No, I’m not talking about Wes Welker, although he will certainly have an impact on Sunday’s game.
The return of veteran defensive back Champ Bailey should help solidify Denver’s inconsistent play in the back end, particularly in the middle of the field. The 15-year veteran has been nursing a Lisfranc foot sprain all season. But he’s healthy now and expected to play on Sunday.
A 12-time Pro Bowler with 48 career interceptions, at 35 years old Bailey has had perhaps his worst season professionally. Folks believe he’s done, so Bailey will be motivated to play well on Sunday.
Expect to see Bailey as a nickelback in passing situations, which could affect San Diego’s ability to control tempo by converting third downs. The Chargers led the NFL in third-down efficiency during the regular season at 49 percent.
“Champ’s a great player,” said Chargers receiver Eddie Royal, who played with Bailey during his time in Denver. “He’s one of the best to ever do it at his position. So you obviously have a lot of respect for him. And playing against him in practice I know how good of a player he is. So that creates a great matchup. And you get excited whenever you can play against a guy like that, a definite Hall of Famer.”
So what do you need to do to be effective against Bailey?
“You’ve got to do the little things the right way because he’s such a smart player,” Royal said. “He’s been around. He’s seen a lot. So you’ve really got to be detailed in your routes.”
Here are a few stats to consider heading into the matchup, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.
-- This game is the Chargers' 27th postseason appearance. San Diego is 11-16 overall in the playoffs, including 5-7 on the road (5th best road record of any team).
-- Philip Rivers is 6-2 in his career in Denver, with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The only quarterback to win more road games as a starter against the Broncos is Len Dawson.
-- Including the playoffs, the Chargers are 6-2 against teams that finished with winning records this season, and 4-0 on the road. No team has more wins against teams with winning records this season than the Chargers.
-- The Chargers have allowed 16.3 points per game in their last six games after allowing 23.6 points per game in their first 11 games.
-- According to Elias, the Chargers could become the fourth team under the current playoff format (since 1990) to beat a No. 1 seed on the road in both the regular season and playoffs. The 2008 Philadelphia Eagles, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and the 1999 Tennessee Titans are the only other teams to do that.
And here are five keys for the Chargers this afternoon as they try to move on to the AFC Championship Game against New England.
Control tempo: The Chargers obviously did a good job of controlling time of possession against the Broncos this season, holding the ball on offense for more than 38 minutes in both games. The more San Diego possesses the ball, the less time Denver’s Peyton Manning-led offense is on the field to do damage. Whether it’s no-huddle or milking the clock before every snap, San Diego’s offense has to stay on the field.
A healthy Mathews: It will be hard for San Diego to accomplish the first task without a healthy Ryan Mathews. He’s the engine that makes this offense go by effectively pounding the ball on the ground and setting up the passing game. Mathews did not practice all week because of an ailing ankle. But the hope is Mathews’ ankle will be rested enough to play a full four quarters.
A dynamic Woodhead: If Mathews is not healthy, then expect the Chargers to flip the script and go with an up-tempo, short passing game with Danny Woodhead in the backfield. Denver’s linebackers have struggled matching up with running backs in the pass game this season, so getting the ball to Woodhead in open space will be important for San Diego.
Win on the money down: Third down will be critical on both sides of the ball. Last game, San Diego’s defense held the Broncos to 2-of-9 on third down, including three straight three-and-outs during the second and third quarters. That likely will not happen again, but Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano needs to do another effective job of disguising pressures and coverages, keeping Manning off balance. The Chargers also have to stop the run on first down. San Diego held Denver to 18 rushing yards in the team’s win in Denver last month.
Score early: Yes, this one is pretty obvious. But it’s also important. In the first game, the Chargers got down 28-6 and were never really in it until the very end. However, in San Diego’s win at Denver last month, the Chargers took a 24-10 lead into the third quarter and held off a late Denver rally. The Broncos will play with energy and intensity early in the game. Denver players are well rested and ready to go. The Chargers have to avoid getting blown out of the stadium early in order to have a chance late to win.