What must the Denver Broncos do to upset division-rival Los Angeles Chargers?

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass against the Denver Broncos during the first half at SoFi Stadium.
Dec 27, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass against the Denver Broncos during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos find themselves in a pivotal must-win situation in Week 12 with the Los Angeles Chargers coming to town.

A loss would guarantee they stay at least a full game out of the AFC wild-card race, and could potentially drop them to two games back, while also decimating their odds in the division. They would be a full game back of the Raiders, and two games back of the Chargers and Chiefs. They would also hold an 0-2 divisional record, with three of the remaining four divisional games on the road, and the remaining home game against the best team in the division.

A win would create a three-way tie for second one game behind the Chiefs, and could even insert the Broncos into the AFC wildcard picture.

How the Broncos beat the Chargers

Lean on the running game: We saw it against the Cowboys. This team is at its best when the rushing attack is rolling.

While the Teddy Bridgewater critiques have been wildly overstated, for the most part, everyone in Broncos Country can agree that he’s not the type of quarterback that can carry an offense on his own. He’s a complementary piece, not a franchise quarterback. When the run game allowed him to operate as such against the Cowboys, he turned in his best performance in orange and blue, and maybe his best performance since his gruesome leg injury.

When the offense is firing on all cylinders, it keeps a Denver defense — that has been mentally and emotionally worn down from six seasons of offensive ineptitude — engaged and playing up to their talent level, something they’ve only done once or twice all season.

It’s going to take a team effort to beat the Chargers, and the run game is what catalyzes that team effort.

Fortunately for the Broncos, the Bolts are among the NFL’s worst teams at stopping the run. They rank last in both run-defense DVOA, EPA, and success-rate allowed, and they rank last by wide margins.

In DVOA, their run defense is twice as bad as the second-worst team. In EPA, the difference between them and the 30th-ranked run defense is the same as the difference between the 30th-ranked run defense and the 22nd. In rushing success rate, the difference between them and the 31st-ranked defense is the same as the difference between that 31st-ranked defense and the 19th-best run defense.

However, they have been improving in recent weeks.

When narrowing the scope to the last four weeks, they rank 25th in run-defense EPA and 31st in success rate, though they’re clearly still vulnerable to strong ground games.

How the Chargers beat the Broncos

Justin Herbert is allowed to be explosive: Against the Steelers on Sunday night, Justin Herbert showed just how remarkably special he is. When he’s at his best there is little — if anything — you can do to slow him down.

That certainly applies to the Broncos, who have improved overall defensively but are still far from the type of elite unit that would be expected to slow an elite quarterbacking talent.

While they have improved in recent weeks, ranking 17th in pass-defense DVOA and 13th in pass-defense DVOA — as opposed to being in the bottom 10 — they’re still giving up a high rate of explosive passing plays, and few are better at attacking downfield than Herbert.

A large part of the problem is coverage, but the bigger issue appears to be the team’s ability to rush the quarterback. The Broncos rank 29th in pass-rush win-rate and they’ve taken a slight step back since the trade of Von Miller, which makes sense considering he was leading the team in that category.

We could see Los Angeles’ mostly poor offensive line provide the spark Denver’s pass rush has desperately searched for, or we could see Denver’s lackluster pass rush spark an explosive LA passing attack that has been missing for most of the year.

Final Thoughts and Score Prediction

This Broncos team is so ridiculously hard to forecast. They can be dominated by subpar teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Las Vegas Raiders, and they can dominate top NFL contenders like the Dallas Cowboys.

Whether or not the Broncos win this game feels largely reliant on what version of the team shows up on Sunday, and while some things — like sparking the run game and limiting explosive passing plays — might make it more likely that we get the good version, it really has seemed random this season.

With that said, the fact that many of the Chargers’ weaknesses match up with the Broncos’ strengths and that the Broncos are coming off a bye week with their backs against the wall, leads us to believe it’s slightly more likely that we see the good version.

Broncos win 27-23