To say San Diego escaped with a win in its last game against Denver would be an understatement. Sure, the Chargers played a fairly-efficient game on the offensive side of the ball, scoring on half of their ten drives against the Broncos. But San Diego benefited from a Denver team that committed 12 penalties and a Broncos offense that was anemic until it was too late.
And the victory wasn’t without its moments of uncertainty, despite San Diego forcing a safety early in the fourth quarter to boost itself to a 21-3 cushion. Still, San Diego got out of there with the 21-13 win, and saved Mike McCoy’s job for the foreseeable future.
Following last week’s crazy win in Atlanta, in just ten days the Chargers have gone from 1-4 and staring up at the rest of their division to 3-4 and in the thick of things to compete for a wild card spot or even a division crown. That makes this week’s trip to Denver for their second game against the Broncos in three weeks of the utmost importance. With a win, the Chargers will be back at .500 and one game behind each team in the division for first place — assuming Kansas City and Oakland pull wins out of their respective trips to Indianapolis and Tampa Bay.
As Trevor Siemian has worked his way back to health and full command of the Denver offense again, San Diego can be sure that even a great defensive effort won’t keep the Broncos at three points through three quarters. The formula the Chargers followed to victory last time won’t work again.
It starts with finishing in the red zone. Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense picked apart Denver’s vaunted defense early and often, but after Rivers found Hunter Henry for a five-yard score on the Chargers’ first drive of the night, San Diego’s production on offense fizzled out. It wasn’t like the Denver defense put the clamps on San Diego, either.
After going 75 yards over the course of seven minutes on their opening drive, San Diego’s next drive lasted an incredible 10 minutes and 18 plays. But once they got down to the Denver 19-yard line, they couldn’t find the final pieces to a touchdown drive and settled for its first of four Josh Lambo field goals.
San Diego’s offense squandered three more red zone chances over the remaining course of the game, allowing Denver to stay competitive despite being dominated on both sides of the ball. If the Chargers expect to walk out of Mile High at 4-4, converting those long drives into touchdowns instead of settling for field goals will be paramount to giving the San Diego defense some leeway.
Despite a front seven that’s playing well of late, the Chargers secondary can’t expect to hold Siemian and the Denver receiving corps to its same production as last time. The last thing the Chargers need is to be down a touchdown or two in the fourth quarter and be forced into going for quick scores against the Denver defense.
The second facet of the game San Diego can’t afford to slip up in again is special teams. San Diego came into the season hoping to not just put out a serviceable special teams unit, but one that could produce game-changing plays. As we enter Week 8, San Diego’s back to just wanting its special teams to not screw the game up. Two lost fumbles on punt returns — one coming directly after forcing a safety — gave Denver the field position from which it scored its first ten points.
Travis Benjamin is no longer San Diego’s punt returner, and Dexter McCluster’s been good with just fair-catching the ball and getting it safely to the offense. Avoiding those crucial errors goes far towards not putting an increased burden on a San Diego offense that may not be able to have as much consistent success putting drives together against the Denver defense.
While their start to the season resembled the same Chargers that produced a 4-12 campaign last season, this San Diego team has the look of one that can put together a realistic run towards the playoffs. With division losses to Kansas City and Oakland already suffered, Sunday’s tilt in Denver becomes that much important.
With an efficiently-operated offense and a defense that is improving every week, San Diego shouldn’t be scared going into Mile High. But to avoid dropping down to 3-5, the Chargers can’t make the same mistakes that nearly turned their last game against Denver into another heartbreaking defeat.