|Von Miller jarred the football loose from Philip Rivers on one of his three sacks Sunday. (US Presswire)|
The Broncos (7-3) virtually clinched the AFC West on Sunday, but if they can't adequately replace RB Willis McGahee over the next six to eight weeks, their 30-23 win over San Diego will be the textbook example of a Pyrrhic victory.
The impact of McGahee's torn right MCL is still to be determined, although the Broncos are now thankful they held on to Knowshon Moreno. Even though he has struggled at times since being the first of their two first-round draft picks in 2009, he represents the only proven commodity as an every-down, starting-caliber threat among the Broncos' running backs, which include Lance Ball and rookie Ronnie Hillman.
Denver's offense is pass-intensive, so picking up blitzes is crucial to whoever replaces McGahee, who excelled at that aspect of the game. But the Broncos have also craved more balance from their offense; it seems less likely they can find it now.
But by winning Sunday, they drew closer to the postseason -- and a chance to see McGahee again in January when they would need him most: on third-and-short with their season and Super Bowl hopes resting in the balance. They can likely get by without him for now. They won't be able to then.
QB Peyton Manning threw three touchdown passes for the sixth time in seven games, but was under more pressure than he would prefer and completed less than 60 percent of his passes for just the second time this season, going 25-of-42. Manning was also beset by protection breakdowns up front against the Chargers' 3-4 alignment that led to three sacks, including two by DT Kendall Reyes, who had his way with the Broncos' interior blockers. Without McGahee, the ground game wasn't nearly as efficient; the Broncos averaged 8.4 yards per carry with him in the lineup, but just 3.6 after he left the game. Previous game's grade: B-
San Diego OTs Mike Harris and Jeromey Clary still had no answer for the pressure from Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, who besieged San Diego QB Philip Rivers, combining for four sacks and three forced fumbles. The Broncos also stopped the Chargers on 11 consecutive third downs to start the game, but lost their edge in the second half, allowing a pair of 80-yard second-half drives as they took their foot off the accelerator. Previous game's grade: A
Special teams: B
Until LB Nate Irving blocked a Mike Scifres punt in the second quarter Sunday, Denver had gone more than five years and 392 punts since its last block in the regular season -- although S David Bruton did deflect a punt earlier this season. K Matt Prater's only miss in four field goal attempts was on a 55-yarder that hit the left upright, Britton Colquitt's net punting average took a hit after he had a 58-yard punt bounce into the end zone, and KR/PR Trindon Holliday again flirted with disaster, fumbling once -- although Ball recovered for the Broncos. There were no major mistakes, but this unit can be better -- and has been, and will be again. Previous game's grade: A-
Throughout the week, Denver's staff hammered "24-0" into their players' heads, reminding them of the deficit they faced early against the Chargers last month. That also served as a reminder of the consequence of self-inflicted mistakes, which kept the Broncos on point after some early stumbles Sunday. They also effectively used LB D.J. Williams in his return after missing nine games for two suspensions; he played 21 snaps and had a tackle for a loss. Previous game's grade: A
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