Denver Broncos (4-1) at San Diego Chargers (1-4)
Going into the season, I had the Chargers on my underrated list. They went 4-12 in 2015, but that was largely a result of bad injury luck and a poor record in close games (3-9 in games decided by 8 points or fewer). Both of those things tend to even out in the long run, which is why I expected significantly more wins for them this season, but they haven’t evened out so far for the Chargers. The Chargers are 1-4 despite a +10 point differential and a +2.04% first down percentage differential (11th in the NFL), as all 4 of their losses have come by 6 points or fewer, while their lone win came by 24 points week 2 against the Jaguars.
The Chargers are legitimately a few plays away from being 4-1 or even 5-0, but blew late leads to Kansas City, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. Meanwhile, they’ve also lost top wide receiver Keenan Allen, talented passing down back Danny Woodhead, slot wide receiver Steve Johnson, and top cornerback Jason Verrett for the season with injuries, while cornerback Brandon Flowers is expected to miss his 3rd straight game with a concussion. The Chargers’ record in close games should still even out in the long run and they should still win more games this season than they did last season, but there’s no denying the amount of talent the Chargers are missing with injury.
The Broncos are a much more talented team and were 4-0 going into last week, prior to a disappointing 23-16 home loss last week against the Atlanta Falcons. Despite that loss, they actually still rank 1st in the NFL in first down percentage differential at 5.98%. Their defense played well against the Falcons all things considered, as the Falcons rank #1 in the NFL in first down percentage, but had just an average offensive performance against the Broncos. On the season, the Broncos are 7th in the NFL in first down percentage allowed, despite facing some tough offenses thus far (Carolina, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Atlanta).
The offense was the problem for them, as they struggled to move the ball all day, despite being at home and facing a mediocre at best Atlanta defense. The Broncos still rank 9th in the NFL in first down percentage though and get quarterback Trevor Siemian back from injury this week, after he missed last week’s start with an injured shoulder. In Siemian’s absence, first round rookie Paxton Lynch looked overmatched and not nearly ready to be an NFL quarterback. Lynch might have more long-term upside than Siemian, but Siemian has been a more than serviceable quarterback through the early part of the season. The underwhelming offensive performance last week is cause for concern, especially considering how stagnant their offense was for most of last season, but Siemian is better than either of the quarterbacks they had last season and the offensive line and running game have been better as well.
More concerning is the fact that head coach Gary Kubiak will miss this game with migraine issues. It’s unclear how the team will handle his absence, which makes the Broncos a much riskier bet. The health of Siemian’s shoulder just a week and a half after the injury is also a risk. Talent wise, the Broncos should be able to win this game pretty easily, as the Chargers have no homefield advantage (6-12 ATS at home since 2014), but I wouldn’t bet on them unless I could get lower than 3, which seems unlikely. About 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so I can’t be confident in Denver at 3.5.
Denver Broncos 23 San Diego Chargers 17
Pick against the spread: Denver -3.5