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The Denver Broncos stayed red hot as they cruised past division rival San Diego for a 35-21 home victory Thursday night at Mile High Stadium. Since falling short against the Seahawks in overtime, the Broncos have won four straight games. The Chargers, on the other hand, have dropped two in a row and fall to second place in the AFC West.
The Broncos knocked off their closest competition in the division, and are beginning to distance themselves from the pack in the AFC West and the rest of the conference. The Bolts, meanwhile, remain very much in playoff contention at 5-3, but need to straighten some things out in order to maintain that Wild Card spot.
Here are five takeaways from the Broncos win (and Chargers loss) on Thursday night:
Manning regains lead in MVP race
Philip Rivers was making a strong case to be the league MVP through the first five weeks of the season as the Chargers made a push toward the top seed in the AFC. But as the Chargers fall back down to life with two straight losses, it’s not a surprise that other MVP candidates have leapfrogged Rivers in the race.
DeMarco Murray, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck are all in the mix, but is anyone putting together a better 2014 resume than Peyton Manning? With the strong effort against San Diego on Thursday, Manning has ascended into third in the NFL in passing with 2,134 yards with a league-high 22 touchdowns and three interceptions. Oh, and the Broncos are back on top of the AFC West with a chance to be the No. 1 seed again.
Sanders among best free-agent signees
Two years ago, Patriots coach Bill Belichick tried to sign Emmanuel Sanders away from the Steelers. This offseason, the Broncos made it happen, and the dividends have already paid off.
Sanders has team-high 47 receptions for 634 yards and four touchdowns. Already Sanders is 106 yards shy of matching his career high in receiving yards, and two more touchdowns away from matching his career high of six.
Sanders has erased the loss of Eric Decker. Though he brings a different set of skills to the table, you could make an argument Sanders has made the Broncos offense even more dangerous.
Now losers of two games in a row, San Diego has fallen from 5-1 to 5-3 and into sole possession of second place in the AFC West and into the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoff picture as the top Wild Card.
Some themes of the Chargers’ losing streak include the play of that aforementioned MVP candidate. Rivers has averaged 213.5 yards per game in the last two losses, while the offense as a whole has churned out three turnovers. The Chargers turned the ball over twice in the previous six games.
Defensively, injuries have taken a toll on that unit’s effectiveness. San Diego held its opponents to 290.8 yards per game through the first five weeks, coinciding with a 4-1 mark. Over the last three games, which includes contests against not-so-offensively-talented teams like Oakland and Kansas City, the Chargers have surrendered 395 yards per game, of course going 1-2 during that span.
Division, playoff ramifications
Though it’s merely a Week 8 loss, this divisional loss could be the difference between the Broncos winning the AFC West instead of the Chargers. At 6-1, Denver is the frontrunner to take the division and the No. 1 seed in the conference. At 5-3, San Diego is looking more like a Wild Card representative.
Over the next six weeks, Denver faces New England then five teams with a combined 12-19 record. Then the Broncos travel to San Diego for a re-match with the Chargers with what could be a 12-1 or 11-2 record.
San Diego’s schedule is a bit more difficult, with games against probable division winners in Baltimore and New England right ahead of their Week 15 re-match with Denver. The Chargers could in the vicinity of 9-4 when they host the Broncos, likely holding off Pittsburgh or Cincinnati for the No. 5 seed.
A silver lining
In defeat, one Chargers superstar reached a milestone. Tight end Antonio Gates surpassed Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth to become the team’s all-time career leader in receiving yards with 9,610 yards. Alworth previously held the mark with 9,584 yards.
After being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State in 2003, Gates now owns the Chargers’ records for receiving touchdowns and receptions, and now he’s hit the trifecta with receiving yardage.
“If anyone was to break the record, he’s the one who should do it,” Alworth told the U-T San Diego last week.
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