(SportsNetwork.com) - The Denver Broncos will attempt to clinch their fourth consecutive AFC West crown on Sunday when they visit a San Diego Chargers team resolved on making things very difficult for them.
The Broncos currently lead the division by two games over the Chargers but San Diego can cut the lead in half with two games to play. Denver, on the other hand, can not only secure the West with a win, it can also capture a first- round bye with a triumph and some help.
The Broncos have won three straight games, including last week's 24-17 win over Buffalo in which C.J. Anderson's three touchdown runs and a solid defensive effort fueled Denver.
Peyton Manning threw two interceptions, finished with a season-low in passing yards (173) for the second straight week and failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in over four years, but the Broncos nevertheless came away with the win.
Manning's streak of tossing a TD pass ended at 51 games, one shy of tying Tom Brady for the second-longest stretch in NFL history.
Anderson and Juwan Thompson combined for 121 yards on the ground, and Wes Welker caught six passes for 82 yards for the victors.
"It wasn't pretty. It wasn't exactly perfect. But it's a 'W,'" Broncos head coach John Fox said.
It wasn't pretty nor perfect for San Diego last week and it ended up with a loss when Tom Brady threw for 317 yards with two touchdowns as the New England Patriots defeated the Chargers, 23-14.
Brady improved to 6-0 all-time against Rivers and the Chargers, who are now amongst a gaggle of nine AFC teams with seven or eight wins.
"We're going to rebound, bounce back and play like crazy next week," Rivers said. "There's no time to feel sorry for ourselves."
Rivers couldn't generate much offense against the stingy Pats, throwing for 189 yards with a touchdown and interception as San Diego had its three-game winning streak snapped,
"We got to play better as an offense," said Chargers coach Mike McCoy, who was Denver's offensive coordinator from 2010-12 before getting the top job in San Diego. "That was not our best day."
The Broncos lead their all-time series with the Chargers by a 59-49-1 margin, including a 35-21 win in the Rockies on Oct. 23 when Manning finished 25-of-35 for 286 yards with three touchdown passes to Emmanuel Sanders.
Denver has also won four of its past five at San Diego.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
A rare slump by Manning has opened the door for Anderson, who has scored five touchdowns during the Broncos' current three-game winning streak.
Any time a player is 38 and you see a downtick in production, it's always a concern and even more so here because Manning has had so few blips in his career. The game against Buffalo, which admittedly has a very strong front on defense, was just the 11th time in 253 career regular-season starts that Manning threw 20 or fewer passes and relied on others to do the heavy lifting.
"Let me just say that I can't think of another quarterback that I'd rather have than Peyton Manning," Broncos coach John Fox said while trying to downplay any concerns. "We remind everybody that whether it's two weeks, three weeks, at the end of the day we're not done with our body of work yet. We're just trying to win games. We've been blessed to win three in a row. "We'll lean on whatever we have to lean on."
That's been Anderson, who is second in the NFL with 512 rushing yards since Week 10 as Denver has morphed from a pass-first team to one that is riding the hot hand on the ground.
The Broncos are running it 36 times a game over their past three contests, doubling its 18.0 average from the prior three games. Conversely, Manning had been throwing it 41 times a game through 10 contests, a number that has trickled down to 29.7 as Anderson has taken off.
Part of Manning's problem may have been the absence of star tight end Julius Thomas, who has been sidelined with an ankle injury. The expected return of Thomas, who still has a share of the NFL-lead with 12 TD receptions despite missing three games, will put the band back together so to speak.
It's tough to deal with Thomas when you also have to worry about Demaryius Thomas and Sanders outside the numbers and Welker in the slot.
Manning is also 4-1 against San Diego since joining the Broncos in 2012, averaging nearly 300 passing yards (296.8 to be exact), along with 15 TD passes and only three interceptions.
One of the Chargers' main issues has been protecting Rivers due to a shaky, injury-plagued offensive line. The veteran, who has an ultra-quick release, was sacked a season-high four times by the Pats and harassed many more times.
And that kind of thing doesn't bode well against the Broncos' defense, which is fourth in the NFL with 38 sacks and has terrors off both edges in and Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Running back Ryan Mathews' health is also a concern after he had only two carries in the second half of last Sunday's loss to the Patriots because of a balky right ankle.
"There's no doubt we're better when (Mathews is) out there," Rivers said. "At the same time, we have confidence in Donald (Brown), Branden (Oliver) and Ronnie (Brown) when they're in there as well. But when (Mathews is) rolling and we're balanced, that's when we're at our best."
Another aspect to keep an eye on is the broken clavicle suffered by San Diego punter Mike Scifres against New England. The Chargers brought in veteran Mat McBriar to handle punting duties.
These teams know each other very well so you can expect each to be well prepared in what shapes up as a must-win for both sides. Denver not only wants the division, it wants to stay in the hunt for homefield throughout the AFC bracket while the Chargers are fighting for their playoff lives in a jumbled wild-card race.
"There is a lot of familiarity between the two teams and coaching staffs," Manning said. "We have to go to their place in a division game and it'll be a big one."
Despite the loss last week Rivers has won 33 of his 40 career regular-season starts in December and January and it's time for a little more of that late- season magic.
"We've got the division leaders coming in this week and we know the challenges they present," Rivers said. "We know how hard it is to beat them but we do know how to beat them. And it's going to take our best to get that done."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chargers 28, Broncos 24