt to come through the air than on the ground.
Divisional matchups can be fraught with uncertainty, as teams know each other well and relish the chance to knock off a rival. That is certainly true in this case.
The Broncos are coming off a bye week and know full well that their playoff hopes are slipping away. One more loss, particularly a divisional loss, would be the end of it. Head coach, Vance Joseph, is also sitting on the hot seat. The Broncos will play with the intensity the occasion deserves. Unfortunately for Denver, they’re still looking at another loss on Sunday.
The Chargers have been somewhat overlooked this season. But they have figured out how to win and are riding a six-game winning streak. In that streak, the defense is limiting opponents to just 15.5 points per game, Gordon is running all over the field, and Rivers has had time enough to find his receivers. The Broncos will bring the pressure and look to rattle Rivers, but it won’t be enough. The Chargers will beat the Broncos by a touchdown in a relatively low-scoring affair.
As SportsLine analyst Hank Goldberg sees it…
The Broncos are badly coached and can’t play on the road. They’re 3-11 ATS in their last 14 road games. Case Keenum isn’t playing that well and the Chargers are doing whatever they need to do. Last week at Oakland, they didn’t have to do much. Lay the points.