ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The enduring visual of the Denver Broncos' most recent painful surprise was of Peyton Manning taking warmup throws on the sideline, glancing regularly, maybe a little longingly, toward the field. He paced, he stared, he put his hands on his hips.
No team has frustrated Manning the way the San Diego Chargers have. In Manning's long, accomplished career, Wade Phillips' defense befuddled him with pressure. Antonio Cromartie dismantled him with interceptions. But those happened long ago, when the Chargers were a regular playoff participant and Manning was an Indianapolis Colt.
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Much has changed since then. Manning is in Denver now, of course. And the only thing regular about the Chargers the last few years has been their mention as a possible candidate for a move to Los Angeles. But now they are Cinderella, empowered not by dominance but by the adrenaline of clinging to the cliff's edge for nearly two months. They are momentum personified, winning six of their last seven games to catapult themselves into the divisional round.
And they are something more, too, something that, for the first time in five years, commands your attention to San Diego. They are the Broncos' kryptonite, the one team remaining in the AFC playoff field capable of switching off the gushing offensive spigot that has drowned other opponents.
The turning point of the Chargers' season? It was that game, in which they made Manning into a shoulder-padded spectator. It was just one month ago, here in Denver, and it pulled the Chargers to .500, breathing new life into their improbable playoff hopes, and injecting a fission of nervousness into a town that last year was so confident of success it wondered only by how many touchdowns the Broncos would beat the Baltimore Ravens.
To some of those most familiar with Manning's career-long struggle against the Chargers -- the 7-6 lifetime record; the interceptions he has thrown to them, more than to any other team except for the Patriots; the 0-2 playoff record, the only team he has faced multiple times in the playoffs and not defeated -- the past is irrelevant.
"I think it's all past history," his old Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore said. "That was a different team, and different situations. I don't think it will have any bearing whatsoever."
The Broncos better hope that is not just wishful thinking by one of Manning's most trusted former coaches. Because the Chargers have created plenty of problems in the present. They were the only team this season to hold the Broncos under 400 yards of offense in a game -- and they did it twice. They were the only team to limit the Broncos to 60 or fewer offensive plays in a game -- twice. Two of the Broncos' three lowest scoring totals were against the Chargers. And San Diego was the only team to beat Denver at home.
And the Bolts have the ingredients to do it again, mostly by playing a slow-motion game of keepaway. That has long been considered the ideal formula for thwarting Manning -- take the ball out of his hands and run and hide -- and such games tend to be low-scoring, the antithesis of how the highest-scoring offense in NFL history plays. And the Chargers, more than any other team the Broncos could face in the playoffs, have the personnel and philosophy to do it consistently. The Chargers have rushed the ball at least 35 times in each of their last five games, all victories. In their wild-card victory over the Bengals, Philip Rivers attempted just 16 passes. Against the Broncos in the Week 15 victory, the Chargers held the ball for 38:49. In the Week 10 loss, they still held it for 38:03. No other opponent has controlled possession longer against the Broncos since Manning arrived.
The Chargers don't just do this to the Broncos -- they led the NFL with the fewest three-and-out drives this season (just 23). And they have kept opposing offenses off of the field by having the fourth-most 10-play drives (39) in a single season since 1995. The weakest part of the Chargers' defense is the secondary -- a potential boon for Manning and his large cast of targets -- but the Chargers' best defense is their clock-draining, slow-drip offense.
"Certainly, they've done an excellent job throughout the year in third down, getting to third-and-manageables and obviously that's been very big for them," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "In the regular season, they were first in the league at it, and they continued to do it well last week."
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The Broncos didn't help themselves when they last played the Chargers. Eric Decker dropped one pass on third down. The Broncos committed a neutral-zone infraction on a San Diego punt from their own end zone, allowing a drive that would have ended after just three plays to instead last more than eight minutes.
But worst of all was the Broncos' 2-of-9 conversion rate on third down. That should be helped by the return of Wes Welker, who missed the last three games of the regular season, including the Chargers game. His absence had a trickle-down effect: Manning struggled to get the ball to his other top weapons, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Decker. The difference was especially stark on third down. According to NFL Media research, the Broncos converted 48.2 percent of their third-down attempts in the first 13 games when Welker played. In the final three games he missed, they converted 37.1 percent.
Perhaps it is Welker's expected return and the relative good health of the Broncos that has allowed them to be surprisingly loose this week -- looser than before their ill-fated playoff opener last year. The Chargers, though, have been buoyant this week, energized by their high-wire entry into the playoffs and the dominant game they played against the Bengals. Rivers confessed to reporters that when the Chargers were 5-7 -- even when they got to 7-7 by beating the Broncos -- he wondered, in the back of his mind, if they would miss the playoffs for a fourth year in a row and another year would go by. Then, suddenly, they were one of just 12 teams remaining.
By shortening their games, the Chargers have done more than just keep Manning on the sideline. They have shortened their rebuilding, too.