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Chargers, Broncos set to decide early AFC West lead
(Sports Network) - AFC West rivals meet on Monday night in Southern California when the division-leading San Diego Chargers host Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
Manning has been solid, save for one game in Atlanta, during his debut season in Denver but his play hasn't translated to a consistent winning environment just yet.
The future Hall of Famer, who missed the entire 2011 season in Indianapolis after multiple neck surgeries, is currently fourth in the NFL with a 101.2 passer rating but the Broncos arrive in Ron Burgundy's city under .500 after Manning lost his latest duel with Tom Brady and the Patriots back on Oct. 7.
In the matchup of two of the game's marquee quarterbacks, it was the Patriots' ground game which proved to be the difference when second-year running back Stevan Ridley rushed for a career-high 151 yards and one touchdown, helping New England beat Denver, 31-21, at Gillette Stadium.
Manning, who threw three touchdown passes to Brady's one and outgained his New England counterpart, 345-223, had a chance to make it a one-possession game late. But, on 2nd-and-10 from the 14-yard line, Manning handed the ball off to Willis McGahee and New England's Rob Ninkovich forced his second fumble of the game to squelch any thoughts of a comeback.
"There are a lot of what-ifs," Manning said. "The key is that we learn from them and hopefully we can respond next week with the win."
Demaryius Thomas was Manning's favorite target in Foxboro, making nine grabs for a game-high 188 yards. McGahee had 51 yards on 14 carries and totaled the same amount of yards on five catches for Denver.
The Broncos, who have lost three of four after a season-opening win over Pittsburgh, are tied for 28th in the NFL with a minus-6 turnover differential.
"I don't have any secret answer for you," Manning said when talking about the miscues this week. "Just need to protect the ball better. That's the simple and short of it. We focused on ball security today. It's a point of emphasis for us. It needs to start in practice and then carry over to the game as well."
Manning, who threw three interceptions in a 27-21 loss at Atlanta back on Sept. 17, has completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,013 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions during his last three games.
"He's gotten a lot better," Broncos coach John Fox said. "He's gotten more comfortable. His teammates have gotten more comfortable with him and vice versa."
San Diego and Philip Rivers are also coming off a loss to one of the game's great quarterbacks.
The Saints' Drew Brees broke a 52-year-old record in the first quarter and then orchestrated a 10-point comeback in the second half as New Orleans downed the Chargers, 31-24, on Oct. 7.
Brees threw a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game in that one, snapping Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas' mark of 47 that stood since 1960.
Rivers went 27-for-42 through the air for 354 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for San Diego, which was looking to go 3-0 on the road this season.
"I can't tell you how tough it is to lose a game like this," Rivers said. "We were right there. We were up by 10 points and just didn't get it done. We have a great team, a championship-caliber team, but we have to win close games like this."
Ryan Mathews carried the ball 12 times for 80 yards and a score, and added 59 yards on six receptions in defeat.
"They are outstanding offensively and they made plays when they had to," Chargers coach Norv Turner said of the Saints. "We had a couple errors on our penalties that cost us obviously a great deal late in the game. You can't make those kinds of errors and we'll learn from them."
The Broncos lead the all-time series with San Diego 55-48-1 but the Chargers have taken nine of the past 12. Denver did end a four-game losing streak to San Diego with a 16-13 overtime win on Nov. 27 last season.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Both quarterbacks are capable of putting up some gaudy numbers so the spotlight will be on a pair of defenses that have been spotty this season.
The units are nearly identical, giving up 334.0 yards per game (Chargers) and 335.2 (Broncos), respectively. They go about it in different ways, however.
The Chargers have the NFL's fifth-ranked rush defense, allowing an average of 74.0 yards, and struggle against the pass. Even the stout run defense is suspect against Denver, however, since McGahee is the only opposition back to pass the century make in San Diego's last 12 games.
Free safety Eric Weddle and cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason have all been playmakers with the Chargers but the consistency has not been there. Manning will test the DBs early and often.
"He looks awfully good to me," Turner said when discussing Manning and whether his physical skills have declined. "People can start that debate all they want but he knows how to play the position. He knows how to move the football and who to throw it to. You don't get style points in this league for spirals or how hard or far the ball goes. You get points by putting drives together and scoring points."
Manning, on the other hand, seems to be impressed by the numbers the Chargers have on defense.
"They play a lot of guys," the veteran said. "That speaks to their depth, which is impressive. They're flying around, they play fast."
The Broncos' D is a little stingier against the pass thanks to a solid rush and the aging but still productive Champ Bailey leading their defensive backfield.
"I mean he's just a heck of a corner," Rivers said when discussing Bailey. "He has great instincts and great ball skills. He obviously is super knowledgeable of the game. He has a great deal of experience. When you watch him on tape he still matches up with who they seem to think is the top receiver. He's having a heck of a year."
Matthews showed some juice last week in NOLA and Denver is susceptible to the run. Intent on improving their play against the ground game, you expect a change in the middle of the Broncos' defense. Veteran Keith Brooking replaced the undersized Joe Mays as Denver's No. 1 middle linebacker during the past week of practice.
"We're always trying to get better," Fox said about the possible chance. "We're always looking to improve. That goes for all positions."
Either way the Chargers like to exploit what they get with Antonio Gates and the rangy Malcom Floyd, who are always matchup problems for the opposition thanks to their size and ball skills.
Manning traditionally struggles against San Diego, compiling a 75.8 passer rating against the Chargers during his career, his second-lowest against any team. He has shined in front of the bright lights, however, winning 11 of his 15 Monday starts with a 96.3 rating in those contests.
"I think everybody's always excited to play in that environment, but I don't think we need that to get motivated and to get as prepared as we possibly can for this game because it is a division game," Manning said.
Conversely, Rivers has also been solid on Mondays, compiling a 7-3 mark with 17 touchdowns and a gaudy 105.2 passer rating in those games. Perhaps more importantly Rivers almost always excels vs. the Broncos. He's 9-3 against Denver, completing 64.4 percent of his passes and throwing 20 touchdowns -- his most versus any team.
Expect more of the same this time.
"Monday night I expect our fans to have a big part in it," Turner said. "(The Broncos) are an off-the-line or a no-huddle team and the crowd can affect that greatly."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 27, Broncos 24
10/15 10:35:46 ET