Since Peyton Manning joined the Broncos in 2012, Denver has dominated the AFC West, rolling to a combined 26-6 regular season record. The Broncos have fattened up on their divisional foes, winning 12-of-13 against West competition.
The only AFC West club to defeat the Broncos in this span? The Chargers, who won at Denver last December — a victory San Diego had to have to make the postseason.
The Broncos would win the third and decisive game in the series in the divisional round, prevailing by seven at home. Overall, the Broncos are 4-1 against the Chargers under Manning, outscoring the Chargers 137-111 — a point differential of 5.2 per game.
In short, the Broncos have clearly been the better club. But the Chargers are at least in the ball game against Denver. By contrast, the Raiders have been outscored 134-54 by Denver since Manning switched teams. The Chiefs have been somewhat competitive against the Chargers, with losses of seven and eight points to Denver in the last two years. However, Kansas City suffered some key losses in free agency, while Denver bolstered its defense.
So when it comes to keeping Denver honest in the AFC West, it might be a one-team operation this season.
As you ponder how the Chargers stack up with the Broncos, here’s five other questions about San Diego:
1. What impact will tight end Ladarius Green have on the passing game?
The 24-year-old Green showed potential last season, averaging 22.1 yards per catch. Green has seam-stretching ability — he was timed at 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine two years ago — and he could earn a much bigger role the San Diego offense this season. If he continues to develop, he’ll be a worthy heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, who continues to be Rivers’ security blanket.
Consider the matchup problems the Chargers can cause in the passing game. On the outside, teams have to deal with standout second-year receiver Keenan Allen and 6-foot-5 big-play threat Malcom Floyd. Meanwhile, the speedy Green and physical, savvy Gates are tough covers in the middle of the field. And all three of the Chargers’ primary tailbacks (Danny Woodhead, Ryan Mathews, Donald Brown) can catch the ball out of the backfield, with Woodhead especially strong in this area.
2. Will the Chargers again win the third-down battle?
The Chargers were materially better on third downs than the opposition a season ago. On offense, San Diego converted a league-high 49.0 percent on third down (101-of-206) — about 11 percent higher than the league average. The Chargers’ defense, meanwhile, was slightly below average on third downs, holding opponents to an 38.9 percent conversion rate (70-of-180). Now just think: if only the Chargers’ defense can get a little better getting third-down stops.
3. What kind of impact will cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett have on the Chargers’ defense?
A good starter for Kansas City for several seasons, Flowers comes to San Diego with something to prove. Despite being named to the Pro Bowl a season ago, the Chiefs parted ways with the 28-year-old corner in June. In a league where teams routinely play five or more defensive backs, Flowers’ departure was an eye-opener.
Still, Flowers’ quickness, experience and ball skills should give the San Diego secondary a big lift. Verrett, the club’s first-round pick, will also get a chance to help right off the bat.
The Chargers made the postseason in 2013 despite surrendering the second-most passing yards per play and allowing opponents to complete 66.4 percent of their throws. If San Diego makes it tougher on opposing passing games, it will bolster the club’s chances of a return trip to the postseason.
4. Can quarterback Philip Rivers build on his 2013 success?
In a new offense playing behind an improved offensive line, Rivers came alive in 2013, throwing for 4,478 and 32 TDs and completing 69.5 percent of his throws. Rivers has a special feel for the passing game, and his arm strength is more than adequate. He has a deep pass catching corps, and he’s always been willing to spread the ball around. In his second season in coach Mike McCoy’s offense, it’s quite possible Rivers will be as efficient in 2014.
5. Can the Chargers get on a roll early?
After grabbing the AFC’s last playoff spot on the season’s final day in 2013, perhaps the Chargers can make life easier on themselves this December.
A 6-3 record entering the Week 10 bye is a reasonable goal for San Diego. The Chargers draw the Bills (Sept. 21), Raiders (Oct. 12) and Dolphins (Nov. 2) on the road in the first nine weeks, with home contests against the Jaguars (Sept. 28), Jets (Oct. 5) and Chiefs (Oct. 19). The Chargers’ best game could be too much for all of those clubs to handle.
While matchups against Seattle (Sept. 14) and at Denver (Oct. 23) loom as tall orders, San Diego proved a season ago that it could compete against top competition.