NFL Preview - San Diego (6-3) at Denver (6-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Stop us if you've heard this one before.
The Denver Broncos burst from the gates with a series of victories and appear ready to wake up the echoes of their halcyon days of John Elway and Terrell Davis as kings of the AFC West.
Mean time, the San Diego Chargers - perennially chosen as the heirs to the throne - rumble, bumble and stumble their way through the early going in the league's best uniforms.
And then...the situation changes.
The Broncos subtly transform from contenders to pretenders, while the Chargers regain their swagger, build some momentum and slowly reassume their status as the division's top dog.
It concluded dramatically in Week 17 last season, when San Diego completed an unbeaten December with a 31-point rout of the Broncos, snatching the West title from Denver's dumbfounded grasp.
The Broncos began the season 8-5 before dropping their final three games.
The Chargers started 4-8, then won the last four en route to a second-round playoff appearance.
And it seems the script is holding this season...albeit a little earlier.
Denver, with new coach Josh McDaniels and new quarterback Kyle Orton, was the league's westernmost surprise through an unbeaten six weeks - riding the back of a defense that allowed only 66 points in defeats of Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland, Dallas, New England and San Diego.
A bye week halted the charge, though, and the return to work has since resulted in consecutive double-digit losses to Baltimore (30-7), Pittsburgh (28-10) and Washington (27-17).
Orton hurt his left ankle against the Redskins and missed the second half, leaving the controls in the oft-dubious hands of Chris Simms, who completed just three of 13 passes for 21 yards and an interception as Washington rallied for 13 decisive points in the final quarter.
Orton did not practice Wednesday, leaving McDaniels to say, "We'll see. He's going to do everything he can to get better every day and we'll make that decision at the end of the week."
As for the Chargers, their annual late-season push has started a bit early.
"It's like deja vu, isn't it?" tight end Antonio Gates said. "It's like every time we play Denver, it means more than one game. We'll be fired up."
The Oct. 19 home loss to the Broncos dropped Gates & Co. to 2-3, but has since resulted in rapid-fire defeats of Kansas City, Oakland, the New York Giants and Philadelphia that has improved the slate to 6-3 and forged a tie atop the division.
San Diego returns to the patsy portion of the league with the Chiefs and Browns the next two weeks, before finishing in December/January with Dallas, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Washington.
Denver's road is slightly different, featuring a stretch run of the Giants, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Oakland, Philadelphia and Kansas City again.
"We've been in this situation before, so it's not anything new to us," linebacker Shawne Merriman said. "You hate to start off the season the way we start off sometimes, but when your back's against the wall, we've shown we can go out and perform."
The Broncos lead the all-time series with San Diego, 54-44-1, and were a 34-23 road winner when the clubs met in primetime on Week 6. The teams embarked on a conventional split of last year's home-and-home, with Denver earning a controversial 39-38 win at Invesco Field at Mile High in Week 2, a result aided by a questionable incomplete pass call by referee Ed Hochuli in the closing seconds, and San Diego wrapping up the AFC West title with a thorough 52-21 pounding of the Broncos at Qualcomm Stadium in Week 17. The Chargers last won in Denver in 2007.
On Sunday, the Broncos will be going for their first home-and-home sweep of the Chargers since 2005.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner is 4-7 in his career against the Broncos, with two of the losses dating to his tenure with Washington (1994-2000) and three coming while he was with Oakland (2004-05). The Broncos' McDaniels is 1-0 against both Turner and San Diego as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego glanced into the backfield last week and got a glimpse of its recent past, as oft-injured/slumping running back LaDainian Tomlinson lit up the Philadelphia defense to the tune of 96 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 24 carries. It was a season-best output for Tomlinson, who passed both Thurman Thomas and Franco Harris on the league's all-time rushing yardage list and now trails only Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith in career touchdowns. The Chargers have averaged a paltry 75.1 ground yards per game on the season, but could bump that number up if Tomlinson is truly back to form. Elsewhere, quarterback Philip Rivers is 5-2 lifetime against Denver and has completed 67.4 percent of his passes against the Broncos for 1,818 yards, 13 TDs and a 118.1 passer rating. Among his targets, Gates is one reception shy of 450 for his career and Vincent Jackson needs 268 yards to become the first San Diego wideout since Tony Martin (1995-96) to reach 1,000 in consecutive seasons.
The trends are ominous for a Broncos unit that had been on a record pace for points allowed before the losing began. Stopping the run became a particular spot of concern last week against Washington, which got 114 yards and a TD on 26 carries from backup Ladell Betts, who was replacing injured starter Clinton Portis in the lineup. Denver also surrendered a touchdown on a fake field goal, which resulted in a touchdown pass from punter/holder Hunter Smith. Still, the team is averaging a stingy 292.2 yards allowed per game, good for third in the AFC and sixth in the league. Just more than 105 of those have come on the ground, compared to 186.7 per week through the air. The team is first in the conference and tied for second in the league with 29 sacks, led by 11.5 from linebacker/end Elvis Dumervil. He is 1.5 away from establishing a career-best total after picking up 12.5 last season. Also, cornerback Champ Bailey is first at his position since 1999 with 44 interceptions. He has one of the team's seven picks this season. Linebacker D.J. Williams leads the group with 72 tackles.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Whether it's a gimpy Orton or a mediocre Simms under center, an increased emphasis figures to go to rookie running back Knowshon Moreno, who leads first- year players with 520 ground yards and had 97 on 18 carries last week against the Redskins. As a unit, the team is averaging 112.1 of its 328.8 yards per game on the run. In his last appearance against the Chargers, a healthy Orton tossed a pair of touchdown passes and notched a 115.4 passer rating. In his career, he is 18-3 at home as a starter. Simms' cameo last week was his first action in a Denver uniform. As for aerial targets, wideout Brandon Marshall is aiming for a third straight 100-yard receiving game and has averaged 123 per game for the last two. A third straight three-digit output would be a first in his career. He caught five balls for 134 yards against Washington and had 11 catches for 112 yards a week earlier against the Steelers. On the season, he has 49 receptions for 602 yards and six touchdowns.
Forgotten amid the winning hoopla and Tomlinson's return was the ominous fact that San Diego surrendered what seemed like a ton of yardage - 462 net, to be exact - to the Eagles, including 450 through the air by Donovan McNabb. That said, Philadelphia scored five times but managed just a pair of touchdowns, thanks to a stiffened red-zone resolve by the Chargers. And only 29 yards came on the ground in 13 rushing attempts. That either bodes well for the unit's prospects against youngster Moreno, or illustrates how useless a run game is after your team is down by 14 points in the game's first 19 minutes. Statistically, San Diego is allowing 326.7 total yards per week - which breaks down to 118.9 on the ground and 207.8 through the air. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie has interceptions in two of his last three games and shares the team lead with Antoine Cason. Linebackers Shaun Phillips and Merriman pace the team with five and four sacks, respectively, while fellow linebacker Stephen Cooper has a team-best 72 tackles.
The options are plenty for the Chargers on offense, making Rivers, Jackson, Gates and even the resurgent Tomlinson good bets as starters. It's not quite as clear cut for Denver, especially in QB turmoil, leaving Marshall as the only must-play option. Maybe Moreno, too, for those who own him. And both defenses are opportunistic as well if available.
Had this been a Week 1 matchup without nine weeks of context and an initial Denver road win in the first matchup, San Diego would be a clear favorite. So, given the fact that the Chargers are streaking and the Broncos are slumping... not to mention the fact that Orton might not be 100 percent if at all... the visitors seem a likely nod in the rematch. It's the West and anything could happen, but probably won't.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chargers 20, Broncos 10
11/19 16:27:43 ET