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.
A historic comeback helped the Denver Broncos tie the San Diego Chargers atop the AFC West standings last month.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos can take a firm grip of the division lead -- and put a huge dent in the Chargers' playoff chances -- with its first season sweep in this series in seven years.
The Broncos go for their fifth straight victory on Sunday against a Chargers team trying to get back on track with its fourth consecutive win at Denver.
Facing a 24-0 halftime deficit, the Broncos rallied for a 35-24 victory at San Diego on Oct. 15 to pull even with the Chargers at 3-3. Since his three second-half touchdowns in that contest helped the Broncos post the fourth-greatest comeback in league history, Manning has guided Denver (6-3) to three more victories and a two-game edge over second-place San Diego (4-5), which has two wins in its last seven games -- both against lowly Kansas City.
While Manning is a making a strong case for an unprecedented fifth MVP -- he owns the league's best passer rating (108.0) and is completing a career-best 69.7 percent of his passes -- he's definitely not doing it alone.
The Broncos, who have the league's sixth-ranked defense, have 12 sacks in the last two contests and are allowing 18.8 points per game during the winning streak.
Denver's special teams have also come up big lately with Trindon Holliday returning kicks for TDs in each of the last two games.
The NFL said this week that his 76-yard punt return in last Sunday's 36-14 win at Carolina should have been ruled a touchback after he flipped the ball out of his hands before crossing the goal line, but that doesn't change the fact that San Diego could have its hands full with the speedy returner.
"Denver's playing amazing right now," Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. "All three phases are playing well off of each other and it shows on the tape."
San Diego coach Norv Turner couldn't have enjoyed watching the second half of last Sunday's 34-24 loss to Tampa Bay. Coming off a 31-13 win over the Chiefs that ended their three-game skid, the Chargers were outscored 17-3 in the final 19-plus minutes.
Philip Rivers had three TDs, but he was picked off twice in the second half, the last one returned 83 yards for a score in the fourth quarter.
"The big negative plays, the turnovers are killing us," Turner said. "Our biggest thing is we need to go put four quarters together, play at a high level, take care of the ball and not give up. If a team's going to make plays on you, make them earn it. Don't give up easy plays. It's a challenge for us coming into Denver."
Rivers is 5-1 visiting the Broncos following a 29-24 victory on Oct. 9, 2011, but the Chargers' signal-caller has been awful in the fourth quarter with a 56.5 passer rating and a league-worst six INTs.
Chris Harris' 46-yard INT return for a score with 2:05 left sealed the Broncos' victory on Oct. 15.
Manning, meanwhile, has nine TDs, no INTs and a 121.9 passer rating in the fourth quarter.
After throwing a touchdown to Brandon Stokley last Sunday, the veteran quarterback is one shy of passing Dan Marino for second all-time with 421.
"I have never felt comfortable kind of being mentioned with him," Manning said.
Manning, though, has no problem giving credit to an offensive line that's allowed just 11 sacks this season.
"They have done a great job and certainly every quarterback appreciates it when you don't get sacked," he said.
Rivers has been sacked twice as much, yet just four times in the last three games.
The Chargers' line, though, could face one of its stiffest tests of the season in Von Miller andElvis Dumervil, who are the league's top-duo in terms of sacks with 17.
Dumervil, though, is questionable after leaving last Sunday's game with a left shoulder injury. An MRI on Monday did not reveal a tear and he didn't practice on Wednesday.
Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams, the team's leading tackler in five of the last eight seasons, could make his season debut after missing six games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and the next three for a second alcohol-related driving conviction.
Denver's secondary will have to keep an eye on Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who has all four of his TDs -- he caught a season-best two against Denver -- in the last four games.
Gates is one TD shy of matching Lance Alworth for the team record with 81.
Chargers back Ryan Mathews is questionable after missing practice on Wednesday with a stiff neck. He ran for 74 in last month's loss to Denver after averaging 127.3 in his first three games in this divisional matchup.