In case you haven’t peaked outside lately, fall is in the air. It’s about that time of year when most kids—and some adults—begin thinking about which ghoulish Halloween costume they’ll wear Trick-or-Treating.
As teams enter the heart of the NFL season, the picture begins to clear up about which teams are real monsters and which teams put their Halloween masks on a little bit early.
When it comes to the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers, the picture is anything but clear. Will the Broncos be “under construction” all year? Can the Chargers beat good teams the way they beat bad teams? These AFC West rivals square off in a Monday Night match that is sure to be a grande finale for Week 6.
Before I get to my three predictions for the game, let me address the Chargers fans: brace yourselves. The reading gets rough. Keep in mind I was asked to be bold.
Broncos fans, pray I’m right.
Here we go…
1.) The Denver defense will be the story of the game
Take the cumulative stats from the Broncos’ first five games of the season at face value, and you’ll be underwhelmed. I can understand that. Sure, they’ve done well against the pass, but the running game is chewing them up. The rush defense is currently 21st in the league at 120 yards per game.
There’s more to that than meets the eye. In just two games the Broncos gave up over a hundred yards on the ground. One was against a Houston team that features a top five back in Arian Foster. The Texans totaled 152 rush yards. Last week in New England, the Patriots employed a “scorched earth policy” offensive attack, totaling a whopping 251 rush yards. Unbelievable, sure.
But did you know the Patriots ran the ball 54 times?
The truth is these two games tell a spin story about Denver’s rush defense worthy of a political ad. Against their other opponents, they’ve been more than adequate; 75 yards for Pittsburgh, 67 yards for Atlanta, 56 yards for Oakland.
The Broncos will keep the Chargers under 80 yards rushing. You heard it here first, folks. Despite Ryan Mathews rushing for 80 yards by himself last week against New Orleans and despite his solid history against Denver, the Broncos will keep the Chargers’ run game quiet.
Elvis Dumervil and company are prepped for a primetime prize fight at the line.
Don’t think I forgot about the passing game. The Broncos are 11th in the league right now in pass defense, allowing only 215 yards per game. Given the current state of air-it-out football, that number is incredibly low. Add to that the quarterbacks they’ve faced; Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Tom Brady.
The Broncos secondary isn’t messing around.
I like Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter to keep a tight clampdown on Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem, who combined still have fewer receptions than Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (their 29 to his 30).
Lastly, let’s talk about sacks. The Chargers have given up 14 sacks, which coincidentally is how many the Broncos have claimed through five games this season. Neither number is mind blowing, but I’m calling for the average sacks per game to get a boost after Monday night’s game.
Von Miller, the floor is yours.
2.) The Broncos win by two scores
This one may be too bold, but I’m going to stick with this limb I’ve climbed out on.
I mentioned earlier about teams that are real monsters and teams that just wear monster masks. Well, I think we’re getting really close to knowing which is which with these two teams.
You probably already have a sense of what I think about Denver. Let’s begin there so I can drive this nail home.
The Broncos are 2-3. It’s not the auspicious start they hoped for with Peyton Manning at the helm, but it’s not irreversible either.
Keep in mind, those three losses came against three of the top teams in the NFL; Houston (an AFC favorite to get to the Super Bowl), Atlanta (one of my NFC favorites), and New England (uh, Belichick’s team).
To once again borrow the analogy of Manning at the helm, imagine a captain returning to sea after much time on land, only to face brutal storms the first month back on the water. The Broncos have weathered this early storm, and will come out the other side a more seasoned and cohesive team for it.
The Chargers are the perfect inverse of this story. They enter Week Six with a winning record, 3-2. Maybe I’m being harsh in judgment, but I’m going to take your record with a grain of salt when you only soundly beat the teams you’re supposed to soundly beat.
You take away the Chargers 75 combined points against the Titans and Chiefs (two of the NFL’s more miserable teams), and San Diego is only averaging 16.3 points a game.
That’s not going to win you many games in this league and it makes me feel that much better about my first prediction.
I like the smooth sailing Broncos to jump out early in this game, forcing Philip Rivers to play from behind. When Philip Rivers plays from behind, he’s going to play with emotion and force too much. When Rivers plays with emotion and forces too much, he slips up and makes mistakes. When Rivers makes mistakes, the Broncos take the game easily.
Look for Manning to build on his 337 yard, three touchdown performance last week in New England.
The Vegas guys have San Diego favored in this game. That’s as bad a decision as a glass of warm milk on a hot summer day.
Broncos win by two scores. When the final whistle sounds these two teams will have identical records, but…
3.) Whoever wins this game will win the AFC West
When the Broncos win this game, they’ll have an identical record with San Diego but the advantage of head-to-head. After Monday night’s game, the two teams will follow schedules that more or less mirror each other.
Both teams have a Week 7 bye. Both teams still have to face a strong Baltimore Ravens team. Both teams still have seemingly easy games against the Browns, the Buccaneers, and the Panthers (unless Cam Newton suddenly rediscovers himself), not to mention the other teams in the AFC West.
Speaking of the other teams in the AFC West, have they not at this point practically rolled over and said, “Chargers and Broncos, take the conference…it’s yours”? The Raiders have underwhelmed. Chiefs fans have allegedly been cheering their own quarterback’s injury. That tells me all I need to know.
So that leaves the Chargers and the Broncos. If/when the Broncos win Monday night, they’ll have a decisive edge on San Diego that will be hard to recover.
The two teams will play again in Denver in Week 11, where the Broncos will have the easy edge to further a Chargers implosion and run away with the division.
But wait, do you want to see my escape hatch?
That’s right. This prediction comes complete with a built-in ejection seat. The key word was “whoever”. I’m convinced Denver wins this game, but what if they don’t?
Then San Diego wins this game, proves everything I said up to this point was wrong, and carries momentum through the next several weeks in a schedule that mirrors the Broncos (who they will then have two games over), culminating in a tight race to the finish line but an AFC West crown for the Chargers.
It’s a little cheap, but I’m not going to go too bold without having a way out. Not with the parity in this league. Not with a divisional game. And not with a great rivalry like the Broncos and the Chargers.
Seth Starkey is a sports addict and contributor to Football Nation. Become a fan, and follow him on Twitter @sethrostarkey.