DENVER -- It is a spinning wheel of fortune, a fast, powerful, migraine-inducing combination of choices for opposing defensive coordinators.

Because Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning can drop back and pick a number, any number, and dial up touchdowns. And Thursday night, in a 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, it was wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders' turn.

"I feel like on any given night it can be anybody's night," Manning said. " ... They're all running full-speed routes because they know the ball might be coming to them."

By the time they turned out the lights in the stadium, Sanders had finished with nine catches for 120 yards and three touchdowns. Each of those was a career best for Sanders, and the three touchdown receptions were more than he had in each of his first three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Definitely a great night to be a Bronco," Sanders said. " … Obviously we understand in this offense it can be anybody's night at any moment."

Tight end Julius Thomas and now Sanders each have had three-touchdown games this season. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has had multiple two-score games.

When the Broncos swept up the wreckage from a 35-point Super Bowl loss, the overriding theme -- in both tweaks made to what was a record-setting offense and the retooling of the team's defense -- was an emphasis on speed. Executive vice president and general manager John Elway said he wanted a more athletic roster, "more speed across the board, at every position."

And when the Broncos ranked the offensive players they hoped to pursue in free agency, the guys they believed could come to the team and have real impact, Sanders was at the top of the list -- so much so that the Broncos let wide receiver Eric Decker go into free agency without making him an offer.

The attraction was mutual to be sure, as Sanders consistently has called the Broncos' offense "wide receiver heaven" since his arrival, even as he went through the first five games of the season without a touchdown catch. But with the Broncos having played two games in the abbreviated Sunday-Thursday week, Sanders scored four touchdowns in a five-day span.

"I'm just happy tonight was my night and as a team we got the win," Sanders said. " ... That's the reason why I came here. When I entered the free-agency process, I said I wanted to go to a team that's going to spread the football around, that's going to throw it. ... Every week we don't know where the ball is going to go. [Thursday] night was just my night."

There have been times in recent weeks when Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase has said he believes this season's offense could be better than the 2013 version, and it has often been met with a raised eyebrow or two, or three. The Broncos scored a single-season-record 606 points last season with five different players finishing with at least 10 touchdowns. No other team in league history has had more than three.

But Sanders' speed, his ability to dismantle press coverage with his quickness off the ball and to elevate and catch the ball in a crowd gives these Broncos a dimension they didn't have a season ago to complement Demaryius Thomas. Toss in running back Ronnie Hillman's athleticism, which has been increasingly on display since Montee Ball's injury (two 100-yard games to go with 4.9 yards per carry over his last three starts), and the Broncos are a ruthlessly efficient collection of matchup nightmares. It is an offense where a remember-when game could pop up most anywhere on the depth chart.

"[Thursday] 18 was looking, was just looking at me," Sanders said. "And it felt good."
DENVER -- A few takeaways from the Denver Broncos' locker room after the 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers:
  • Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had a good start to what he said would be a "great weekend" when he nabbed his second interception of the season with 13:35 to play in the second quarter. Harris' wife Leah is also scheduled to give birth to the couple's first child and was being induced late Thursday. "We were in the second half, and in first half my mind wasn't really in the game to me, and I just told Coach [John Fox] that I was going to turn up and make a play for us, and I did that."
  • Nothing escapes the discerning gaze of quarterback Peyton Manning. Following the win, the scoreboard operators at Sports Authority Field at Mile High were squarely in the crosshairs. The Broncos had a false-start penalty on tackle Paul Cornick just after the two-minute warning, and Manning placed the blame on the stadium's audio-visual crew. "I got a problem with our scoreboard operator, I've got to have a little talk with him," Manning said. "I'm not sure what he's doing, he's playing music and showing players dancing, getting the crowd fired up and we have the ball. I don't think we should be doing that." Manning also took aim at a moment in the second half when Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was shown on the giant video board as the crowd booed and then Manning would be shown to cheers. "And I don't think we should be showing their quarterback on the sideline," Manning said. "I thought that was kind of disrespectful ... our scoreboard operator, it wasn't his best night."
  • Running back Ronnie Hillman now has two 100-yard games in this past three starts since Montee Ball suffered a right groin injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. Hillman finished with 109 yards on his 20 carries against the Chargers and has had 37-yard runs in back-to-back games. He has averaged 4.2, 5.3 and 5.5 yards per carry in those three starts. "I feel like I can do a lot more," Hillman said. "... I just plan on getting better every week, and if getting better every week helps this offense, I'll do my best. ... When you understand the offense, you understand what's going on, the angles, you start to realize it gets easier, you see the play."
  • Broncos linebacker Lamin Barrow, a regular on the special-teams units, suffered a concussion and did not return to the lineup. Barrow is now under the guidelines of the league's concussion protocol.
  • The Broncos like how the defense has played in recent weeks, but defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is still looking for the complete game, as it were. "We just have that one series [every game] where it looks like we don't know what we're doing," Knighton said. "And our coaches are putting us in good position to make plays, and we just have to make them."
SAN DIEGO -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the San Diego Chargers' 35-21 loss to the Denver Broncos:
  • Rivers
    San Diego players indicated that the team played hard against the Broncos but just did not execute during the critical moments of the game. The Chargers forced two fumbles but could not recover them. A potential recovery by Kavell Conner on a fumbled kick return by Andre Caldwell was overturned by the replay official. Eric Weddle's interception at the goal line that would have prevented a Denver touchdown was negated because of a defensive holding call on fellow safety Marcus Gilchrist.
  • The Chargers had three turnovers all season, but Philip Rivers threw two interceptions on Thursday. San Diego finished with seven penalties for 77 yards. "That's a very good football team," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. "And we gave them too many opportunities with a team like that. So, we've got to do a better job coaching and playing. It comes down to execution."
  • Rivers was asked about where the Chargers stand at 5-3 at the midpoint of the season, with San Diego suffering its first two-game losing streak of the year. "This is a 16-round fight," Rivers said. "And we've won five and lost three. It's one big game, that's the way I see it. And we've had a couple rounds where we've got knocked around a little bit. And we're going to regroup and try to go get a win in Round 9 in Miami."
  • Safety Jahleel Addae suffered a shoulder stinger, not a concussion, on a second-half play where he slammed into the line of scrimmage to stop Denver running back Ronnie Hillman. Addae was observed shaking the left side of his body, which appeared to go numb after the hit. He stayed in the game for another play after the hit but eventually was replaced by Darrell Stuckey to start the fourth quarter.
  • Cornerback Jason Verrett reinjured his shoulder in the first half and did not return. He was seen wearing a sling on his left shoulder on the sideline in the second half. Receiver Malcom Floyd suffered a shoulder injury but returned to the game.
DENVER -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 35-21 loss to the Denver Broncos in this Week 8 contest at Sports Authority Field on Thursday night.

What it means: The Broncos seized control of the AFC West with an emphatic win over the Chargers. At 6-1, Denver created some breathing room from the Chargers, who fall to 5-3 overall.

Manning breaks the tie: Heading into Thursday's contest, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers were knotted at 5-5 in regular-season matchups against one another. But with Denver's win, Manning now holds the edge in the series. Manning finished 25-of-35 for 286 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Rivers threw for 252 yards on 30-of-41 passing, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Rivers still holds a 2-1 edge in the postseason.

Gates makes history: Heading into the contest against Denver, Chargers tight end Antonio Gates needed 29 yards to pass Lance Alworth's franchise record of 9,584 receiving yards. Gates accomplished that feat, finished with five catches for 54 yards and two touchdown catches. Gates now has nine touchdowns on the year and 9,610 career receiving yards.

Stock watch: Keenan Allen got his first touchdown of the season on a 2-yard reception from Rivers. Allen finished with nine receptions for 73 yards.

Broncos dominate trenches: Denver controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The Broncos finished with 139 rushing yards, while the Chargers mustered 61 yards on the ground for the game. Branden Oliver was held to 36 yards on 13 carries, including a meaningless 23-yard run on the final play of the game.

Game ball: Safety Eric Weddle appeared to make every tackle on defense for a short-handed San Diego secondary. Weddle finished with a team-high 11 combined tackles (nine solo), and now leads the team with 56 tackles. Weddle also made a spectacular one-handed catch that was negated because of a holding call on teammate Marcus Gilchrist, and forced a fumble the Chargers failed to recover.

What's next: The Chargers will get some time off before traveling to Miami for the team's final game before the bye week, a 1 p.m. ET contest against the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on Nov. 2.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Now that LaMarr Woodley is out for the long term and will likely go on the injured reserve with a torn biceps injury, the Oakland Raiders are looking to young players to fill his role.

C.J. Wilson will plug into the starting role and Benson Mayowa will continue to get more snaps.

Like Woodley, Wilson and Mayowa are in their first season with the Raiders. Woodley, of course, was a big-ticket signing. He signed a two-year, $12 million deal with $4.35 million in guaranteed money. Yet, Woodley, who was cut by Pittsburgh Steelers, failed to make an impact with the Raiders. He had five tackles this season.

Wilson, a bargain free-agent pickup from Green Bay, has been good in a rotational role and has a team-high two sacks.

“I’ve come in here and tried to help and get better when I can,” Wilson said. “With [Woodley] out, we need to do a lot of things and I’m just looking to get that chance.”

Mayowa, a waiver claim from Seattle, is getting his first defensive snaps of his career. He played the most snaps of the season last week because of Woodley’s injury and the coaches liked what they saw.

“He went in there and I didn’t think the game was too big for him at all,” Oakland interim coach Tony Sparano said. “He did some good things against the run, which is, when you think about him, he’s a little bit lighter player. More of a pass rush type player, but he went in and competed really hard in the run game as well. I thought he did some really good things.”
DENVER -- For the first time since the season opener when Denver Broncos rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer played 10 plays on special teams, Latimer was slated to be in uniform for a game. Latimer was among the 46 active players for the Broncos for Thursday night’s game against the San Diego Chargers in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Latimer, whose potential impact in the offense has been lauded by several of his teammates, including quarterback Peyton Manning, was the Broncos' second-round pick in May.

Cornerback Omar Bolden, who is also one of the Broncos' kick returners, and running back Montee Ball, who suffered a right groin injury against the Arizona Cardinals, were the two most prominent inactives for Thursday night’s game.

Ball has now missed three games as the Broncos hope he may be able to practices, at least on a limited basis, next week.

Other Broncos inactives were: running back Kapri Bibbs, guard Ben Garland, linebacker Steven Johnson, tackle Michael Schofield and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein.

For the Chargers the inactives included cornerback Brandon Flowers who suffered a concussion against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. Other Chargers inactives were: running back Ryan Mathews, running back Donald Brown, linebacker Manti Te'o, cornerback Steve Williams, outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu and outside linebacker Cordarro Law.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Kansas City Chiefs last year set an NFL record for kickoff return average and scored two touchdowns on kickoff returns. This year, they’re near the bottom of the league in return average and their longest return is a feeble 37 yards.

“We’re a little bit disappointed right now," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. “We’ve had some breakdowns. It’s one guy here, one guy there. We just haven’t been able to pop one yet. It’s a long season. We’re just going to keep plugging away and eventually they’ll start coming, hopefully sooner rather than later."

The Chiefs should be better in this particular phase. They’ve built the bottom of their roster with an eye on special teams, keeping backups such as running back Cyrus Gray and linebacker Jerry Franklin because of their value in the kicking game. Their main returner, Knile Davis, averaged more than 32 yards per chance last year and had a 108-yard touchdown.

Davis has started a lot of his returns from deep in the end zone, when he might be better off taking a touchback. But he’s only doing what Toub has coached him to do.

“They’re doing everything we’re coaching them to do," Toub said, speaking of Davis and the alternate returners. “We still want to be aggressive coming out with the ball. That’s not going to change. We just have to do a better job of blocking. It’s not the returners. It’s the blockers up front [not] giving those guys a chance to get started."

The Chiefs have had to shuffle some players on special teams because of injuries and that hasn’t helped the kickoff-return efforts. But despite having to utilize some different players, the Chiefs still excel in some phases of the kicking game. They’ve been good at returning punts and great at covering them.

The pieces are in place for the Chiefs to move into one of those categories on kickoff return. It’s important they do. The Chiefs don’t have a big-play offense. They could use the points and field position that kickoff returns are capable of providing.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Brice Butler played 11 snaps Sunday and he has seven catches this season.

Yet, he has gotten the attention of the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, who face Butler and the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

"Brice Butler jumps off the tape. I know he doesn't get a ton of touches, but when he does, he's a major threat," Cleveland coach Mike Pettine said Wednesday.

It's a good thing for Pettine he has taken noticed. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of Butler. While he hasn't played much, Butler has taken advantage of his time. In Week 6, he had a 47-yard touchdown catch. In Week 7, he had a 55-yard catch to setup Oakland's only touchdown. Oakland needs young receivers to emerge and Butler is not hurting his cause.

"I feel good about what I've done when I've played," Butler said. "I just have to keep doing that."

Butler said he isn't one to lobby for playing time. He only hopes his play speaks for itself. Butler had nine catches as a rookie last season. He said he is excited to work with Oakland rookie quarterback Derek Carr.

"I think we're going to have a bright future together," Butler said. "We have a good relationship and I enjoy catching passes from him."

If Butler can keep up his production, Oakland fans will enjoy it as well.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Placed next to the Super Bowl XXXIV trophy at team headquarters in suburban St. Louis sits an award presented by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon after the Rams beat the Kansas City Chiefs in a 2012 preseason game, the last meeting between the teams.

"I’m actually more fond of the Governor’s Cup trophy than I am of the Super Bowl trophy," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

Fisher’s sentiment is understandable. He coached the losing team in Super Bowl XXXIV, the Tennessee Titans. But nobody else shares that thought.

[+] EnlargeChase Daniels
Albert Dickson/Sporting News/Getty ImagesFormer Missouri QB Chase Daniel, now a backup with the Chiefs, says not playing every season lessens the impact of the Chiefs-Rams rivalry.
To most everyone else involved, players and fans from both sides, the Governor’s Cup, presented whenever the NFL football teams from Kansas City and St. Louis face one another, is just a meaningless piece of hardware.

Though the Rams and their backers get worked up about games with Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona, and the Chiefs look forward to their AFC West rivalries, this Missouri battle is just another game.

"When I was in college, there was never a rivalry," said Chase Daniel, a former Missouri quarterback who now backs up Alex Smith with the Chiefs. "We don’t play each other every year. We play every third or fourth year. We’re both just trying to win.

"It would have been pretty cool actually if (the Royals and Cardinals) were playing in the World Series. But it didn’t work out like that."

The teams have tried to kindle a rivalry by playing most years during the preseason. For various reasons the teams haven’t met during the summer for the past two years, and nobody seemed to care.

The 3-3 Chiefs and 2-4 Rams will play for real on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, but there is little buzz about the game other than each team needing a victory to stay relevant in its respective playoff race.

"Anytime you have two teams in the same state, you’d think you’d have a little bit of intensity in that," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "You’d think there would be a lot of bragging rights for everybody in between, especially with both cities on the border (of Missouri). There’s a whole lot of space in between there. You’d think it would be more heated.

"As players, we’re plenty motivated. But I really don’t get the sense from the fans ... not as many people try to hit you up on Twitter about this one as they do the Niners and Seahawks rivalries."

When the teams have played during the regular season, the series hasn’t been competitive. The Chiefs are 5-0 against the Rams since they moved from Los Angeles in 1995. The smallest margin of victory was eight points in 1997. The Chiefs won 54-34 in 2000 and 49-10 in 2002.

That can explain some of the apathy. So can the distance between the cities, about 250 miles.

The biggest reason is the teams play in separate conferences. Laurinaitis played in college at Ohio State, where he had a good view of the rivalry between the Bengals and Browns. Cincinnati and Cleveland are also separated by about 250 miles, but because the teams meet twice each season as members of the AFC North, their rivalry goes well beyond that of the Chiefs and Rams.

"It was great," Laurinaitis said. "It was one or the other. In between there, there was no 'Oh, gosh, if they’re not playing each other I’m rooting for both of them.' There’s none of that. If you’re a Browns fan, you want the Bengals to lose all the time and vice versa. It was very heated in the state of Ohio between those two franchises. They were in the same division as well. I think that had a lot to do with it."

The winner of Sunday’s game gets custody of the Governor’s Cup until the next meeting between the Chiefs and Rams. Each team wants possession, though that has far more to with winning a game than beating an in-state rival.

"The trophy’s downstairs and I was advised it needs to remain downstairs," Fisher said. "We’re going to work hard at that this week."

Rams vs. Chiefs preview

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23

The 3-3 Kansas City Chiefs and 2-4 St. Louis Rams, both coming off big divisional victories, meet for the Governor’s Cup this Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won in San Diego for the first time in seven years last week when they beat the Chargers 23-20. The Rams, after losing 16 of their past 18 games to Seattle, beat the Seahawks 28-26 in St. Louis.

Here, ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner discuss Sunday’s game.

Teicher: Nick, big win for the Rams last week, but they obviously put a lot into that game, and I wonder how much they’ll have in the tank for this week’s game, at least from an emotional standpoint. How do you think the Rams will respond against the Chiefs?

Wagoner: The Rams do and have lacked a lot of things this year, but in a general sense, effort and enthusiasm have been pretty constant. The only time they looked wholly unprepared was the beginning of their loss to Philadelphia, and even then they came back and had a late possession with a chance to win the game. The stunning thing was that one came out of the bye week. The Rams under Jeff Fisher have been a mixed bag. In 2012, they were great against NFC West division foes and not good outside the division. Last year was the opposite. This year, they haven't really had enough of a sample size to determine either way. But they went on the road and blasted Indianapolis a year ago, and they might have another performance like that in them. That's not to say it will come against the Chiefs, but the Rams under Fisher seem to find a game or two a year in which they play way above their means. It should also help them to get back on a normal schedule this week (St. Louis played last Monday night) and potentially get some guys healthy in the secondary.

I suppose I can simply redirect a similar question to you, but with the addendum that the Chiefs' win was probably more expected than the Rams', though they were on the road. The Chiefs seem to be getting some momentum, anyway, and have won three of their past four. What's been the key to getting it going a bit?

Teicher: It’s true the Chiefs put a lot into beating the Chargers. They had to win that game to stay relevant in the playoff race. Since they were coming off their bye, they had two weeks to rest and emphasize that game. But the Chiefs didn’t play much better in San Diego than they had in the previous several weeks. The Chiefs actually picked up their game starting with the Week 2 game against Denver. Ever since their miserable game against Tennessee to open the season, they’ve played fairly consistently. So, it’s the Titans game that stands out among their six this season. The Chiefs looked lost, unprepared to play. But that hasn’t happened since.

Give me a scouting report on Rams quarterback Austin Davis. What are his strengths and weaknesses?

Wagoner: Davis has mostly been a pleasant surprise, especially for a guy who didn't look like he had a chance to make the roster entering training camp. His teammates love his fire and enthusiasm, something that Sam Bradford didn't really bring to the table. One thing I like about him is you can see noticeable progress and improvement each week. For example, he found himself taking too many deep shots against San Francisco two weeks ago, missing easy, open completions underneath. So last week he took what the defense gave him, and though he averaged only 5.5 yards per completion, he had just three incompletions on his 21 attempts. And all of those short passes opened things up for him to make plays when the Rams needed him to at the end of the game. His mission now will be to find a healthy balance between taking shots and settling for checkdowns, but it's encouraging that he's able to notice something he needs to work on, be honest about it and then take steps to fix it. As for weaknesses, he's had a tendency to make a bad throw or two every week that turns into an instant six points for the opponent. Turnovers have been a serious issue for him, though he didn't have any against the Seahawks. He's got a good-but-not-great arm, and he sometimes gets caught locking onto a receiver without going through progressions. He's made strides in that area, but there's still work to do. But honestly, as third-string quarterbacks go, you can't ask for much more from Davis.

Sticking with the quarterback theme, the last time the Rams saw Alex Smith, they were knocking him out of a game in San Francisco in what became the official changing of the guard to Colin Kaepernick. That was in 2012. Since he's been in Kansas City, obviously he's become a key part of what they do. In what ways does he fit with what Andy Reid wants to do, and do you believe he's the right guy for the long term?

Teicher: Smith isn’t the most talented quarterback around, but he does fit well with what Reid is looking for. He is a mostly accurate passer who is mobile enough to frequently get out of trouble and extend a play either with a throw or run. Smith also has the intangibles that Reid likes. He’s liked and well-respected in the locker room. As for the long-term, Smith might not be the quarterback who will ever lead the Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory. But better alternatives will be difficult to find, and the Chiefs committed to Smith for the foreseeable future when they gave him a new contract. For the time being, they seem content to coach him up, make him the best player he can be and then build the rest of the roster around him.

Robert Quinn had 19 sacks for the Rams last year but has only one so far this season. The Rams as a whole have just four. What have opponents done to counter Quinn in particular and the Rams’ pass rush in general?

Wagoner: Well, the first thing they've done is not throw the ball much. In the first four games, the Rams were seeing almost nothing in terms of pass attempts against. That was partially because they couldn't stop the run and teams had no desire to take a risk throwing against the Rams' pass rush when they could hand it off and move the chains. Beyond that, teams have also been getting the ball out as quickly as possible. The Rams are now seeing the ninth-fastest release in terms of average time teams are taking to get the ball out, but that number has dipped a bit the past two weeks. San Francisco and Seattle had little success running the ball in traditional ways (with running backs), and that forced those teams to pass. The results haven't been pretty for the Rams, as they've allowed 656 passing yards in the past two games, so they can probably expect to see teams throwing it around a little bit more moving forward. That should create more pass-rush opportunities. They had three sacks in a span of five plays against the Seahawks and were in Russell Wilson's face for most of the day. The hope is that production will give them something to build on moving forward.

The Chiefs got off to such a great start in 2013 because of what they were getting done defensively, particularly in the pass rush. They again rank near the top in sacks per dropback. While the Rams have struggled to maintain their pass rush of a year ago, the Chiefs seem to keep the beat going. How do they do it, and has anything changed in terms of scheme or approach from a year ago?

Teicher: The Chiefs are actually blitzing less than they did last year. They have for the most part been getting the job done with their two edge pass-rushers, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and their inside rushers, Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey. They’ve cut back greatly on the exotic blitzes they showed last year. While they haven’t been vanilla in their approach, they’ve more often been able to get pressure with skill than with scheme. The biggest change in the defense is that they’re giving up far fewer big pass plays than they did last year. One reason is that they’ve reduced their blitzing. But the safeties have also played well, much better than last season. One cornerback, Sean Smith, is also having a better

Around the Denver Broncos’ complex, last December’s game against the San Diego Chargers is referred to by many people, Broncos coach John Fox included, simply as “Round 2." The 27-20 Chargers win was the second of three meetings between the two teams in the 2013 season -- playoffs included -- and it was also the Broncos' only home loss last season.

So Thursday night’s affair is a sequel of sorts given last year’s regular-season meeting in Denver was also on a Thursday night. This time, however, the Broncos (5-1) and Chargers (5-2) have powered to the early lead in the AFC West race with both Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers in the early conversation for league MVP.

ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold preview the game:

Legwold: Eric, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware have more combined sacks (15) than 14 teams in the league right now. How would you expect Rivers and the Chargers offense to handle that?

Williams: Fair question. Rivers has done a nice job of getting the ball out quickly. The Chargers are predominantly in shotgun most of the time, so that helps Rivers get set to throw the football quickly, along with San Diego’s reliance on the short passing game. Rivers has been sacked just 11 times through seven games. The one thing the Chargers will do more of in an attempt to slow down Denver’s talented pass-rushers is give them a steady diet of cat-quick Branden Oliver in the run game.

Jeff, a lot of the conversation nationally has been about Manning and Denver’s prolific offense, but staying with Denver’s defense, it has held opponents to just 20 points a contest and an average of 74 yards a game on the ground. How have Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib made that defense better?

Legwold: When the Broncos picked through the rubble that was a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl, they went into the offseason intent on revamping a defense not only with more athleticism but also with what Ward called “that nastiness." The Broncos had confidence that Ware would rebound when they gave him a three-year, $30 million deal. He has also been a mentor to Miller. Talib, with his length and aggressiveness, has given the Broncos the press corner they wanted, and Ward has played all but three snaps on defense thus far. So the new arrivals have helped plenty, but the Broncos have also seen the starters who finished 2013 on injured reserve rebound to their previous form, most of all Miller. Chris Harris Jr. may be playing as well as any cornerback in the league despite having ACL surgery in February, as is defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. Put it all together and the Broncos play with far more versatility and athleticism in the formation than the last time these two teams played.

San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano, a Colorado native, often takes risks with the Chargers defense, even against a quarterback like Manning. Will the injuries on defense change that philosophy, or do you think Pagano will come after Manning a bit?

Williams: Despite the lack of healthy bodies, Pagano will take his chances when he sees an opportunity. In San Diego’s win at Denver last year, the Chargers started Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright at cornerback and Thomas Keiser and Reggie Walker at outside linebacker. With San Diego’s top two cornerbacks in Brandon Flowers (concussion) and Jason Verrett (shoulder) nursing injuries, along with rookie pass-rusher Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring), the Chargers' projected starting cornerbacks are Wright and Marshall. And the team’s projected starting outside linebackers are Jarret Johnson and Walker. The bottom line is Pagano trusts his backup players to know and understand his complex scheme. Those fill-in guys proved they can execute his game plan to try to confuse Manning last year.

The Broncos revamped the offensive line during the offseason. So far Manning has been sacked just eight times. What are the reasons for Denver’s success up front this season?

Legwold: The offense is built to keep Manning out of harm’s way, with lots of crossing routes, screens and quick-hit plays to get the ball out of his hands. And Manning may be one of the best to have ever played the position when it comes to limiting the punishment he takes by how he conducts his business in the pocket. He usually sees where the pressure is coming from before the snap, adjusts quickly and rarely holds the ball if he believes a sack is imminent. Overall, the offensive line’s play has caused a bit of consternation for the Broncos. They made a switch at right tackle for last Sunday’s game, putting Paul Cornick in place of Chris Clark. Some teams have created some room in the middle of the field, both in the run game and pass rush, and it will bear watching in this one.

In the Chargers’ win in Denver last December, Keenan Allen scored twice. Allen doesn’t have a touchdown yet this year. Where does he fit in the Chargers’ offense, and is Antonio Gates the go-to guy for Rivers?

Williams: Rivers and Gates hold the NFL record for touchdown receptions between a quarterback and tight end at 67, so it’s fair to say that the 34-year-old Gates is Rivers’ go-to guy, especially in the red zone. However, Allen leads the Chargers in targets (50) and receptions (34). But for whatever reason, the Cal product has not gotten into the end zone. One thing Rivers said is that he doesn’t want to force feed a receiver if he’s not open. And San Diego has so many other weapons, such as Eddie Royal, Malcom Floyd and Ladarius Green, that Rivers has a lot of matchups he can get to in the red zone. Allen’s turn to score will come, but Rivers won’t force it to him in coverage.

Broncos rookie cornerback Bradley Roby was a consideration for San Diego in the first round, but the Chargers selected Verrett instead. How has Roby played this year?

Legwold: The Broncos knew they would need Roby on defense, so they gave him plenty of tough love early in training camp; offensive coordinator Adam Gase and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas have both said the offense went out of its way to go after Roby in team drills early. While it was a tough go to open camp for Roby, he responded. He has earned plenty of confidence, so much so that the Broncos have matched him up with the likes of Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree already this season. Roby has played both in the slot and on the outside and is a willing tackler in the run game. While there were some pre-draft concerns circulating in the league that Roby had some maturity issues, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said he has had no such issues with Roby. “I told him on the first day he was going to have to earn his way and that he shouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t play," Del Rio said. “But he’s put in the work and earned his spot."

ALAMEDA, Calif. – Starting Oakland Raiders defensive end LaMarr Woodley is not practicing Wednesday.

Woodley was hurt Sunday in a loss to Arizona. On Monday, interim Oakland coach Tony Sparano wouldn’t disclose the ailment. By NFL rules, the Raiders must identify Woodley’s injury after practice Wednesday.

Cornerback Carlos Rogers watched practice. He has sat out several practices this season.

Three players who missed Sunday’s game did return to practice. Defensive end Justin Tuck (knee), fullback Marcel Reece (quad), right tackle Khalif Barnes (quad) and receiver Vincent Brown (hamstring) are all practicing Wednesday. Barnes and Brown missed the past two games. Even with Barnes back, Menelik Watson could still start. The second-year player performed well in Barnes’ absence.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine, in a conference call with Bay Area media, said the Raiders have taken Sparano’s personality since he took over earlier this month.

“I think a lot of Tony and just kind of his approach to football and the mentality,” said Pettine, who worked with Sparano when both were on the New York Jets staff. “It’s clear to see in the games that he’s been in charge that it’s definitely his stamp.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – If the past accounts for anything Thursday night, Denver Broncos rookie cornerback Bradley Roby can expect, and should expect, Philip Rivers to put Roby on the hot seat.

Because when the San Diego Chargers came to Denver last December, on a short week, for a Thursday night game, Rivers looked early and often at then-rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster. Rivers repeatedly tested Webster in last season’s 20-13 Chargers victory, a total that included a 14-yard completion to Vincent Brown in the first quarter, a 12-yard completion to Eddie Royal in the second quarter, a 10-yard touchdown throw to Keenan Allen in the second quarter, and a 32-yard completion to Brown in the third quarter.

[+] EnlargePhilip Rivers
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesPhilip Rivers could look to single out rookie cornerback Bradley Roby on Thursday.
“I told Kayvon at the time, those were about Philip’s accuracy," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “There are always technique things you can do, footwork, at the line of scrimmage, but Kayvon was in the right spot a lot of time, it’s just Philip is accurate and he challenges everybody. He doesn’t care who you are; he would challenge Champ [Bailey]. I think he’ll come after me, too, because he has in the past."

Roby, who was the Broncos' first-round pick in this past May’s draft, has been tossed into the mix from his first day in the Broncos complex. Right from Roby’s first day, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio told the rookie he would have to “earn his way," and that Roby shouldn’t be surprised if he couldn’t crack the rotation right way.

The Broncos also tested Roby early in training camp, with both offensive coordinator Adam Gase and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas having said they “picked on’’ Roby plenty in those early practices. It was all for the greater good, however, for both Roby and the defense.

Because even then Del Rio had high hopes for Roby in the defense and one of the most important things for a young defensive back to do in the NFL is bounce back from mistakes, to survive, with some semblance of confidence intact, when the league’s best behind center find where you are in the coverage.

“I think it’s always the way where you, as a young player, have to keep fighting in there," is how defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, a defensive captain, has put it. “Guys in this league are going to test you, every game. If you can’t keep coming back, they’ll keep coming after you."

“I want them to trust me," Roby said. “I always say I want to be one of the reasons we win the game."

Del Rio has moved Roby all over the formation and figures to do it again against the Chargers. Roby, who didn’t play much, or ever, in the slot at Ohio State, has been put there plenty by Del Rio. Del Rio has matched Roby up on the likes of Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree while even adding Roby to the pass rush in recent weeks.

Roby has played on 78.8 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season and is third on the team in passes defensed – behind only the starting cornerbacks, Harris and Aqib Talib.

“You can’t be frustrated with guys like Rivers, [Tom] Brady or Peyton [Manning]," Harris said. “You can’t get frustrated with those guys. They’re going to make some tough throws into some tight coverages and you’ve just got to line back up to the next play. I remember last year, Kayvon had some great coverage and [Rivers] was able to just fit the ball in. So you can’t be discouraged. We’re definitely going to make those throws a challenge. He’s going to have to make some perfect throws. … And whoever is out there with us will be ready."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos place-kicker Brandon McManus, who was held out of Tuesday’s practice because of a groin injury, practiced Wednesday and will kick in Thursday night’s game.

McManus’ injury is to his kicking leg and he has appeared on the Broncos’ injury report since Oct. 1. The Broncos had held McManus out of practice one day last week as well.

The Broncos traded a conditional draft pick to the New York Giants just before the regular season opened because Matt Prater was headed for a four-game suspension for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. McManus was 3-of-3 on field goal attempts during Prater’s suspension. Since the injury, as well as since Prater’s release, Mcmanus is 3-of-4 with his miss coming from 53 yards.

On his 37 kickoffs this season, McManus has forced 28 touchbacks, the third most in the league behind only Indianapolis’ Pat McAfee and Baltimore’s Justin Tucker.

Running back Montee Ball (groin) again worked with the strength and conditioning staff, but did not participate in practice and was formally ruled out for Thursday’s game. The Broncos have at least some optimism Ball could practice next week on a limited basis if he continues his current progress.

Defensive back Omar Bolden (concussion) also was ruled out for the game. Linebacker Steven Johnson (ankle), who leads the team in special-teams tackles, was listed as questionable and the Broncos have optimism he’ll be able to play.

"I like the depth of our football team," Broncos coach John Fox said. "So we’ve got options we feel good about, but Stevie is still questionable for the game."
SAN DIEGO -- In the San Diego Chargers’ only win in three games against the Denver Broncos last season, the blueprint appeared pretty clear.

The Chargers used running back Ryan Mathews to wear down Denver’s defense by churning first downs. San Diego’s defense won on third down against one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game.

And by churning first downs on offense, quarterback Philip Rivers essentially played keep-away from Manning.

Mathews ran for 127 yards on 29 carries and a touchdown. The Chargers held the ball for more than 38 minutes. And Denver’s offense finished 2-of-9 on third down, helping San Diego earn a 27-20 victory.

Can San Diego put on a repeat performance on Thursday night?

“We want to be on the field as much as we can,” Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “We want to play our game. And that is our game. Our game is convert on third down, mix it with the run and pass, be efficient and score touchdowns in the red zone.”

Reich went on to say that undrafted rookie free-agent running back Branden Oliver will get his opportunities on Thursday. Oliver has rushed for over 100 yards in two of San Diego’s past three games.

“Against this defense you want to stay out of third-and-longs against those pass-rushers that they’ve got over there,” Reich said. “So we want to have positive plays, stay in phase and try to keep doing what we want to do. And Branden has been running the ball great, so we’re going to try to get him more touches than he had last week.”

Oliver rushed 16 times for 69 yards in a loss against Kansas City last week.

Rivers said whether or not his team runs the ball effectively or controls the clock, there’s one thing the Chargers have to do -- score early and often. Denver is averaging a league-best 31.5 points per game.

“I don’t think we go into the game playing keep-away,” Rivers said. “We go into the game playing to score. And if we score fast, great -- but we’ve got to score. You can’t go three to four possessions without scoring. We did that in the playoff game, and when you look up it was 21-0, 17-0 or whatever it was, just like that. And that’s not a team you want to be playing catch-up with all day long.”