ENGLEWOOD — The last top seed to open its playoff run against a team it had just lost to at home in December was the 2008 New York Giants, who were beaten again by Philadelphia in the rematch.
Six years later, the Denver Broncos and another Manning brother open against the San Diego Chargers, who held the highest-scoring team of the Super Bowl era to its lowest point total of the season in a 27-20 upset in Denver last month.
The Broncos figure to be a different team than the one that took the field on the final Thursday night game of the season, however.
This time, they’ll have Wes Welker, Champ Bailey and Jeremy Mincey, but they’ll also be without Von Miller, who’s set to undergo surgery to repair his torn right ACL on Thursday.
The Chargers (10-7) and Broncos (13-3) have played 108 times but never in the postseason.
“This is why you have the offseason work, this is why you meet as often as you do in April, May and June,” Peyton Manning said. “It’s for opportunities like this.”
Manning wasn’t in the mood Wednesday to reflect on his record-setting regular season, focused as he is on trying to win another Super Bowl ring that would match brother Eli’s pair.
Manning will have his stellar slot receiver back from a concussion that forced him to miss that last game against the Chargers, when the Broncos had three straight three-and-outs that helped San Diego turn an early touchdown deficit into a 24-10 lead.
The Broncos were 2 of 9 on third downs that night, when they sorely missed Welker.
“Big time,” wide receiver Eric Decker said. “He’s a guy that has done very well on third down and just on any down. When you lose a weapon like that, you have to fill the shoes and I don’t think we as a team did a good enough job of having a successful first down, minimizing the third-and-longs and taking advantage of some opportunities we had.”
Bailey was out with a nagging foot injury that night, too, and Philip Rivers picked on rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster, who played the final three quarters with a broken right thumb, no less.
Bailey’s return at nickel back gives the Broncos three solid cornerbacks along with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris Jr. to cover the likes of Vincent Brown, Eddie Royal and Keenan Allen.
San Diego coach Mike McCoy said running back Ryan Mathews (ankle) won’t practice until Friday. But McCoy declared, “He’s going to be healthy on Sunday.”
Mathews gained 127 yards on 29 carries against Denver last month, the only back to top 100 yards on the Broncos all season.
After San Diego gained 103 yards on the ground on first down, the Broncos shored up their run defense by signing Mincey, who was released by Jacksonville, and first-round draft pick Sylvester Williams picked up his play as Denver allowed just 3.28 yards per carry and 75 yards rushing over the last two games.
That gives the Broncos confidence they can turn things around against the Chargers, the only team to hold them under 65 snaps this season — and they did it twice.
The Chargers controlled the clock for more than 38 minutes both times the teams played.
“We have to do a better job of staying on the field,” Denver tight end 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 at a high level on offense.
“If they’re out there controlling the clock that means that we didn’t do what we needed to do on offense.”
Last month, Manning got hot over the criticism he was taking over his record in cold-weather games and he responded with a 397-yard, four-TD performance against Tennessee on an 18-degree afternoon in Denver.
Now, the buzz is all about his middling record in the playoffs (9-11), which pales in comparison to his stellar regular season record of 167-73.
“It’s a team sport,” Decker said. “The past in the past. Stats, they don’t matter anymore. Records, they don’t matter anymore. It’s a tournament. It’s a one-game, win-or-go-home type of mentality. We feel like we have an opportunity to be successful this weekend and hopefully we have goals to be successful in the next couple of weeks.”