Monday Night Football heads to San Diego as the Chargers host the Denver Broncos in an AFC West showdown.
The Broncos (2-3) haven't quite delivered on the promises made by a Peyton Manning free-agency signing. The wins haven't come easy, and Manning hasn't been perfect.
Clearly, this is not 2004, and Manning needs some sort of help to win football games. Although there is talent around him, mental errors, drops and poor protection have kept the offense from taking the next step.
On defense, the switch from Dennis Allen to Jack Del Rio has not been seamless. This team cannot stop the run in 2012, and that doesn't bode well for an AFC West title hunt.
The Chargers (3-2) currently lead the AFC West and have seemingly shed their "poor starter" label from the last few seasons. They're still looking for a marquee win before next week's bye, however, and a Monday night victory over Manning could fit the bill.
The biggest storyline around the Chargers has been Ryan Mathews' early-season struggles. Injuries caused him to sit during the early part of the season, and fumbles have forced him back to the bench. Although he is clearly a superior runner to Jackie Battle, he's lost valuable snaps to his teammate.
Overall, the Chargers offense has struggled to move the ball with Norv Turner-like efficiency, and they hope a little home cooking will do them good in Week 6.
So, which team is going home with the victory on Monday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: Can the Broncos Keep Manning Upright?
Tim Tebow's threat as a runner and option looks helped the offensive line in 2011. In 2012, Manning's quick release and lightning-fast decision-making cover over any pass-protection deficiencies.
Shaun Phillips leads the Chargers with 4.5 sacks, and he will line up opposite Orlando Franklin and Chris Kuper (who is likely making his season debut). If those two falter against Phillips, Manning isn't going to have time to work down the field.
Look for the Chargers to tee off on Manning. Even if they can't sack him, they'll try to knock him down and rattle him all night long.
Key Storyline No. 2: Will the Real Chargers Please Step Up?
Anytime anyone thinks they know anything about the Chargers, the Chargers do their best to prove that person wrong.
Part of that is a symptom of A.J. Smith's bipolar team (mis)management, and part of that is Norv Turner's spectacular sideline ineptitude. Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews don't help things much when they're making as many great plays for the other team as for their own.
In terms of talent, the Chargers should be leading the division, as they are. In terms of play, consistency and coaching, they should be on the other end. As mentioned, they haven't really beaten anyone yet and may have a few backbreaking losses in store for Chargers faithful who have been duped by early-season successes.
A team like the Broncos is bound to reveal the true character of the Chargers on Monday night. If San Diego isn't able to impose its will, it won't have the season its fans are hoping for.
Keys for the Denver Broncos on Offense
More so than the aforementioned offensive line issues, getting the running game going is going to be the key, even if it doesn't result in a ton of yardage.
The Chargers rush defense has been solid, and the Broncos need to find a way to at least threaten with Willis McGahee. If they become too one-dimensional, it will be game over before it starts.
In the pass game, it's all about execution. Of course, Manning is going to deliver the ball, but Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker need to come down with it.
Keys for the San Diego Chargers on Offense
With the Chargers, too, the passing game should be a given. However, with Jared Gaither doubtful for Monday night, Rivers might find himself as the one under near-constant duress. Short, precision passing is the name of the game. Let Eddie Royal, Robert Meachem, Antonio Gates and others work after the catch.
Mathews just has to hold on to the ball. He's probably never going to be the elite back fans and draftniks want him to be, but he's more than capable when he isn't making mental errors. A steady diet of Mathews will do the Chargers a lot of good.
Keys for the Denver Broncos on Defense
Del Rio and crew need to cover up more defensive backfield deficiencies than many people would think on Monday night. They can do so (especially if Gaither is out) by engineering one-on-one matchups with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil on an island with blockers.
Those are matchups the Broncos can win all night, but the Chargers are going to do their best to help block with combos, tight ends and backs.
Keys for the San Diego Chargers on Defense
As said earlier, they need to keep Philips moving forward at all times and keep Manning on the ground as much as possible. Yes, the rules protect quarterbacks, so they have to be smart, but playing to the echo of the whistle is still allowed.
As much as possible, they need their front seven to step up against the run game. Committing safeties to the box is going to mean a field day for Manning and the passing attack. If Eric Weddle is allowed to sit in the deep third, he'll make plays.
Bold Prediction No. 1: Manning and Rivers Both Throw for 300-Plus Yards
As much as we've talked about the rushing attacks and the pass rush, realize that these two are going to have lots of opportunities to put up big numbers. Expect this game to be everything football purists hate—an aerial show that would make the old AFL passers blush.
For the Broncos, that's not really a bold prediction, but the Chargers offense hasn't been as high-octane as people expect. Look for a bit of a coming-out party on Monday night.
Bold Prediction No. 2: Ryan Mathews Will Find His Way Out of the Dog House
We've seen flashes of Mathews the past few weeks, and this should be the week he puts it all together. With the two defenses loosened up, Mathews will be an integral part on screens, draws and swing passes to keep the Broncos honest.
Of course, there's always the chance he wilts under the pressure and fails spectacularly in front of a national audience, but all signs point to him having learned his lesson.
Player of the Game Prediction: Philip Rivers
Even with Mathews' positive play, the storyline in this one points to either Rivers or Manning being the MVP. At home, in a shootout, Rivers might not put up quite as many gaudy numbers as Manning, but he gets the win and this honor as well.
Final Score Prediction: Chargers 34, Broncos 30
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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