If the San Diego Chargers hope to win their fifth straight AFC West title, it surely rests on the right arm of Philip Rivers. The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, have been relying mainly on Kyle Orton.
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The top two passers in the NFL meet Monday night when the Chargers look for their first division victory against the visiting Broncos.
Rivers and Orton are on pace to challenge Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 passing yards set in 1984. Rivers leads the NFL with 2,944 yards, and Orton is second with 2,806.
"Bombs away,” Denver defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson said. "It might be 800 yards.”
While the anticipated aerial fireworks are the main storyline, this is a pivotal contest for both teams’ playoff hopes. Oakland and Kansas City lead the West at 5-4, with San Diego (4-5) one game back and Denver (3-6) two back.
"Everyone wants to talk about the race and the position that everyone’s in," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "I really think we came to the conclusion that the best thing to do is go win a game at a time and not get caught up in the race."
The Chargers have won two straight but are 0-2 within the division, and know that another AFC West loss could be fatal.
"You have a Denver team that I would imagine feels like we did a week or two ago: ‘Hey, we get on a little bit of a roll, we’re right in there,’" Rivers said. "We’re a win away from first place and a loss away from last place. Everybody’s in it and there’s still a long way to go."
San Diego enjoyed a profitable bye last week along with Oakland as Denver routed Kansas City 59-29. The last-place Broncos feel re-energized after snapping a four-game losing streak.
"I think that was really the best example of a complementary football game that we’ve put together all year," coach Josh McDaniels said. "I think it’s a good thing for our team to be reinforced with what you’re really capable of doing when you put three phases together and play well."
Rivers may be getting some of his weapons back. Wide receivers Legedu Naanee and Malcom Floyd expect to both return from hamstring injuries.
Naanee has missed the last four games and Floyd, who leads all San Diego receivers with three touchdown receptions, has been out the last three.
It seems less likely that Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates will be back. Gates, tied for the league lead with nine TD catches, missed San Diego’s 29-23 win at Houston on Nov. 7 with a painful plantar fascia injury in his right foot.
"I’m going to do all I can do to get out there against Denver," Gates said. "Whether I can do it or not, I’m always trying to play. But it’s painful."
The Broncos have done a good job against Gates, holding him without a touchdown in his last five games against them.
Whether Gates plays or not, Rivers has excelled in distributing his league high-tying 19 touchdown passes among seven different players. It’s an effort that has drawn respect from his counterpart Monday.
"He’s a really good quarterback, I like the way he plays, he’s tough, he stays in the pocket with a lot of guys around him and he and Norv, just shot after shot after shot," Orton said. "And Norv’s a great play-caller who has a lot of imagination."
Orton is flourishing in his second season in McDaniels’ system. He managed a career-best 3,802 yards last season, and seems poised to shatter that mark.
His four-touchdown performance against the Chiefs last week was the best of his career.
"It’s a good offense for the quarterback,” Orton said. "So, it’s been a good year passing the football."
Orton has had most of his targets healthy, including Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd has a league-high 968 receiving yards, including an NFL-best 15 receptions for 25 yards or more.
Denver may have an edge with the presence of defensive tackle Jamal Williams, who spent his first 12 seasons with San Diego before signing a three-year deal with the Broncos in the offseason.
"It’ll be fun to see family and friends out there, but when it all comes down to it it’s all about football," Williams said.
These teams split two meetings each of the last two seasons after San Diego won four straight in the series over the two previous years.