The past handful of seasons have seen plenty of surprises in the NFL Playoffs, but none have been more unpredictable than the recent string of Wild Card teams getting hot. In fact the past three Super Bowl champions – Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers – have all been subject to playing in the first weekend of the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Steelers all the way back in the 2009 playoffs were the last team with a first-round bye to actually win the big game.
How this pertains to the suddenly red-hot San Diego Chargers is quite easy to understand. Thanks to their win over the self-destructing Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bolts will travel to Mile High next weekend to battle Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos for the third time this season. Call it a coincidence if you must, but that’s the exact upset Joe Flacco and the Ravens sprung last season to spark a run to the Lombardi. Who says the Chargers can’t extend that streak another year and ride their momentum all the way to New Jersey this February?
Unlike Flacco’s Ravens, Philip Rivers’ Chargers actually have a track record of success against their Divisional Round opponents this season. San Diego dropped its first contest with the Broncos at home by a 28-20 margin, but that game was never really in doubt as Manning shredded the Bolts’ secondary before pounding them into submission in the second-half. The AFC West rematch in Denver on a short-week went in a different direction, however, as an inspired and desperate Chargers squad won the second game of their current five-game winning streak by a 27-20 score.
Now obviously past success has no bearing on future performance, but these Chargers are a confident bunch currently. What’s been most impressive is that dating back to Week 11 the Bolts have given up more than 20 points only twice in eight games and both of those were against the recently eliminated Kansas City Chiefs. Their defense has been much maligned throughout the year, but a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy has actually served them quite well this year.
Manning is undoubtedly a film room junkie who will likely be watching the subtleties in the San Diego defense every night in his sleep leading up to the contest, but Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has shown multiple layers to this unit. The Bolts have seen unexpected contributors show up with Melvin Ingram looking healthier by the game and Eric Weddle being an absolute Swiss-Army-knife out there on the field.
It won’t be an easy undertaking, but the Chargers have to feel they are up to the task against the Broncos this coming Sunday. A win like that could be exactly what this team needs to spur on its own unlikely journey to the biggest stage of them all on Feb. 2.