DENVER – Peyton Manning needs one more win to make his next big statement in the record book — tying John Elway with the second most regular-season wins of any NFL quarterback.
If that win happens to come Sunday against San Diego, Manning and the Denver Broncos will make an even bigger statement in the standings — all but wrapping up the AFC West title before Thanksgiving rolls around.
The Broncos (6-3) carry a two-game advantage over the second-place Chargers (4-5) into a rematch of Denver's come-from-behind 35-24 victory in San Diego last month.
That win sparked a four-game winning streak for the Broncos, along with giving them a step up in the tiebreaker, which they would cement with another win Sunday. Meanwhile, things have only gotten worse for the Chargers, who have lost two of three since the Broncos collapse and are in jeopardy of seeing the season, to say nothing of certain people's jobs, slip away.
"Obviously, you're aware of it because of the numbers," coach Norv Turner said. "It's a challenge for us coming into Denver, but certainly to have a chance to stay in the division race, we need to go win a game."
This week's handwringing in San Diego revolves around quarterback Phillip Rivers, who has 40 turnovers over the last 25 games.
One of his interceptions, returned 83 yards for a touchdown by Tampa Bay's Leonard Johnson, came with Rivers sprinting toward the sideline, trying to make an impossible throw with nothing but Bucs defenders in his face. It turned the potential go-ahead drive into a 10-point deficit and the Chargers lost 34-24.
It was such a poor decision on the quarterback's part that Turner fielded questions as to whether he might bench Rivers, the way he did with running back Ryan Mathews and wide receiver Robert Meachem after they made mistakes in earlier losses this year.
No, Turner insists, Rivers will not lose his job.
Yes, the Chargers know, if they lose this game, they won't win the division.
"Two games back, if we drop another loss this week, we're not going to be able to come back from it," safety Eric Weddle said. "So, it's a big game. Denver's playing amazing right now."
Starting with the second half of the San Diego game, the Broncos have outscored their opponents 136-51 over the last three and a half contests.
On defense, Von Miller is bringing his game up a level or two. He has recorded four of his 10 sacks over the last two games.
On offense, well, Manning is making quite a statement.
Almost every week he's catching or passing Elway, Dan Marino or some other NFL great in some area of the record book. He enters this game tied with Marino and one short of Elway with 147 career wins, though it's the league-leading 108 passer rating, the 21 touchdowns and the 2,705 yards that are turning him into a candidate for his fifth Most Valuable Player award this season.
"You go in understanding how well they're playing as a team and how well Peyton's playing," Turner said. "But we need to find a way to disrupt that and find a way to make a couple big plays."
In a 36-14 win over Carolina last week, the defense scored one touchdown on Tony Carter's interception return and a safety on Michael Adams' sack of Cam Newton, while returner Trindon Holliday made it to the end zone for the second straight week.
Manning passed for 301 yards to surpass the 300-yard mark for the sixth time this season. And yet, the third-ranked offense was far from perfect.
Manning lost a fumble after getting sacked due to a communication mix-up by an otherwise-stalwart offensive line that has allowed only 11 sacks this season.
Running back Willis McGahee fumbled twice, lost one, and triggered some angst in Denver: Is the normally sure-handed runner wearing down in the second half of this, his 10th season in the NFL?
"I know what I was doing wrong," McGahee said. "Me and the coaches and the scout team defense have been working on it for the past two days. It is what it is. I'm not perfect."
The Broncos are 7½-point favorites, though coach John Fox has been handed a few motivational gifts when it comes to keeping his team focused. The Chargers have beaten the Broncos in five of their last six meetings in Denver. (The lone win was the 39-38 victory preserved by referee Ed Hochuli's incomplete-pass call on a Jay Cutler play that should have been ruled a fumble.) And though Denver completely swamped the Chargers in the second half of their Oct. 15 game, Fox isn't leaning on that.
"I remember 24-0. They are very capable," he said. "There are no cupcakes in this league. About the time you start thinking there are, you get whacked."
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