What matters: The battle for the AFC West will swing by three games. If the Chargers win, they will trail the Broncos by just one game. If the Broncos win, they will have a three-game lead with six to play. Denver would also own the first tie-breaker, head-to-head record; therefore the Broncos actual lead would be four games.
Who matters: Chargers QB Philip Rivers needs to play a nearly flawless game. He has thrown 12 interceptions this season and is on pace to throw 21, one more than last season's career-high of 20. Rivers is in the middle of a streak where he throws at least one horrible pass per game directly into coverage. Last week, that pass was picked off by Buccaneers CB Leonard Johnson and returned 83 yards for a game-changing TD. In Week 6, Rivers turned the ball over six times, including five times in the second half on three interceptions and two fumbles. The turnovers allowed the Broncos to erase a 24-0 halftime deficit and complete an historic Monday Night Football comeback to win 35-24.
Broncos QB Peyton Manning caught fire in the second half of Week 6 and has remained hot. In his three games since, he has completed 76 of 103 passes for 897 yards and seven TDs with only two INTs. That gives him a three-game passer rating of 114.4. For the season, Manning has thrown for 2,705 yards and 21 TDs with only six INTs. He leads the league with a 108 passer rating of all qualified quarterbacks.
RB Ryan Mathews hasn't rushed for over 100 yards this season. Three of his five career 100-plus-yard performances have come in the five previous times he has faced Denver. Mathews (stiff neck) missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday and is listed as questionable. He likely will play, but his ability to contribute may be limited. If Mathews can rush for more than 100 yards, it would help keep the pressure off of Rivers and allow the Chargers to control the ball, which would limit Manning.
Key matchups: Chargers LT Mike Harris (undrafted, UCLA) vs. Broncos RDE Elvis Dumervil or Robert Ayers. Starting LT Jared Gaither (groin) did not practice this week and is listed as doubtful. The Broncos lead the league with 31 sacks. Dumervil has seven sacks with five forced fumbles, including two sacks and two forced fumbles of Rivers in Week 6. Dumervil leads all Broncos defenders with eight career sacks against the Chargers. San Diego may catch a break, however, because Dumervil (shoulder) is listed as questionable. Ayers, a first-round pick in 2009, would play in place of Dumervil. Ayers had the best performance of his career last week with three tackles (two solo and one assist), one sack and two passes defensed.
Injuries of note: For San Diego: NT Aubrayo Franklin (knee) is out and will be replaced by Antonio Garay, who started 28 games for the Chargers from 2010-11. Backup TE Dante Rosario (hamstring) is also listed as questionable. For Denver: CB Tracy Porter (seizure related symptoms) will miss his fifth straight game. RG Chris Kuper (ankle) has been limited all week and is doubtful.
Inside stuff: Special teams could play a big factor. Broncos PR-KR Trindon Holliday has had two returns for touchdowns in the last two weeks. The Chargers special teams recovered two fumbles on kicks against Denver in Week 6. “We know as a special teams unit that we are the biggest difference in the game,” said S Darrell Stuckey, the Chargers special teams captain. “Any time you can cause a turnover, it's big.”
Connections: WR Eddie Royal was a second-round pick of the Broncos in 2008 and was with the club through last season. Rosario played for the Broncos in 2011. Broncos coach John Fox served as the Chargers secondary coach from 1992-93.
Record watch: TE Antonio Gates (80) needs one touchdown catch to match WR Lance Alworth (81) for the franchise record. OLB Shaun Phillips has 65.0 career sacks, fourth in team history. Phillips needs one half sack to tie Lee Williams (65.5) for third, and he needs two sacks to tie Gary “Big Hands” Johnson (67) for second.
Stat you should know: Rivers has completed 109 of 165 passes (66.1 percent) for 1,577 yards with nine TDs and five INTs in six career starts at Sports Authority Field. He's 9-4 as a starter against Denver. The Chargers are 4-2 against Manning under coach Norv Turner, which includes two playoff wins. The Chargers have won the last three and five of their last six in Denver.
Looking ahead: In Week 12, The Chargers' schedule doesn't get any easier. San Diego will host the AFC North leading Ravens (7-2). The Broncos travel to take on the woeful Chiefs (1-8).
Follow the Chargers and Dan McLellan on Twitter @CBSChargers and @sandiegosports.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have climbed their way back into contention after stumbling through a winless September.
While the Saints figure to go as far as Brees can take them, a sustained boost from their ground game could prove crucial down the stretch.
Looking to continue its recent domination in November, New Orleans tries for a season-best third consecutive win Sunday as it visits the struggling Oakland Raiders.
Though it looked like the Saints (4-5) could be in for a long year after opening 0-4, they suddenly find themselves on the verge of getting back to .500.
"That's something we feel like we're capable of and we envisioned being able to do that, because we know the type of team we have," said Brees, who's thrown 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions during the team's 4-1 stretch. "We knew we dug ourselves a hole. We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we also knew we have the right type of people. ... Good things are starting to happen."
New Orleans is coming off its most impressive effort of the season, beating previously undefeated Atlanta 31-27 last Sunday. Brees threw for 298 yards and three TDs while the beleaguered defense, which allowed more than 400 yards for the ninth time in as many games and is still on pace to yield the most yards in NFL history, at least limited the Falcons to 46 rushing yards and came up with a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter.
That helped secure the Saints' 13th consecutive victory in November dating to 2009.
"This win that we had (last Sunday) was a direct result of how hard this team has worked from Day 1, when I wasn't here," said interim coach Joe Vitt, who's gone 2-1 since returning from a six-game bounty-related suspension. "This team has weathered the storm, stuck together and not pointed fingers, and they are trying to get better every day."
After rushing for 140 yards in a 28-13 win over Philadelphia in Week 9, New Orleans compiled 148 on a season-high 29 attempts last weekend.
Running the ball often seems to make a world of difference for the Saints, who have gone 27-4 since the start of 2010 when their backs get at least 21 carries compared to 1-9 with 20 or fewer.
"We're playing more together," left tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "We're just fighting to play more consistent up front. At the end of the day, the first few weeks, we weren't getting the job done. We had too many breakdowns. If we continue to get this running game going, we can open up our playbook a little bit more."
After Chris Ivory didn't play in the team's first seven games, he's recorded 120 rushing yards on 7.1 per carry and two TDs in the last two. He could be in for another big day, especially with Darren Sproles (broken hand) potentially out for a third consecutive week.
"He's a beast," Brees said of Ivory. "He's a rare combination of speed and power."
Raiders running back Darren McFadden, meanwhile, could miss a second straight game with a sprained ankle, although Oakland (3-6) appears to have much bigger problems on its hands.
The Raiders fell 42-32 at home to Tampa Bay on Nov. 4 -- yielding 278 rushing yards -- then matched a franchise record for points allowed last Sunday in a 55-20 rout at the hands of Baltimore.
Carson Palmer threw for 368 yards with two TDs but the defense couldn't get off the field.
"That outcome was unacceptable," said first-year coach Dennis Allen, who spent five seasons as a Saints assistant from 2006-10. "We have to be better than that.
"I wish there was a magical answer. I know everybody wants a magical, 'This is the solution,' but at the end of the day, and I've said this over and over, it's about us doing our job the right way every single time. And when we develop that consistency, when we've had that consistency, we've played well in all three phases. But that's the key to having success."
In addition to the Saints' suddenly formidable rushing attack, the Raiders could have their hands full with tight end Jimmy Graham. The 6-foot-7 Pro Bowler hauled in seven receptions for a career-best 146 yards and two TDs last weekend, giving him four scores in his last three contests.
Brees, who's thrown at least one TD pass in a league-record 52 straight games, completed 26 of 30 passes for 320 yards and three TDs as New Orleans cruised 34-3 in the last matchup in this series in 2008. The All-Pro QB has 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions while winning six straight starts against Oakland with the Saints and San Diego.