• Last week: 10-5; Season: 69-36 (.657).
• Best pick in Week 7: Pittsburgh 20, Houston 13 (Actual score: Pittsburgh 30-23).
• Worst pick in Week 7 (tie): Cleveland 20, Jacksonville 17; Chicago 30, Miami 22 (Actual scores: Jacksonville 24-6, Miami 27-14).
Who can really say definitively if Peyton Manning is playing the best ball of his illustrious 17-year career? The safer statement might be this: He has never played with a better overall defense than the one Denver is fielding in 2014. The 5-1 Broncos have given up more than 24 points in just one game this season, and the Seahawks needed overtime to do that in their 26-20 Week 3 win, Denver's only loss this season. In the other game in which the Broncos allowed more than 20 points, against the visiting Colts in Week 1, Denver led 31-10 in the fourth quarter before a late Indianapolis rally made the final score deceptively close at 31-24.
The Broncos defense will get a stern test against San Diego, and normally I’d love the 5-2 Chargers’ chances to pull the upset. San Diego was the only team to win in Denver last season, on the Thursday night of Week 15, and one month later, in the AFC divisional playoffs, the Chargers almost did it again before falling 24-17. But that was not the same defense San Diego will be facing this time around, and the combination of the short travel week and the Chargers’ shaky health in the secondary (cornerback Brandon Flowers is out with a concussion, and cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Steve Williams are questionable with shoulder and groin injuries, respectively) make the Broncos the comfortable pick.
First place in the AFC West is on the line tonight, but this game won’t settle that issue with any finality. These rivals meet again in San Diego in Week 15, and for the Chargers that’s the middle game of a brutal five-week season-ending stretch that goes at Baltimore, New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City. If San Diego’s playoff chances are alive and well when that marathon ends, it will be the AFC’s most deserving postseason entry.
San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano has a strong track record of giving Manning all he can handle in terms of complexity on defense, with a willingness to force the issue on the blitz. Pagano's unit isn’t operating at full strength given the Chargers’ injuries, but that won’t persuade him to play it safe and let Manning carve away at San Diego’s pass defense. The Chargers will hang around and make a game of it in the first half, but Denver has too many offensive weapons for San Diego to match up well for four quarters.