Analysis  

 

Peyton Manning's Broncos, Philip Rivers' Chargers set for a fight

It seems as though the AFC West was made for Monday Night Football. Battles between the Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders have entertained fans across the country for 40 years.

Some of those matchups have been full of offense, while others have been grind-it-out defensive fights. With the cerebral Peyton Manning now efficiently running the show in Denver (he owns a passer rating of 101.0) and the fiery Philip Rivers entrenched as San Diego's quarterback, I expect plenty of fireworks to go off Monday night.

Here are three key subplots to keep an eye on Monday night:

1. Is San Diego's offense fully charged?

It's difficult for an offense to overcome the loss of a big, athletic target like Vincent Jackson (who joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent this offseason), even with the talented players San Diego has to pick up the slack. Rivers finally topped 300 yards for the first time this season in Week 5, passing for 354 in a 31-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints. In that same game, running back Ryan Mathews rushed for 80 yards and his first touchdown of the year, providing what the Chargers hope was a sign of things to come. However, New Orleans' defense can make many offenses look good. Also, left tackle Jared Gaither suffered a late-game groin injury, which could complicate matters. If Gaither can't go (or is too limited to be effective), undrafted rookie free agent Michael Harris will be plugged into his spot and asked to face the Broncos' pass-rushing duo of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. If Rivers' blind side isn't sufficiently protected, he'll have a hard time finding targets downfield. To help slow down the Broncos' attack, Rivers will need the run game to be effective, and he must consistently make short passes to his backs, receivers and tight end Antonio Gates.

2. The Broncos must hold on to what they've got.

The Broncos' future Hall of Fame quarterback tried his best to lead a comeback against the New England Patriots and long-time rival Tom Brady last week. Unfortunately, Manning's teammates didn't do all they could to help that cause. Big-bodied former first-round draft pick Demaryius Thomas has shown plenty of potential as a downfield threat for Manning, and veteran running back Willis McGahee has posted two 100-yard efforts this season. However, both Thomas and McGahee lost fumbles against New England. McGahee's fumble, which came after he dropped a fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter, ended a promising late-game drive, and he took the blame for the loss. The way that he and Thomas (who has also had his share of drops) react on the field, however, is considerably more important. Thomas can beat Chargers cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer down the sideline or seam, but unless he can catch and hold on to the ball, that ability will be of little use. McGahee must balance Denver's offense in order to protect Manning. The Chargers are allowing just 74 rushing yards per game, so McGahee can't afford to put the ball on the ground.

3. The special teams factor.

Denver claimed former Houston Texans return man (and LSU track and football star) Trindon Holliday off waivers this week to help bolster its special teams. Holliday is just 5-foot-5 and 165 pounds, but his elite speed makes him dangerous in the open field. The Texans waived him because he couldn't break returns open like he did in the preseason -- when he brought back three kicks for scores -- and he was inconsistent at best when it came to ball security and decision making. One reason the Broncos took a chance on the diminutive speedster was because they lost receiver Eddie Royal to the Chargers in the offseason. Royal is averaging just over five yards per punt return so far this year, but as he showed by scoring two touchdowns during this final three seasons in Denver, he can break one at any time. Royal isn't San Diego's only special teams threat; receiver Richard Goodman is averaging a healthy 27.8 yards on kick returns.

Prediction

The most important special-teams factor, however, could be Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding's groin issue. Nick Novak, who is 4-for-5 while filling in for Kaeding, will be responsible for field-goal attempts for the third straight week. Will he put his best foot forward on Monday night? This could be the difference in what's shaping up to be a tightly contested game.

San Diego Charger 23, Denver Broncos 20

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter.

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