On the visitors sideline Thursday night will stand the defending Super Bowl champions, who this season sit at 4–1 and tied atop the AFC West. On the home side will be a 1–4, last-place team that’s riddled with injuries.
So, why does it feel like their mid-week trip to San Diego has such treacherous potential for the Broncos?
A few reasons, starting with the Chargers’s ever-present ability to leave an outcome in doubt until the waning moments. Like a pile of sand you find in your shoe weeks after going to the beach, they just do not go away. Last season, of their 12 losses, eight came by a touchdown or less. They’ve dropped four games so far this season by a combined 14 points, and that counts a 33–27 Week 1 overtime setback at Kansas City in which San Diego bumbled away a 21-point second half lead.
“We’ve spent more time leading games than any team in the league,” QB Philip Rivers said this week, via the Broncos. “We know that we’re capable, but again, it’s about winning and we haven’t done that.”
Thank Rivers and the offense for the competitive showings. Despite losing No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen and versatile RB Danny Woodhead to ACL injuries, the Chargers still have the league’s second-ranked scoring offense. Free-agent pickup Travis Benjamin, rookie tight end Hunter Henry and unheralded second-year weapon Tyrell Williams have been productive through the air, as has Melvin Gordon—with Woodhead no longer around, Gordon already has 122 yards receiving, just 70 back of his 2016 total.
Denver will have to be particularly aware of Gordon and, if he plays, Dexter McCluster. The Falcons just torched the Broncos’s vaunted defense on Sunday by getting RB Tevin Coleman into favorable matchups.
Also on the list of concerns for the Broncos as they head into San Diego: their own offense, and the status of their starting quarterback. Trevor Siemian sat out Week 5 with a left shoulder injury; his replacement, rookie Paxton Lynch, labored through a difficult outing in Siemian’s stead. Just prior to his injury, Siemian had locked into a previously unseen zone—he threw for four touchdown passes at Cincinnati and had one in just seven attempts at Tampa Bay before exiting. Siemian is reportedly good to go against the Chargers, but concerns about his injury linger.
Another obstacle in that aim: coach Gary Kubiak will miss Thursday’s game, after being hospitalized earlier in the week with a complex migraine. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has the play-calling duties until Kubiak returns.
Getting the run game going would ease much of the burden off Siemian, but the Broncos have yet to reach 100 yards on the ground in their past three games. And San Diego’s defense, now with high-profile rookie Joey Bosa, has been better than expected against the run, holding opponents to 83.6 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt.
Denver does have a clear advantage in the matchup between its wide receivers (Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders) and San Diego’s secondary, which suffered its own injury hit when CB Jason Verrett tore his ACL. Amari Cooper went off for 138 yards in Oakland’s dramatic Week 5 win over San Diego, and all but one of the Chargers’s opponents have gone for 300-plus yards through the air.
Again, though, getting the job done there relies on the QB. The Broncos will hope for the best at that position. If the Chargers’s recent history is any indication, Siemian will need a late drive to put away a scrappy San Diego squad.
Haven’t even mentioned Antonio Gates yet, but he had 30 yards and a TD in Oakland. Add him to the list of players who might be able to take advantage of Denver’s few defensive weaknesses. The Chargers will find ways to move the ball, and they’ll push the Broncos to the wire. It’s just hard to pick San Diego to win.
Key player: Devontae Booker, RB, Broncos. C.J. Anderson rushed for 849 yards in 2014 and another 720 last season. Armed with a new, four-year contract, 2016 was set up to serve as his real breakthrough. He may still make it to the 1,000-yard mark (he’s on pace for 938 at the moment), but it’s been a struggle.
Enter Booker, who is coming off his most productive game as a rookie—six rushes and four receptions, totaling 59 yards. The versatile back out Utah will continue to see his role expand if Anderson cannot find a rhythm early in games. San Diego should keep an eye out for Booker on Thursday.
Bold prediction: Virgil Green catches his first TD pass of 2016. Green sat out Weeks 3–5 with a calf strain. He is expected to return Thursday night, and if he does would provide an immediate upgrade in the passing game over John Phillips and Jeff Heuerman.