Supremacy in the AFC West and the rest of the conference is on the line as the Denver Broncos host the San Diego Chargers Thursday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The matchup will pit the two quarterbacks playing arguably at the highest level this season in Denver’s Peyton Manning and San Diego’s Philip Rivers.
At 5-1, Denver took a slight lead in the division race following their blowout victory over San Francisco on Sunday night, and the 5-2 Chargers snapping their five-game winning streak against Kansas City. Whoever prevails could hold a significant advantage in the division until the two sides meet again in Week 15. In last year’s series, each side claimed a road victory by eight points before they met in the divisional round of the playoffs and San Diego nearly staged a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback.
There’s little doubt that the game will be decided by whether Manning or Rivers can keep up their red-hot starts to the season. During the Broncos 42-17 win over the 49ers, Manning threw four touchdowns and set the new career touchdown pass mark at 510. Presently, he’s tied with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck for the NFL-lead with 19 touchdowns this season.
With the game well at hand early in the third quarter, the Broncos turned the offense over to running back Ronnie Hillman, who’s filled in well for the injured Montee Ball. Hillman gained 74 yards and scored twice, his first touchdowns of the season.
While Manning continues to look as sharp as ever, the Broncos defense looks far better than last year’s group. Ranked No. 18 against the pass and third versus the rush, Denver held the rush-centric 49ers to 62 total yards on the ground and didn’t allow a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
Denver’s pass rush also padded its stats with six sacks against typically elusive San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Five of those came from first-year defensive end Bronco DeMarcus Ware and partner in crime Von Miller. The Broncos are now third in the NFL with 21 sacks on the season, but square off against a Chargers offensive line that’s given up only 11 sacks all season.
That kind of pocket security has allowed Rivers to toss 17 touchdowns and complete 67.4 percent of his passes, despite owning the league’s fourth worst rushing attack.
The Chargers have been forced to cycle through running backs with Ryan Matthews and Danny Woodhead sustaining severe injuries, as well as veteran Donald Brown. However like Hillman, rookie Branden Oliver has stepped up quite well as the featured back, gaining 316 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the last three games.
The resurgence of veteran tight end Antonio Gates has certainly helped Rivers’s cause as well. Through seven games Gates has caught 27 passes for 363 yards and seven touchdowns, the third highest total in the league and putting him on pace to surpass his career-high of 13 set in 2004.
And much like Denver, the Chargers defense has made significant strides. Last season San Diego was 23rd in total defense, but has rocketed into the top 10 while allowing only 16.3 points per game, the third best in the NFL.
While the Chargers don’t possess pass rushers like Ware and Miller, they’ve put together the No. 3 pass defense in the league led by safety Eric Weddle and cornerback Brandon Flowers's combined 13 passes defended.
Start Time: 8:25 p.m. EST
TV Channel: CBS and NFL Network
Live Online Stream: A live stream of the game is available at the NFL Network site here
Betting Odds: Denver -9
Over/Under: 52 points
Prediction: Denver 34, San Diego 21