Patriots (PK) and first half under 24 One thing about Super Bowls is they don't tend to start with a bang.
Chargers-Broncos parlay leg
Chargers (+9.5) at Broncos
No matter how it’s applied – be it at the blackjack or craps table or on the corporate account – the concept of playing with house money is always an enjoyable and stress-free experience. The same goes for do-or-die playoff games. In the latter scenario, when there is an already-existing comfort level with a particular opponent and venue – not to mention all the pressure in the world on said opponent to perform at a high level in said venue – that just about encapsulates the idea of riding with house money.
Which brings us to Sunday’s divisional showdown between the Chargers and Broncos in Denver. San Diego not only enters the contest on a five-game win streak – each of which were de facto elimination games – but as a team they have shown themselves to be the ultimate thorn in the side of the Broncos. Their quarterback, meanwhile, has proven time and again over the years that he – even more so than Tom Brady – is the kryptonite of Peyton Manning, as well as conquerer of the Mile High Mystique.
Philip Rivers and Manning have met twice in the playoffs, with Rivers thwarting Manning’s Colts both times with the odds stacked against him. In a 2008 divisional game, the Chargers downed the Colts as 9-point ‘dogs in Indy. The following year, the 8-8 AFC West-winning Chargers defeated the 12-4 wild card Colts as 2-point home ‘dogs. And while the thin air of Denver has bothered many signal-callers throughout their careers, not so much for Rivers, who’s 6-2 in the Mile High City. It’s almost unheard of for a quarterback to be entering a hostile-environment playoff scenario in which he not only has zero pressure on him but has also thrived in that environment. Freewheeling confidence (that frequently crosses over to arrogance) is the m.o. of Rivers, and that’s exactly what he’ll be feeling as the game kicks off Sunday afternoon. The narrative for Manning, conversely, couldn’t be any different. Fair or unfair, these 60 minutes against the Chargers are going to be a referendum on Manning’s tenure in Denver (has anyone forgotten Tim Tebow won a playoff game there?), his overall playoff resume (9-11 with eight one-and-dones) and his legacy as a whole. To sum it up, one guy has nothing to lose except a football game he’s supposed to, whereas the other has the weight of history – and his place in it – squarely on his shoulders. Yikes.
Moving to the matchup itself, it’s not merely the intangibles and pressure on Denver that’s working in the Chargers’ favor. They also happen to match up exceptionally well with the Broncos. The first key to beating Denver is keeping Manning on the sidelines and the exploitable Broncos defense on the field. That is the Chargers’ forte, as they ranked second in the league in time of possession in the regular season (32:47, a tick behind the Saints’ 32:48) and first in third-down conversion percentage (48.2). Rivers was the league’s best marksman, completing 69.5 percent of his passes, frequently favoring the safe, check-down throws as opposed to the home run. If you want one reason why the Chargers split with the Broncos in the regular season and played to an aggregate 48-47 score, it’s exactly that: they dominated the time-of-possession battle (76:52-42:68) and kept the chains moving (13-for-25 on third downs, 52 percent).
That formula hasn’t just worked against the Broncos. Even during their 5-7 start, the Chargers were impossible to knock out. Their average margin of defeat was 5.9 points, they only lost by more than one score once (a 27-17 setback to the Raiders) and they’ve shown an ability to come back. A perfect example was the first Denver game, when Manning torched the San Diego defense for four touchdowns between the first half and first drive of the third quarter for a 28-6 lead. Rivers and the offense, for their part, contributed to the deficit, twice setttling for field goals deep inside Denver territory (with Nick Novak also shanking a 37-yarder). After that, the Broncos would be held scoreless as San Diego chipped away at the deficit, ultimately stalling out with a chance to tie the game late and never getting the ball back as the Broncos picked up a few first downs before running out the clock.
What’s noteworthy is the success the Chargers defense started to have against Manning after that touchdown put Denver up 28-6. In the nearly six full quarters between the teams following that score, San Diego held the Broncos to two touchdowns and two field goals in 14 subsequent drives (with seven punts, a pair of turnovers and the aforementioned game-ending drive mixed in). That’s even more revealing when considering the Broncos averaged 13.5 drives per game in their other 14 contests. And San Diego has held them to 15 drives in the last six quarters.
A few final notes. First, the line value in this game can’t be overstated. For the Chargers to be getting well over a touchdown after playing Denver to a virtual stalemate in two games this season is incredible. Oddsmakers have essentially acted as if the first two games never happened. Additionally, the regular-season games between these two teams were far closer to the rule than the exception. Last year, an awful 6-10 Chargers team played Denver almost as hard, losing by 11 and 7 points in the two meetings. That former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is now on the opposite sideline as Chargers head coach is yet another indicator that Round III of Chargers-Broncos could end up being a classic, as opposed to the breezy Denver victory the line would suggest. Bettors should take the points with San Diego in an NFL parlay bet for Divisional Weekend.
Playoff picks: 4-1
Playoff parlays: 1-1
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