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NFL Preview - San Diego (6-7) at Denver (11-2)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's been a historic season in Denver, one that is about to result in another AFC West crown for the Broncos.
Denver can take the division this week by defeating San Diego on "Thursday Night Football," coupled with a Kansas City loss at Oakland on Sunday. The Broncos, who have already clinched at least a wild card berth, can also lock up a first-round bye on the AFC side of things by topping the Chargers and hoping for losses by the Chiefs and Cincinnati, which plays at Pittsburgh on Sunday.
"Our goal every year is to win the division No. 1, and obviously (if you) you win your division you're in the playoffs," said Broncos coach John Fox, who returned to the sidelines against Tennessee last week for the first time since undergoing a heart procedure on Nov. 4. "That's still our goal, always has been our goal and we still have three games and on a short week we got a division opponent coming to our place."
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning continued his run toward a record fifth MVP award with 397 yards and four touchdown passes as Denver ripped off 24 consecutive points en route to a convincing 51-28 decision over the Titans in Week 14.
It was Manning's NFL-record seventh four-touchdown game this season and the high-powered Broncos also became the first team in NFL history to have four different players score at least 10 touchdowns in one season (running back Knowshon Moreno, receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, along with tight end Julius Thomas).
Manning set a single-game club record with 39 completions on a personal-record 59 attempts for the 11-2 Broncos, who maintained their one-game edge over the Chiefs in the AFC West as well as a one-game lead over New England for the top spot in the conference overall.
"We had a good plan," said Manning. "I thought we threw the ball well and guys caught the ball well."
Kicker Matt Prater also set a record of his own, converting a 64-yard field goal, the longest in league history.
"I knew I hit it pretty good," said Prater. "I wasn't sure with the cold and everything if it was going to make it. Then I saw the refs hands go up, and I can't even explain how I felt after."
Before Prater's record kick, Tom Dempsey (1970), ex-Bronco Jason Elam (1998), Sebastian Janikowski (2011) and David Akers (2012) held a share of the previous mark at 63 yards.
Eric Decker led a stacked receiving corps against the Titans with 117 yards and a score on eight catches, while Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas added a TD grab apiece in the rout as Denver tied an NFL record by posting its third 50-plus-point effort of the season, matching the 1969 Minnesota Vikings.
Moreno led the rushing attack thanks to 78 yards on 14 carries as the Broncos also set a club record for points in a single season with their Sunday total boosting their overall mark to 515. Meanwhile, the 91 plays executed against Tennessee were the most for the franchise in a non-overtime contest.
The one down note was the fact that Welker, who posted 61 yards and a touchdown on five catches, did not return after halftime due to a concussion.
San Diego hasn't been nearly as spectacular this season but remains in the hunt for the final postseason berth in the AFC after Philip Rivers got the better of Eli Manning once again, tossing three touchdown passes to lead the Chargers to a much-needed 37-14 victory over the New York Giants at Qualcomm Stadium in Week 14.
Rivers completed a crisp 21-of-28 attempts for 249 yards without an interception in the one-sided win, which kept San Diego (6-7) a game back of Baltimore and Miami in the race for the final wild card spot in the AFC with three games to play. Rookie star Keenan Allen was on the receiving end of two of Rivers' scoring strikes, while Ryan Mathews ran for a touchdown and compiled 103 yards on 29 carries.
"We're one game back with three weeks to go," said Rivers of the AFC playoff picture. "Let's go and see what happens."
Manning, traded for Rivers on the day of the 2004 NFL Draft after originally being chosen by San Diego with the No. 1 overall pick, was intercepted twice while managing 259 yards and a touchdown on 20-of-32 passing against the team he balked at playing for while still a college prospect. The Chargers have now won all three meetings between the clubs since both quarterbacks entered the league.
"The passion of our football team was there today," said Chargers head coach Mike McCoy. "An outstanding team effort."
Denver leads the all-time series with a 58-48-1 mark and has won four straight over the Chargers, including a 28-20 triumph in San Diego back on Nov. 10 when Demaryius Thomas caught three TD passes from Manning and the Broncos defense recorded four sacks.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Denver has won 10 consecutive games against AFC West opponents since Manning arrived in the Rockies and the club will be attempting to match the franchise record with its 11th straight victory in divisional play against the Chargers.
"You're just putting your focus as far as your game preparation on the practice field (and) in the meeting rooms," Fox said when asked about the streak. "We stress preparation one day at a time getting better every day. We've put together a pretty good group and that's what's helped. All our focus right now is just on San Diego."
It's all about the offense with the Broncos and that starts with Manning, who has already thrown for a team-record 45 touchdowns this year, a total that already ties for the fifth most in NFL history for a single season with three games to go.
The smartest and most studious signal caller in the game leads an offense that averages 39.6 points per game, 6.3 yards per play, 465.6 yards per contest and has a 48.2 third-down conversion rate, all first in all of football. The fact that Denver has already set the record with four players who have 10 or more TDs on the season should tell you all you need to know about Manning's ability to spread the ball around and have everyone involved, a trait which makes it incredibly difficult on opposing defenses.
"There is a progression to each play but the credit goes to the receivers for running full-speed routes," Manning said. "When you run full-speed routes you're going to have a chance to get open. I think because they know we spread the ball around, guys are expecting the ball and that makes a big difference in how they run their routes. I'm trying to get the ball to those guys, get it in their hands and give them a chance to make plays."
The Chargers' offense isn't the Broncos' and Rivers isn't Manning but both are very good. San Diego is averaging 400.5 ypg (fourth in the NFL), 6.1 yards per play (third) and also has a 48.2 third-down success mark (a tick behind Denver and second in the NFL), while Rivers has thrown for 3,882 yards, 26 TDs and a 106.4 passer rating compared to Manning's 4,522 (the most ever through 13 games), 45 and 114.5.
In fact if it weren't for Manning, Rivers may have even gotten some MVP consideration, that's how well he has played this season.
"He definitely is a different quarterback," Broncos CB Chris Harris said when discussing Rivers. "He's not forcing the ball and he's taking the check down to short passes other than the deep pass more. That's something that (San Diego first-year coach and former Denver offensive coordinator) Mike McCoy has definitely brought to them. Take the easy throw and don't take the difficult one."
The one glaring difference between the two teams is the lack of red-zone production for the Chargers. San Diego has a 52.1 percentage when inside the 20, just 22nd in the NFL, while Denver is at 79.0 percent, No. 1 overall.
That's why the Broncos are at nearly 40 ppg and the Chargers score just 24.3 (11th in football) despite their production in between the 20s.
The trump card is Manning's playmakers. As mentioned Denver already has a record four players with 10 or more TDs with Decker threatening to join that group. Rivers' biggest weapon outside the numbers is a rookie third-round pick in Allen.
"We know when we played Denver the last time they made some plays," Chargers CB Richard Marshall said. "There were a couple plays that we had out there that we should have made, but we didn't make. We know that Peyton is a good quarterback, and we know they have some good receivers over there. So we've just got to practice hard, and make our plays when the plays come."
McCoy knows Manning better than most after spending 2012 as the offensive coordinator in Denver but that extra knowledge probably just keeps him up at night.
San Diego is the far more desperate team coming in and that might keep the Chargers competitive for a stretch but expect the Broncos, who are a perfect 7-0 on their home field, to pull away in the second half.
"It's a challenge for both teams," Manning said of the short week. "(It takes) real discipline by each player to get themselves physically ready to play.
"We put emphasis on the division games. There is familiarity with players and with schemes and it does make it tough to prepare but I think our guys have done a good job preparing for these division games. It doesn't guarantee anything but it does give you a better chance."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 37, Chargers 24
12/11 12:17:29 ET