|The future looks bright for Philip Rivers & the Chargers - SD Chargers|
Denver's offense played about as well as expected, scoring 24 points. But the Broncos' defense played better than expected, holding the Chargers to 17. That was the game's biggest surprise. Credit must be given to that group, especially given the fact that it was playing without Bronco Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller. Denver had its aging but still gifted cornerback Champ Bailey back from injury, and that helped some. But the Broncos' somewhat maligned defense was clearly playing with a chip on its shoulder.
Denver was able to pressure Charger Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers more than most teams have this year. San Diego's overachieving offensive line, which as usual was banged up, had arguably its worst game of the season.
No excuses for the Bolts' loss, Denver played pretty well, but this game was close without the Chargers' best running back contributing much. San Diego, which evolved into a very solid running team this season, missed Ryan Mathews, whose bad ankle prevented him from playing after the first few drives. That was the deciding factor in the game. Mathews had a hell of a year, finishing second in the AFC in rushing. He was, besides Rivers, the team's most valuable player this season. Without him, the Chargers just could not run the football effectively.
Despite Mathews' absence, this team was still just a dropped pass or defensive third-and-long stop or easy interception away from beating Denver again at Denver. Some of the drops by San Diego's receivers were absolute killers. Future-hall-of-fame tight end Antonio Gates dropped a perfect Rivers throw across the middle, and Gates' understudy, Ladarius Green, also dropped a perfect pass in stride that would have put the Chargers deep in enemy territory.
Having said that, it is also true that San Diego's cornerbacks were exposed in this game for the mediocre players they are. This group played better the last five games of the season, but Shareece Wright had an impossibly easy pic opportunity that he just flat-out dropped. And no one could really hang with Denver's all-world slot receiver Wes Welker, which I predicted before the game started. The Bolts' pass rushers also didn't put enough pressure on Manning, obviously.
Adding to that insult, Charger kicker Nick Novak, who had a great year, missed a field goal that he usually makes. But what hurts the most is the fact that San Diego's defense could not stop Denver on a crucial 3rd and 17 late in the game. If the D had made that seemingly routine stop, Denver would have punted and it was pretty evident that San Diego's offense, which had found its rhythm, would have scored to tie the game. Credit to Denver for picking up that crucial first down.
While San Diego also had too many encroachment penalties (five), the referees in this game were a joke. Peyton's jumpy hard count could have easily been penalized, several times. It is very subjective, that call, but the zebras also called a pick (illegal screen by a receiver) against San Diego but curiously overlooked several even more obvious picks by Denver's receivers. No sour grapes, just a fact as plain as day.
Rivers, who had one of his best years, did his best on Sunday with pretty relentless pressure. He never quits. Rivers made some brilliant passes, including two for touchdowns, and he had no pics on a windy afternoon. Yes, Manning outplayed him, but Manning had a lot more time to work.
Chargers receiver Keenan Allen also shined in the fourth quarter with two TD catches and nearly 150 yards receiving overall. The offense was gaining confidence quickly, Denver did not have an answer for Allen, but again, the defense could not give the team the one stop it really needed. That inability to make a third-and-long stop will haunt this team - especially defensive coordinator John Pagano - for a while, and it should.
By the way, as an aside mostly for you Charger fans, it was interesting to see former Charger cornerback Quentin Jammer come in for injured Bronco cornerback Chris Harris and subsequently get burned repeatedly, and badly, by the Bolts' sensational rookie wide receiver Allen. It was both amusing and painful to see Jammer get toasted again. It brought back some painful memories.
As mediocre as San Diego's corners are this year, and with all respect to Jammer, who had some great years in San Diego, it was the right move sending him on his way. He's lost more than a step.
Bottom line? There is much room for optimism in Chargerland. The team, which won a playoff game on the road against a heavily favored Bengals club that had not lost at home all season, has a smart and indefatigable new coach in Mike McCoy and one of the finest quarterbacks in the league in Rivers, who was unfairly maligned the past two years. He showed this year that he is an elite quarterback who only needs an average offensive line to do his thing. In the entire league, only Peyton's numbers were better this season.
Beyond Rivers, San Diego is not known for its talent the way it was a few short years ago, but the team does have some solid veterans and good young players. And what this Charger squad lacked this year in skill it often made up for with heart and a never-say-die attitude. It's a cliche', but it's true: this is a scrappy group that is far easier to root for than, say, the Kansas City Chiefs, who are loaded with Pro Bowlers but lack heart and at times choke on their collective resume'.
The young Charger stars to keep an eye on next season include pass rusher Melvin Ingram (if he can stay healthy), and of course Allen, who is the best offensive rookie in the NFL this year. And Green, too, despite his monumental drop on Sunday, is going to be in the Pro Bowl, soon.
San Diego also has a rebuilt offensive line that was coached well and played well most of the year, even with a bunch of untimely injuries and players that will never make any Pro Bowls.
What do the Bolts need to win a Super Bowl? A little more luck (no, not Andrew), a little better pass rush, a little more explosiveness in the kickoff and punt return games, and, mostly, better cornerbacks. But San Diego may have both starting wide receivers - Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd - when camp opens next summer. That is, if Malcolm doesn't choose to retire with that nagging neck injury. Neither will beat out Allen for the starting job now, though. Not a chance.
Keenan is this team's newest and brightest star. He and Rivers have a chemistry that will produce huge numbers, and perhaps more and deeper playoff runs, in the next few years. A Super Bowl is now a much more realistic expectation. This team has most of the pieces to make that happen, and the right front office to complete the puzzle.