The NFL is beginning to see vintage Peyton Manning, which is bad news for every team except the Denver Broncos.
It's especially daunting for the Chargers, who blew a 24-0 halftime lead at home to the Broncos a month ago and visit Denver today.
A Broncos win would be their fifth straight and would give them a three-game lead in the AFC West. It also could provide some more milestones for Manning in his 15th pro season and his first in Denver.
With one more touchdown pass, Manning would pass Dan Marino; both have 420, trailing Brett Favre's 508. He's completed 70 per cent of his passes in six consecutive games, already an NFL mark.
Most importantly to Manning would be getting his 148th career victory, which would break a tie with Marino and deadlock him with his current boss, John Elway.
"I don't speak to the streaks or what's going on, all I know is, it's a division game, it's a team that, obviously, the Broncos have a lot of familiarity with," said Manning, whose comeback from neck surgery that sidelined him last season has been spectacular. "It's a longtime rivalry... we know they're going to be ready to play."
But ready to play the way the Chargers did in the first half of that 35-24 defeat, or the second half?
"Well, again, everyone can speculate all that stuff on the outside and obviously you're aware of it because of the numbers, but our biggest thing is we need to go play and put four quarters together and play at a high level and take care of the ball and not give up," coach Norv Turner said.
"If a team's going to make plays on you, make them earn it, don't give up easy plays.
"It's a challenge for us coming into Denver, but certainly to have a chance to stay in the division race, we need to go win a game."
Otherwise, Denver could turn the AFC West into a runaway.
Indianapolis (6-3) at New England (6-3)
Now that Manning is performing his wonders in the Mile High City, this rivalry appeared to lose steam. Then Andrew Luck and the Colts broke loose, winning four straight to establish themselves as wild-card contenders. Pretty neat for a club that went 2-14 in 2011, earning the top overall draft pick that was spent on Luck.
Considering how many holes New England's defence has shown -- it ranks 25th overall, 29th against the pass, and has surrendered at least 24 points five times -- Luck might look like Manning at Foxborough.
Despite that leaky defence, the Patriots are running away with the AFC East.
Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Stevan Ridley on offence are why.
Baltimore (7-2) at Pittsburgh (6-3)
The Steelers have a way of rallying the troops when stars go down, something the defence has done with Troy Polamalu sidelined for weeks with a calf problem. Now it's Ben Roethlisberger who is out with shoulder and rib injuries -- at the worst time, with two games against the AFC North leaders in the next three weeks.
Byron Leftwich steps in, with another veteran, Charlie Batch, in reserve.
"I'm not going to go out there and try and be Ben," Leftwich said. "We see the game differently. He's physically able to do some things that I can't do, but that doesn't mean I can't go out there and do my job."
Baltimore's D often has been dominant, but not this season. Still, the Ravens are in good shape for the playoff run.
Chicago (7-2) at San Francisco (6-2-1), Monday night
ESPN must have been salivating for a matchup between two NFC favourites with physical defences, outstanding runners and the inside track on division titles.
Instead, the network might get backup QBs Jason Campbell, in for Chicago's Jay Cutler, and Colin Kaepernick, replacing San Francisco's Alex Smith. Both starters were concussed in last week's games.
Regardless of who takes the snaps, this figures to come down to which of these intimidating defences imposes its will on the opposing offence.
Arizona (4-5) at Atlanta (8-1)
Spinning out of control with five straight losses, the Cardinals got a week off. They return -- to face a ticked-off bunch of Falcons, who lost in New Orleans to spoil their perfect record.
Arizona needs to solve issues in the ground game: The Cardinals can't run it and they can't stop the run. Atlanta uncharacteristically butchered scoring chances late in the loss to the Saints. It's also struggling running the ball.
Green Bay (6-3) at Detroit (4-5)
Fresh from a bye, the Packers still have injury issues, with star linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) out and starting tackle Bryan Bulaga gone for the season with a hip injury. DB Charles Woodson and WR Greg Jennings still are out.
Yet the Pack is favoured, in great part because the Lions are so unreliable. Which makes them dangerous, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers said.
"They're playing at home, their crowd's going to be into it, it's going to be loud. There's going to be a surge early in the game and we're going to have to play a four-quarter game."
Jacksonville (1-8) at Houston (8-1)
Biggest mismatch of the weekend. Make that biggest mismatch of the season.
Tampa Bay (5-4) at Carolina (2-7)
Get these numbers: 38, 28, 36, 42, 34.
Those are the points the Buccaneers have put up the last five weeks, with four wins to become playoff contenders. Josh Freeman has become one of the NFL's most dangerous passers, rookie Doug Martin has been sensational running the ball, and the receiving tandem of Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams has broken out.
Tampa Bay is also first in run defence, mainly because it is last stopping the pass. Carolina doesn't do either particularly well.
New Orleans (4-5) at Oakland (3-6)
The Saints are stoked, believing they are on a spurt to the playoffs after an 0-4 start. Coming off handing archrival Atlanta its first defeat, New Orleans can't afford to stumble here with the 49ers, Falcons, Giants and Bucs ahead on the schedule.
They Saints found some timely defence to go with their prolific offence.
Philadelphia (3-6) at Washington (3-6)
A rookie QB who most of the time has been sensational will take on a first-year signal-caller getting a chance because the veteran starter is concussed.
Washington's Robert Griffin III certainly seems to have the edge over Nick Foles, who replaces Michael Vick. RG3, despite some inconsistencies, has delivered everything the No. 2 overall draft choice should. He's ninth in passer rating, leads all QBs with 529 yards rushing, has scored six times on the ground and thrown for eight TDs.
Cincinnati (4-5) at Kansas City (1-8)
The Bengals put together their best effort of the season in manhandling the Giants, and now they begin a tour through the mediocre AFC West (minus Denver, which has already beaten them) by facing the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers.
"I think there were some things that we continue to do better," coach Marvin Lewis said after Cincinnati snapped a four-game slide. "We are a very, very young team..."
Cleveland (2-7) at Dallas (4-5)
Dallas has begun thinking about a revival that will lift it back into the NFC playoff picture, and with matchups against the Browns, Redskins and Eagles at home just ahead, the Cowboys could become relevant again.
New York Jets (3-6) at St. Louis (3-6)
The skill positions could spell the difference here. St. Louis has the edge at quarterback (Sam Bradford over Mark Sanchez), running back (Steven Jackson/Daryl Richardson over Shonn Greene) and receiver (Danny Amendola over anyone and everyone). The Rams also have more playmakers on defence and come off an uplifting tie at San Francisco that probably should have been a win.
New York is in a tumultuous spiral that has affected its offence, defence and special teams.
-- The Associated Press