DENVER (AP) — Philip Rivers likes to say the San Diego Chargers have been in playoff mode since last month, scrapping just to squeak into the postseason party.
Wesley Woodyard would like him to know the Denver Broncos have been in the pressure cooker ever since their playoff pratfall a year ago when they lost at home in double-overtime to underdog Baltimore.
“Absolutely. We have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Woodyard said.
Since the first-round bye was introduced in 1978, 16 other teams have opened the playoffs at home a year after losing a divisional home game to a wild-card winner.
Only one of those teams, the 1987 Chicago Bears, lost again.
Nine of those reached the Super Bowl and five of them won it: the ’83 Raiders, ’88 49ers, ’90 Giants, ’97 Broncos and the ’06 Colts — led by current Denver quarterback Peyton Manning.
The ’96 Broncos lost to Jacksonville 30-27, then whipped the Jaguars 42-17 the following year on their way to winning their first of two straight Super Bowls behind Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, the front office boss who lured Manning to Denver last year.
Manning’s 2005 Colts were upset by Pittsburgh, but he led them to the championship the following season.
He’s out to repeat that feat beginning Sunday, when the top-seeded Broncos (13-3) host the Chargers (10-7) at Sports Authority Field on the anniversary of Denver’s 38-35 loss to the Ravens.
“This is why you have the offseason work, this is why you meet as often as you do in April, May and June. It’s for opportunities like this,” said Manning, who set a slew of records this season as the Broncos became the highest-scoring team in the Super Bowl era.
Here are five things to watch for as the Broncos try to advance to their first AFC championship game in eight years:
RIVERS OWNS DENVER: Manning is 14-3 at home since joining the Broncos two years ago, but Rivers is no slouch in Denver, where he’s 6-2. And he’d be 7-1 if not for Ed Hochuli’s blown call on a last-minute Denver fumble in 2008.
He won here a month ago, when the Chargers handed the Broncos their only home loss, 27-20.
“I don’t know that I’m necessarily comfortable there,” Rivers said. “It’s a great place to play and it’s a tough place to play. It’s an awesome place to play. It’s as first class as it comes from the atmosphere in the stadium and the fans and the whole deal. It’s NFL football at its best.”
WIND WARNING: While it’s expected to be 44 degrees at kickoff, swirling winds could wreak havoc on Manning and Rivers, who combined to throw for 9,925 yards this season.
The National Weather Service predicted winds of 15-25 mph with gusts up to 35.
Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase says wind worries him more than cold.
“I know if it’s a windy condition game, I might think we should run the ball more,” Gase said recently. “… Any time you get a condition of wind, that’s when I see that it’s hard for the passing, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
BRONCOS REINFORCEMENTS: The Broncos didn’t have captains Champ Bailey (foot) and Wes Welker (concussion) the last time these teams played, but both are healthy now.
Without them, the Broncos were just 2 of 9 on third down and Rivers picked on rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster all night.
Bailey teams with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris Jr. to give Denver three solid cornerbacks.
BALANCED BRONCOS: Of the 23 players who reached the end zone 10 or more times this season, five of them are Broncos: Demaryius Thomas (14), Knowshon Moreno (13), Julius Thomas (12), Eric Decker (11) and Welker (10).
“That tells you about the players we have on our team, the way Peyton spreads the ball out, how anybody can score at any given time,” Denver wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said.
None of the other teams left standing have more than one double-digit TD scorer, and San Diego has none.
TIME OF POSSESSION: The Broncos were held under 65 snaps twice all season, both times by San Diego.
The Chargers controlled the clock for more than 38 minutes in both games, but it’s not only up to Denver’s defense to change that, the Broncos say.
“We have to do a better job of staying on the field,” Julius Thomas said. “If we don’t want the Chargers to run the ball and run the ball, then we have to make sure we’re running the ball well and we’re executing.”
BY ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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