For all the blind optimism which Peyton Manning's arrival imbued in Denver Broncos fans, two ominous spectres hung over their team's chances of making the post-season this year. Firstly, would Manning's body - and, more particularly, shoulder - stand up to the heat of gameday battle after career-threatening neck surgery? Secondly, could the Broncos safely negotiate a menacing early schedule to keep their play-off chances alive?
Happily for the Mile High faithful, it appears Manning has been as good as his word in the recovery stakes. Granted, he is feeling his way back to optimum condition, but he has already demonstrated that his arm can still make the precise long-range strikes alongside those neat short-field offloads. The four-time league MVP has also crucially proved that he can perform when the clock is winding down at the death - the Broncos lead the NFL in fourth-quarter scoring. In short, Manning is improving with every passing game and seems a lock for the 16-game run of the regular season.
Denver's fixture list, however, is looking as difficult as initially feared. In my season preview, I said that if Manning could guide the Broncos to a 4-4 record through a tough eight-match stretch, their play-off credentials would be strong. I stand by that. And a primetime win in San Diego will take them to a noteworthy 3-3, with a welcome rest week to come.
Of course, this match-up against the Chargers is potentially pivotal for a number of reasons. Should Denver win, they will take over from San Diego atop the AFC West and hold a handy tie-breaker advantage over the Chargers to boot. Lose and they will fall two games behind their main divisional rivals with a bye week to wallow in their mediocrity. Manning also has a personal score to settle with his opposing quarter-back, Philip Rivers, who leads him 4-1 in a private duel which includes two post-season victories.
The Chargers were early field-goal favourites for this Monday nighter, but the Vegas Line has now receded to a "pick 'em" scenario. The Broncos' excellent recent record in San Diego (where they have won two of the last three) may only be part of the story in this handicap shift. Rivers is not what he was in seasons gone by when his erratic delivery always seemed to connect when the chips were down. The Bolts' QB also used to be assisted by perhaps the league's best receiving corps. But that claim no longer holds true after off-season trading and some inevitable concessions to time from talismanic tight-end, Antonio Gates.
Further, Denver have proven adept at breaking through the Chargers' offensive line and getting to Rivers. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller both sacked him twice in last year's two head-to-heads, and these doughty defensive ends will fancy their chances of repeating the feat. Couple that to Manning's more even-handed offense, whose running back Willis McGahee racked up a whopping 242 yards against San Diego in 2011, and the Broncos should drive a game-winning wedge between these AFC Westerners.
In a game which promises to be a shootout amid benign conditions, the overs on Total Points also make plenty of appeal at the 48 mark.
Back Denver Broncos to win on the Money Line @ [1.9] or better
Back Over 48.5 Total Points @ [2.0] or better
Back W McGahee to be First / Anytime Touchdown Scorer @ [6.0] or better