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Broncos-Chargers: Five things to watch in SD

SAN DIEGO – Five things to watch as the Broncos try to forge a tie atop the AFC West against the Chargers on Monday night:

1. START FAST.

It’s not as though the Broncos’ offense has lurched from the blocks recently; it scored on its second possession against Houston and its first drive against Oakland and could have easily scored against New England last week and taken a quick 7-0 lead if Demaryius Thomas had held on to a deep pass from Peyton Manning.

Where the Broncos have struggled is in first-half offensive consistency. Some of that is due to its pacing; early in games, the Broncos don’t always have to go no-huddle because they’re not in comeback mode, so they don’t, occasionally throttling back to huddle and reset. Denver might be best served by mashing the accelerator from the start and treating matters as though they’ve been spotted a 14-0 deficit, since the Broncos clearly are at their most effective when in scramble/chase/comeback mode.

2. COPE WITHOUT TRACY PORTER:

The veteran cornerback’s absence because of an illness that kept him from traveling with the Broncos on Sunday is a blow, but might not be as damaging as it would have been had he been unavailable against the Steelers, Patriots or Saints — teams with at least three game-breaking downfield threats that must be accounted for in coverage. However, San Diego might be about to join those teams — if Robert Meachem can carry forward the momentum from his two-touchdown game last Sunday night in New Orleans.

Chris Harris will be bumped up to start at right cornerback when the Broncos are in their base 4-3 alignment, but look for him to assume his usual nickel/inside cornerback role when the Broncos go into five- and six-defensive back packages, leaving Tony Carter to work on the outside as the fifth defensive back. Also look for Carter to be targeted because of his relative lack of regular-season experience; Atlanta picked on Carter for some long gains — including some on penalties — when he had to replace Harris in Week 2.

3. RYAN MATHEWS — A THREAT:

Mathews, who appears to be re-asserting his claim as San Diego’s primary running back has been nearly as effective on a per-carry, per-game basis against the Broncos as Oakland’s Darren McFadden has. The mountainous undulations of Mathews’ career have been entirely peaks against Denver; he’s averaged 127.3 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry in three career games against the Broncos, compared with 60.4 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry against everyone else.

Denver effectively defended McFadden earlier this year when it was forced to start Keith Brooking at middle linebacker in place of the suspended Joe Mays; McFadden was held to 34 yards and 2.6 yards per carry, his worst single-game figures in eight games giants Denver. If the Broncos start Brooking for Mays on Monday night, they’ll hope for that same kind of effectiveness, although McFadden’s struggles are at least partially due to the recovery from the lis franc injury he suffered last year. so they can’t instantly assume that Brooking is a cure-all — although he does play with more discipline and misses fewer tackles.

4. GET TO PHILIP RIVERS:

Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil each had two sacks of Philip Rivers last year, and he has been one of the league’s most sack-prone quarterbacks this year, having been brought down once every 13 pass plays, the ninth-highest sack ratio in the league. San Diego will have to try and protect Miller and fend off the Broncos’ edge rushers without left tackle Jared Gaither, who is listed as doubtful after not practicing all week. The Chargers will either have to keep a running back or tight end back to help fill-in rookie Mike Harris, or they will take their chances that Harris can block one of the two Pro Bowlers one-on-one. Either way, Miller and Dumervil could fundamentally alter the game.

5. NO BOBBLES:

Although the Broncos haven’t dropped as many passes in the last two weeks (three) as they did in Week 3 against Houston (six), the offense continues to be plagued by ball insecurity, which manifested itself in two preventable fumbles by Thomas and another from running back Willis McGahee in the last two weeks. Since the defense isn’t quite as potent a threat to post takeaways without Porter, the Broncos’ best chance for a positive turnover margin is to avoid the giveaways that are threatening to undermine an offense that has become one of the league’s best through the air.

Thomas had to carry a football with green beanies around Dove Valley last week. McGahee didn’t, even though his dropped pass was tantamount to a turnover, coming on fourth down; his lost fumble followed two series later. In both cases, they must solve this issue, because they are otherwise two of the Broncos’ most reliable offensive players, and the backup talent on hand has not yet proven it can replicate their production.

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