The question is there, looming like a test you know you haven't studied for, but can't avoid.
Can the Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver?
It's been asked an awful lot since that Monday Night meltdown in October. But it's not entirely accurate. The question is not, "Can the Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver?" The question truly is, "Will the Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver?"
What's quickly forgotten about that 35-24 loss at Qualcomm Stadium is the fact the Chargers led 24-0 at halftime, and looked utterly dominant in doing it.
"They outplayed us," said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning this week. "They outplayed us on both sides of the ball."
That hasn't happened to Denver much this season. The difference in that second half was quite simple, and it'll be the story of Sunday's game at Sports Authority Field. It's all about keeping your quarterback upright, while knocking the other team's QB down.
Back in October, Manning was hardly touched after halftime, so he had time to complete 13 straight passes. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers was under constant pressure, which significantly contributed to his 5 turnovers after the break.
That, in a nut shell, is the difference in this season for the Chargers and Broncos. Manning has only been sacked 11 times. Denver leads the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play, and left tackle Ryan Clady is the only tackle in the league that has yet to allow a sack this season. The Chargers keep ping-ponging between Mike Harris and Jared Gaither at left tackle.
San Diego's defense needs to find a way to get to Manning, or it's going to be another long day. The Chargers defense only has 14 sacks, just four more than Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Defensive coordinator John Pagano has seen opportunities. Just like the rest of the Chargers season, they just haven't finished.
"We've had pressure on the quarterback and not had the ability to get them down when we've had the opportunities to get them down," said Pagano. "There are several plays that go through my head each day where we had a chance to get guys down and he scrambled out of there."
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos have 31 sacks and the Chargers have allowed Rivers to be dropped 22 times. In today's NFL, the ability to throw the ball, and the ability to pressure the passer are paramount.
Want proof? Of the NFL's 10 highest-paid players, 8 are quarterbacks or defensive ends. 'Nuf said.
Pressuring the QB has the residual effect of forcing turnovers, which has been the Chargers' other bug-a-boo. In their 4 wins, the Bolts have been either ahead or even in turnover ratio. In their 5 losses, they've given it away more than they've taken it away.
Philip Rivers has taken a lot of criticism about his play this season, and rightfully so. He's made some inexcusable decisions. But, if he's going to put together a bounce-back game, Denver is the place to do it.
Rivers is 5-1 in his 6 career starts in Colorado. His only loss came courtesy of Ed Hochuli.
If Rivers can keep up his winning ways in Denver, the Chargers are alive and well in the playoff hunt.
If not, they're 3 games behind the Broncos with 6 to play, plus they don't own the tiebreaker. That would be Game, Set, Match.