By Andrew Kahn
The two best teams in the AFC West face off on Thursday night when the 5-2 Chargers visit the 5-1 Broncos. Peyton Manning will look to extend his lead in the career touchdown category in a match-up of top-tier quarterbacks—Philip Rivers is behind only Manning and Aaron Rodgers in passer rating this season. Keep in mind that the Chargers won in Denver on a Thursday night last season. Watch the game at 8:25 ET on CBS.
When San Diego has the ball:
When the Chargers upset Denver at Mile High last year, it was because of their ground game. Denver’s defense, particularly against the run, is much better this season, so Rivers will have to do more. He appears capable. Rivers has found speedy Eddie Royal on long touchdowns this season (he has five touchdown receptions), tight end Antonio Gates in the red zone (seven), and Malcom Floyd for everything in between (three). Surprisingly, breakout candidate Keenan Allen has no scores in his second NFL season. He does have a team-high 34 receptions though.
With running back Ryan Mathews out, Branden Oliver has filled in nicely the last few weeks, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. But again, Denver’s run defense has been stout. It will be important for San Diego to get something out of its ground game to keep Denver’s pass rushing attack in check. Before the season, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller set a goal of 32 combined sacks. Their five combined sacks against Colin Kaepernick—who is not easy prey—on Sunday pushed their total to 15, well on pace to meet their mark.
When Denver has the ball:
Manning’s quest for the all-time passing touchdown record was nothing like a home-run hitter’s record chase. Manning has thrown multiple touchdowns in every game this season and wasted little time throwing career touchdown pass No. 509 (and eventually 510). He had as many touchdowns against San Francisco (four) as he did incompletions. Needless to say, Manning is in a remarkable groove this season and appears to be throwing the deep ball better than last year. San Diego’s defense has allowed the third-fewest pass yards per game, but is that a sign of a strong unit or a weak schedule? The Chargers have faced first- or second-year quarterbacks Geno Smith, Blake Bortles, E.J. Manuel, and Derek Carr, along with past-their-prime veterans Carson Palmer and Michael Vick. Russell Wilson and Alex Smith—against whom San Diego held its own—are fine quarterbacks but don’t typically post big numbers. Manning obviously does, and with top cornerback Brandon Flowers likely out due to a concussion, this will be a very difficult test for the Bolts.
Denver back Ronnie Hillman, who starred at San Diego State, looked capable stepping in for Montee Ball. Against San Fran, he burst through the middle and sliced away from defenders for an impressive 37-yard touchdown run, reading his blocks like a veteran.
Prediction: Denver 24, San Diego 16
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about the NFL and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn