DENVER (AP) – Peyton Manning laughed when his receivers played hot potato with his record-setting memento last weekend.
He won’t be nearly as jolly Thursday night if the San Diego Chargers play keep-away from the Denver Broncos’ high-powered offense as they did last year.
The Broncos were held under 65 snaps just twice last season – both times by San Diego.
The Chargers controlled the clock for more than 38 minutes in both games, including a 27-20 stunner at Denver on a Thursday night in December. That was Manning’s only divisional loss since heading West in 2012 and the Broncos’ only loss at home.
“Last year they caught us sleeping,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “This year, we know they can come in and beat us. So, we’re preparing well, we’re preparing hard and I think we’ll be a lot better.”
The Broncos (5-1) have beefed up their defense and that should make it harder for the Chargers (5-2) to keep Manning & Co. on the sideline again.
“It was tough last year,” insisted Chargers coach Mike McCoy, who was Manning’s coordinator in 2012 and saw firsthand how the five-time MVP maximizes his chances.
Manning earned his 27th career AFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his four-TD masterpiece against San Francisco in which he supplanted Brett Favre as the NFL’s career touchdowns leader.
Manning is on pace for 51 TDs and 4,928 yards – just under his record-setting 2013 season in which he threw for 55 TDs and 5,477 yards. Where he’s better is in passer rating (118.2 to 115.1) and touchdown proficiency (8.7 percent of his throws to 8.3 percent).
“I think Peyton is being Peyton, one of the greats of all time,” McCoy said. “I’m happy to see him break the record … but it’s not a shocker at all the way he’s playing.”
Nor is it surprising that Philip Rivers is doing so well once again.
After reviving his career under McCoy in 2013 and halting a three-year playoff drought, Rivers’ 113.0 passer rating trails only Manning in the AFC. And his 17-3 TD-to-interception ratio is similar to Manning’s 19-3.
Other things to watch for in Denver’s second prime-time game in four nights:
CORNERBACKS CORNUCOPIA: San Diego’s secondary is banged up with cornerbacks Jason Verrett (shoulder, questionable) and Brandon Flowers (concussion, out) ailing. So Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall could make their third straight start together in Denver.
“Some of the players that are starting this week started last year and they were able to beat us still,” Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “So, our main thing is trying to go out and do something better than what we did last year.”
TERRIFIC TIGHT ENDS: This game features the top tight ends in the NFL: Julius Thomas, who has nine TD catches, and Antonio Gates, who has seven.
“We see it all the time here against Julius, so we know what a special player at that position can be and they certainly have one,” Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.
“I think when our guys went out and got ‘Juice’ I think they were hoping that he could become something like Gates someday. Antonio has done it for quite a while and we understand the concerns, the issues, the matchup problems they present.”
OLD FRIENDS: Dwight Freeney didn’t get to face Manning, his old Indianapolis teammate, last year because a thigh injury sidelined him after a month in San Diego.
Manning’s not exactly eager to face the outside linebacker until the postgame hugs and handshakes this time: “Our offensive line knows we’ve got a challenge against their front, especially the guys having to block Dwight,” Manning said.
WELL-RESTED: Rivers figures neither team has an advantage because “they just played on Sunday night and we’ve got to travel, so it evens out.” The Broncos, though, were able to rest most of their starters in their blowout of the 49ers on Sunday night.
The Broncos were gassed in last year’s Thursday night loss to San Diego as they were coming off a come-from-behind win over Tennessee in which Manning played 95 snaps. He took just 51 snaps Sunday night and joined several other starters on the sideline in the fourth quarter.
RIVERS IN THE ROCKIES: Manning is 20-3 at home since joining the Broncos, but Rivers is no slouch in Denver, where he’s 6-3. And he’d be 7-2 if not for Ed Hochuli’s blown call on a last-minute Denver fumble in 2008.
“It’s a great place to play,” Rivers said. “I love playing there.”
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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