Broncos vs. Chargers: Who Wins with 1st Place in AFC West on the Line?
The Bolts are the only team in the AFC West with a winning record, so you can definitely bet on this contest coming down to the wire. Denver on the other hand, is 2-3, and has faced a brutal schedule thus far with the three losses coming against the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and New England Patriots.
All of which combine for a 14-4 record.
San Diego's schedule, by comparison, has not been nearly as difficult with Atlanta and the Oakland Raiders as the only common denominators. Nevertheless, don't think for a second that Norv Turner's crew will just roll over.
After getting upset by the New Orleans Saints in Week 5, San Diego is just as hungry for a win. With that, here's a preview of this key Week 6 primetime matchup.
Peyton Manning vs. Chargers
When Denver has the rock, it isn't so much about the Broncos' entire offense as it is Manning.
For one, the Chargers have had his number by winning five of the last six times against him dating back to 2005.
Additionally, San Diego kicked Indianapolis out of the postseason in 2007 and 2008. Include Denver's struggles versus the Bolts pre-Manning (3-9 since 2006) and there is a historical factor favoring Southern California.
As for this game, Manning and Co. must keep Philip Rivers off the field. Last week, the Broncos defense was exposed against the run by New England and the Chargers can run effectively at will. Now, San Diego is weaker against the pass as it allows an average of 260 passing yards per game.
Despite playmakers such as Eric Weddle, Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer in the secondary, the Bolts are susceptible over the middle and don't present a complementing pass-rusher to Shaun Phillips. Provided that Phillips sees plenty of double-teams and the intermediate passing game gets moving, Denver will be in the driver seat from kickoff.
Broncos Defense vs. Chargers Offense
Prior to Week 5 against the Saints, Philip Rivers had not been pressured too often.
Well, New Orleans collected five sacks of Rivers and forced him to turn the ball over twice—one pick, one lost fumble.
Because of that pressure from a Saints defense that hasn't been consistently dominant in 2012, we can rightfully expect Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil to surpass that level of impact. Along with pressure, the Broncos need to play pressure coverage with a Cover 1 safety and a robber dropping underneath.
A robber is simply the other safety rolling down underneath the deeper safety and filling a zone for a blitzing linebacker to rob a pass, hence interception. Since San Diego no longer presents Vincent Jackson out wide, Denver can afford to play more man coverage and utilize a more complex blitz package.
Therefore, we must anticipate more production from San Diego's ground game. Ryan Mathews still possesses the potential to take over a game and he performed well with 80 yards and a score versus New Orleans.
The Broncos aren't consistent at stopping the run and using that to set up Rivers' receivers provides Norv Turner with the best odds at keeping Denver's defense off balance and Peyton Manning off the field.
Special Teams Impact
Although he's contributed more at the receiver position in recent years, Eddie Royal still remains a threat as a punt returner.
Nate Kaeding out. Jared Gaither, Shareece Wright doubtful. Eddie Royal, Malcom Floyd questionable. Ryan Mathews, Jeromey Clary probable.— Michael Gehlken (@UTgehlken) October 13, 2012
Now the Bolts need Royal on offense and special teams, so his presence alone can make a strong impact. That said, not having kicker Nate Kaeding is a big kicking advantage for the Broncos.
After all, Kaeding has been one of the NFL's most consistent clutch kickers of his era and his absence will be costly. For Denver, Matt Prater isn't quite as consistent as Kaeding but he can boom from 50-plus yards out.
So any time a Broncos' drive stalls around the 30 or 40-yard line, Denver holds a legitimate shot at three points. In a game of this magnitude, Prater provides a distinct competitive edge.
Both offenses field balanced attacks and great quarterbacks.
The receiving corps are even-keeled across the board; however, San Diego has the advantage with Antonio Gates at tight end.
One area that will have a key impact, though, is rush defense. The Chargers currently allow an average of just 3.7 yards per carry and Denver 3.8. Interestingly enough the Bolts have defended 59 fewer rushes and 32 more passes.
In short, despite these offenses needing to remain balanced throughout, the game has pass-heavy potential from the opening kickoff. The Broncos have more front seven players capable of applying quarterback pressure, plus Manning hasn't been pressured as much as Rivers.
Factor in Prater for Denver's kicking game and the Broncos sneak out with a victory.
Broncos 30, Chargers 28
Follow John Rozum on Twitter.