KUSA - Fueling the Denver Broncos' drive for the past 12 months has been the early exit from last season's playoffs.
But something that has taken their minds off last year's postseason loss to Baltimore for the past four weeks has been the Dec. 12 loss at home to San Diego.
The AFC's top-seeded Broncos look to move on from both Sunday afternoon when they open the playoffs against the Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High (2:40 p.m. kickoff). The teams, who split the season series and have played 108 times previously, never have squared off in the postseason.
"I think we drew on it the whole season," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said of last year's early exit. "It kind of got us through this whole season, and now we're not even thinking about it. We're not even worrying about last year."
He added the 27-20 loss to San Diego was a "wake-up call to the whole team that we have to go out there and continue to play hard, play fast and physical and understand that we have to put our best effort out there on the field. We can't step out there and just slop it out, 'Here's the Broncos, we're going to go out and win.' We have to go out there and be at our best every time."
Whether they planned on it or not, the Chargers had a way this season of grinding the clock. It worked to their advantage in the December win at Denver when San Diego had the ball for almost 18 minutes more than the Broncos.
"Offensively our mindset has to be: 'Go score.' If it takes two minutes, that's great. If it takes 10, that's great too," said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who is 10-6 against the Broncos including 6-2 in Denver. "A lot of people said, 'Was that your gameplan, to keep the ball away from them?' And it really wasn't. It was score touchdowns and along the way if we're keeping the ball, that's even better."
The Chargers led the league this season in 10-play drives (38). In the win at Sports Authority Field, San Diego opened with an 11-play drive that resulted in a field goal after 6½ minutes then had a 13-play touchdown drive that lasted another 6½ minutes. The Chargers were 6-of-12 on third-down plays to the Broncos' 2-of-9.
"We have a good offense, so teams want to do that to us, keep them off the field. But we're up for the challenge," Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips said of his former team. "Obviously, we want to stop the run and play Broncos football - and that's all we're going to do."
Chargers running back Ryan Matthews had 127 yards rushing in the win - the only running back this season to have a 100-yard game against the Broncos. Matthews, however, injured his left ankle in last week's win at Cincinnati and did not practice this week. He had just one carry in the second half against the Bengals.
"I think that is the way they're set up," Denver coach John Fox said. "When you run the ball, it does use more time on the clock. The clock doesn't stop as much. It's part of the way they play. It's a very effective way to play."
In their win last month, San Diego's defense kept the Broncos to season lows of 295 total yards, 53 plays, 18 yards rushing and 19 first downs.
In Denver's 28-20 win Nov. 10 at San Diego, the Broncos had just 397 yards, 68 plays, 84 yards rushing and 22 first downs. Manning threw four touchdowns (25-of-36 for 330 yards), including a 74-yarder to Julius Thomas and 34 yards to Demaryius Thomas.
"Just because something happened in the previous game, or two games, doesn't mean it's going to happen again," Manning said. "And so you prepare for the game plan, but you go out, you have to be ready to adjust to a shootout, to a low-scoring game, whatever it may be. You certainly see lots of different types of games here in the postseason."
The 37-year-old Manning comes into the playoffs off an incredible NFL-record breaking season - 55 TD passes, 5,477 yards passing and 289 passing first downs.
But how it translates into the postseason, where he is 9-11 overall, remains the question.
One of the biggest differences Sunday versus the Dec. 12 game is the return of Broncos slot receiver Wes Welker, who has missed the past three games because of his second concussion this season. In the first game this season, Welker had just three receptions for 21 yards, but through the season he has been a reliable outlet for Manning. Welker had 73 receptions for 778 yards in 13 games with 10 TD catches.
Welker was one of four receivers to have 10 or more TD catches, and throw in Knowshon Moreno's 13 total TDs (10 rushing), and the Broncos were a lock to become the first team in NFL history to score more than 600 points.
"They're built around big plays," Chargers linebacker Jarrett Johnson said this week. "They're built around wearing you down, getting you to make a mistake and throwing it over your head or hitting you with a screen. Their personnel, they have five home-run hitters on their offense. It's a huge task, but it's kind of fun."
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