The Denver Broncos are on their way to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 2005 after a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers where the Broncos grabbed an early lead, seemed in command and then survived a couple nervous moments at the end to close it out. Here’s the Notebook Nine points that we take away from the San Diego-Denver game that concluded the divisional round of the NFL playoffs…
- *What a grinding first three quarters of football that was. I like a good defensive game, conservatively called, as much as anyone, although when San Diego only generated 79 yards of offense by the start of the fourth quarter, even legends like Chuck Knox or Marty Schottenheimer had to be pleading with Charger offensive coordinator Ken Wisenhunt to open it up. Am I the only one who felt like Denver should have been up by at least four touchdowns, instead of 17-zip?
- *Denver’s defensive front frustrated San Diego’s plan, of playing it close to the vest. It only works when you still get first downs. San Diego’s 18 rushes produced only 65 yards, and the Bolts ended with just 24 minutes of possession time. The Broncos also sacked Charger quarterback Philip Rivers four times to complete their dominance of the interior.
- *One big reason the game stayed at least marginally interesting was a big interception at the end of the first half. Denver receiver Eric Decker was hit in the chest with a pass from Peyton Manning at the back of the end zone. It bounced up and ended up being the game’s only turnover. In fairness to Decker, the ball was in a tight spot, and watching it unfold, it wasn’t a terrible deflection…but still, you’re a professional receiver and the ball hit you in the chest.
- *Both Rivers and Manning played very good games. Rivers opened the offense up at the end and finished 18/27 for 217 yards, while Peyton went 25/36 for 230 yards. San Diego did a good job at least limiting big plays from Peyton. As for Rivers, CBS game analyst Phil Simms speculating midway through the fourth quarter what might have happened if Rivers had been allowed to open up the playbook earlier, something Simms had been encouraging from about midway through the second quarter.
- *With both quarterbacks playing well, the difference ended being that Denver’s running game produced and their pass protection held firm. Peyton was not sacked, while Knowshon Moreno and Monte Ball combined for 33 carries and 132 yards.
- *You could see Denver establishing the run early, and Simms correctly noted the irony both Peyton and Tom Brady last night, winning games by relying on the running game. Simms, who quarterbacked the Bill Parcells-era New York Giants in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, knows whereof he speaks. It’s not about demeaning what Peyton and Brady did this weekend. It’s about acknowledging something the mainstream media won’t, which is that each team has 22 starting players, and there’s more than one that matters.
- *San Diego trailed 17-0 and went for it on fourth-and-five in their own territory with a little less than eight minutes left. When Keenan Allen got behind the secondary and picked up 49 yards, was I the only one who immediately had visions of Jacoby Jones, the Baltimore receiver who broke Denver’s heart last year when he got loose down the same sideline? The Chargers got a touchdown, later cut it to 24-10, and then scored again, but they never got the ball back with a chance to tie it up.
- *The reason Rivers never got the ball back is that Peyton converted a 3rd-and-16 to a wide open Demariyus Thomas. How exactly does Thomas get that wide open beyond the first down marker?
- *Denver’s win concluded a 3-1 weekend for the teams that had first-round byes. Can we finally stop this notion that a bye is some kind of momentum-breaking disadvantage? Over the last five years, the bye teams are 14-6 in this round, a 70 percent rate that well exceeds the natural advantage you expect them to have just by virtue of being theoretically the better team. I know the first round has a great track record of producing recent Super Bowl winners (seven of the last eight), but other than the one underdog on a magic ride, the home team otherwise wins in the second round.