NFL Preview - San Diego (8-7) at Denver (4-11)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Forget wonderful. Week 17 of this 2010 season is a most unusual time of the year for the San Diego Chargers.
Routinely entering the final game either battling to lock down a playoff seed or resting starters in anticipation of a deep run, the Chargers are merely playing out the string this time around as they prepare for a schedule-ending Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
San Diego's four-year stranglehold on the AFC West was broken last weekend, when they lost at Cincinnati and Kansas City won against Tennessee, giving the Chiefs the division crown.
Chargers team president Dean Spanos greeted the elimination with predictable frustration, but nonetheless maintained that the drop from the league's elite would not prompt major upheaval in the franchise's front office.
He told the San Diego Union-Tribune this week that both general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner would be retained for 2011.
"The easiest thing in the world is to start over," Spanos said. "Who the hell do I go hire? Blow the whole thing up? We're a pretty good team, but we have to make the right moves. We've fallen. It could have been our draft picks or our free-agent moves.
"But we have a good core, and I don't care what anybody says. I'm not afraid to make changes. If I thought it was warranted, I would do it. [But] We have a good foundation here."
Meanwhile, for the Broncos, it's a work in progress to identify who'll be part of the foundation going forward.
Controversial first-round draft pick Tim Tebow solidified his claim for a piece of that future last week, rallying Denver from a 17-point halftime deficit against Houston to a 24-23 victory, his first as an NFL starting quarterback.
Tebow threw for a career-best 308 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a score against the Texans.
The former Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion at the University of Florida was selected 25th overall in this past April's draft, a pick championed by then-head coach Josh McDaniels, who was fired in early December as the Broncos struggled through what's become a 4-11 nightmare season.
Previous starter Kyle Orton was unable to play in a Week 15 game against Oakland that provided Tebow his initial start, but had pronounced himself ready to go heading into last week, before interim head coach Eric Studesville decided to stick with Tebow.
Tebow will start again this week against the Chargers, leaving Orton, who's signed through 2011, contemplating his future.
"If I'm going to be here, I'm expecting to be the starter," he said. "I don't think my play has warranted anything other than that. I understand as an organization you've got a lot invested in first-round picks and you want to see them play. That's how it goes.
"The way it was presented to me is that he'll be starting the rest of the season, and that's just how it goes."
The Broncos lead the all-time series with San Diego by a 54-46-1 count, with the Chargers inching closer towards evening that overall mark by posting a 35-14 home Monday night victory during Week 11. San Diego has won seven of the last nine meetings between the teams and is 3-1 at Invesco Field at Mile High over that span, which includes a 32-3 rout there last season. The Chargers will be seeking their first home-and-home sweep of the Broncos since the 2007 campaign.
Turner is 6-7 in his career against the Broncos, including 5-2 since taking over in San Diego in 2007. Studesville will be opposing both Turner and San Diego for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego has been consistent in its offensive prowess all season, ranking in the league's top five in points (27.2 ppg, fourth), total yards (392.1 ypg, second) and passing yards (282.4 ypg, third). The Chargers have faced adversity while running, however, going for just 109.7 yards per game on the ground (17th in the league). Stopping opponents has been a rarity for the Broncos, who are dead last in scoring defense (29.2 ppg) and second-to-last in total yards allowed (387.1) and rushing yards allowed (153.9) per week. Denver is 25th-best in the league in stopping the pass, allowing 233.1 yards per game through the air.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is four touchdown passes from equaling his franchise record of 34 from 2008. He is third in the NFL with a career-high 4,397 passing yards this season, and in nine career starts against the Broncos, is 7-2 with 18 touchdowns and a 118.8 passer rating. He had four scoring passes in his last game against Denver, and in five games against the AFC West this season, he's averaging 293.6 passing yards with 11 touchdowns and a 105.0 rating. Behind him, running back Mike Tolbert has a career-high 11 rush touchdowns this season and went for 111 yards in his last game against Denver, but will sit out the finale after spraining his neck in the previous week's loss. Rookie Ryan Mathews, who has a rush touchdowns in two of his last three games, will take over the lead role in the backfield. On the outside, Vincent Jackson averages 17.7 yards per catch this season and fellow wideout Kelley Washington notched his first touchdown as a Charger last week.
On the defensive side for Denver, linebacker D.J. Williams leads the team with 116 tackles and cornerback Champ Bailey has four career interceptions against San Diego. Elsewhere, rookie corner Syd'Quan Thompson recorded his second interception of the season to end last week's game against Houston.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Denver's multiple quarterbacks have elevated it to seventh in the league in passing offense with an average of 256.5 yards per game and helped the team to 12th in the league in total yards (349.7 ypg). The Broncos have had trouble scoring, however, as a 21st-best average of 21.1 points and a 28th-best average of 93.2 rushing yards per game illustrates. Meanwhile, the Chargers are the league's best in limiting total yards (267.2 ypg) and passing yards (176.6 ypg), and are equally solid in rush defense (90.3 ypg, second) and scoring defense (19.6 ppg, eighth).
Tebow posted 308 yards through the air last week, the third-most by a rookie in Denver history. He has a 100.7 passer rating and aims for a third straight game with a rushing touchdown as well. In the backfield, running back Knowshon Moreno averaged eight yards per carry in his last game against the Chargers and Correll Buckhalter had 92 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns last week. Elsewhere, wideout Brandon Lloyd joined Rod Smith as the only Broncos with 1,300 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in a season during the Tennessee game. He went for 100 yards for the sixth time of the season last week. Lloyd averages 21.3 yards per catch at home this season, while counterpart Jabar Gaffney has career highs in catches (64) and receiving yards (863).
The Chargers are tied for first in the league with 44 sacks, and linebacker Shaun Phillips needs one to surpass a career-high of 11 1/2 from 2006. He has three sacks in his last three games against Denver. Cornerback Antoine Cason has recorded two interceptions in five career games against Denver and safety Eric Weddle leads the team with 89 tackles.
For the Chargers, it's a grab bag. Rivers has been an aerial circus, Mathews should get the bulk of the carries on Sunday and Jackson has shaken off early- season controversy to regain his status as a prolific threat. Not to mention the San Diego defense, which seems likely to prompt a Tebow mistake or two. As for the Broncos, Lloyd was rewarded for a breakthrough campaign with a deserved Pro Bowl nod and is a no-brainer pick.
Make no mistake, if Tebow is able to finish with a win over an elite defense and a perennial division rival, he'll be tough to unseat going forward. Chances are, though, that the Chargers have too much to offer on defense for him to thrive, and too much to offer on offense for Denver to stop.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 31, Broncos 17
12/30 19:16:19 ET