It's early, of course, but the AFC West already looks like a two-team race. The San Diego Chargers lead the division, with the Denver Broncos one game back and nipping at the lightning bolt. The Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs aren't far behind, but with two wins between them, they're excluded from the conversation for now.
Peyton Manning's arrival in Denver promised to alter the structure of the division, but it didn't happen immediately. Manning's played nearly as big as his reputation, and between commercial appearances, he's found time to amass a quarterback rating of 101.0 ‒ second best in the league.
Wins haven't accompanied the numbers, though. The Broncos, having played a tough schedule, are under .500. As long as the Broncos get this one Monday night, though, they're not out anything ‒ they'd be 3-3 and tied for the division lead, with their top adversaries owing them a return trip to Denver.
But the Chargers have made some changes, too. The defense is stronger this year than it was last year, and it will have to be if they want to keep Manning in check. After early injuries and struggles, talented running back Ryan Mathews had the best game of his career last week against the Saints. If he can keep contributing at that level, it completely transforms the Chargers offense.
Another big factor Monday night will be the absence of Jared Gaither, San Diego's starting left tackle. He hasn't practiced, and likely won't play. When he's been out of the lineup, it's been bad news for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers ‒ they have no experienced backup, and Denver will look to exploit that with beastly pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. It's a matchup that favors the Broncos.
Vegas sees the game pretty evenly, with the Chargers being just one-point favorites at home. The prediction here is that Denver pulls away in the second half and evens up the race at the top of the AFC West.
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