KICKOFF: 4:40 p.m. EST
THE LINE: Broncos by 9 1/2 (over/under 54 1/2)
KEY INJURIES: Denver -- Out: DE Derek Wolfe (illness). San Diego -- Questionable: RB Ryan Mathews (ankle), center Nick Hardwick (neck/concussion), tackle Jeromy Clary (shoulder), tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle), wide receiver Eddie Royal (toe).
EDGE >> BRONCOS
Chargers QB Philip Rivers enjoyed a career season, ranking second to Denver's Peyton Manning in the AFC with 4,478 yards; 32 TDs and just 11 INTs. Rookie WR Keenan Allen blossomed into Rivers' deep threat, and TE Antonio Gates remains old reliable when Rivers needs to convert a third down or is in the scoring zone. Manning threw for more yards (5,477) and more TDs (55) than any player in NFL history, and he had four receivers -- Demaryius Thomas (14), Julius Thomas (12), Eric Decker (11) and Wes Welker (10) -- who caught at least 10 TD passes. The Chargers ranked No. 29 in pass defense; Denver was 27th.
EDGE >> BRONCOS
The Chargers can have a real problem if RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) is unable to play and injuries sideline center Nick Hardwick and tackles D.J. Fluker or Jeromy Clary. Mathews has rushed for 100 yards in five of seven career games against the Broncos, including 127 in San Diego's win at Denver. Backup Ronnie Brown did contribute a 58-yard TD run at Cincinnati last week. The Broncos don't run it much, but Knowshon Moreno (1,038 yards) enjoyed the first 1,000-yard season of his career, and rookie Montee Ball averaged 6.6 yards per carry in December (45 attempts, 297 yards).
EDGE >> BRONCOS
No one knows the intricacies of the Denver offensive and how QB Peyton Manning likes to run it than Chargers coach Mike McCoy, who was Manning's offensive coordinator last season. The Chargers ranked 23rd on defense, and Denver ranked No. 19 Both Manning and Rivers should find some holes in the secondaries. The Chargers managed just 11 INTs all season with just 35 sacks. Denver's best defense is its offense, but former Charger LB Shaun Phillips led Broncos with 10 sacks. Two of the AFC's best punters -- Denver's Britton Colquitt and San Diego's Mike Scifres -- could dictate field position that can help their defenses.
EDGE >> CHARGERS
The Chargers, in the playoffs only because Miami and Baltimore lost season-ending games and the Chiefs' Ryan Succop missed a field goal, are playing loose, have won five straight, and have nothing to lose, especially after beating Cincinnati last week. The Broncos have been haunted all year by their early elimination last year against Baltimore.
FACE TO FACE
Chargers OLB Melvin Ingram vs. Broncos LT Chris Clark
When San Diego beat the Broncos 27-20 in Denver last month, Ingram played 24 snaps but had no sacks as the Chargers managed just one sack and two quarterback hits on Manning. That was just Ingram's second game back from injury, however, and his fresh legs and speed off the edge have made an increasingly big impact on San Diego's pass rush. Clark has played well in place of injured Ryan Clady this season, but he's still susceptible to the speed rush and the type of game-altering turnovers that come from pressure off the blind side.
WHY THE CHARGERS WILL WIN
San Diego's 27-20 win at Denver gives the Chargers all the confidence they need. Rivers is 6-2 at Denver as a starter, and the only quarterback to beat the Broncos in Denver since Manning arrived last season. The Chargers have faced Peyton Manning twice in the postseason when he was with the Colts. On both occasions, the Chargers eliminated the Colts, once in Indianapolis and once at San Diego. Manning has eight one-and-done playoff appearances in his career.
WHY THE BRONCOS WILL WIN
The Broncos' record-setting offense should have little trouble moving the ball against San Diego's 29th-ranked defense. And every time they cross the 50, kicker Matt Prater is a threat to make a field goal. It's all laid out for Manning to reach another Super Bowl, and a fifth MVP would ring hollow with another early playoff exit.
Randy Covitz's prediction: Broncos 34-20
(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services