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NFL Preview - Denver (5-0) at San Diego (2-2)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - In what has become an all-too-familiar scenario, the San Diego Chargers find themselves in danger of falling way behind in the AFC West race.
And while a loss to the rival Denver Broncos on Monday night at Qualcomm Stadium would not be a fatal blow for the Chargers, Norv Turner's squad would certainly find themselves reaching for the ropes.
Much of that situation has to do with Denver, who has been arguably the biggest surprise in the NFL during 2009 to date.
Following a turbulent offseason that included the trade of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler and a much-publicized spat between the team and top receiver Brandon Marshall over his contract situation, the Broncos have washed away all the bad feelings with a 5-0 start.
Last week brought the Broncos' most impressive moment of the year thus far, as Denver rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit to defeat the visiting New England Patriots, 20-17, in overtime.
A 41-yard Matt Prater field goal in the extra session lifted Denver to 5-0 for the first time since 1998, when they won their first 13 games en route to a 14-2 finish and the team's second Super Bowl title in as many seasons.
Quarterback Kyle Orton (35-of-48, 330 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) had his best day as a Bronco in the mild upset victory, while a defense that is allowing an NFL- low 8.6 points per game kept McDaniels' squad in the game.
As all of this was happening, the Chargers were licking their wounds during a bye week that followed an inconsistent 2-2 start.
Just before their week off, San Diego was a 38-28 loser at Pittsburgh, nearly rallying from a 28-0 third-quarter deficit to tie the game, but ultimately falling short.
Philip Rivers (21-of-36, 254 yards) threw a season-high three touchdowns in the defeat, including the first two of the season for tight end Antonio Gates, but the once-vaunted Chargers running game continued to lag behind.
After managing just 16 ground yards in the blowout, San Diego is now ranking last in the league in rushing offense (53.8 yards per game) and yards per carry (2.7).
On the other side of the ball, a formerly well-regarded defense ranks last in the NFL in opponents' third-down percentage (49.0).
A step toward shoring up that area came on the eve of Week 6, when San Diego released starting safety Clinton Hart and signed defensive tackle Ian Scott to take his roster spot.
The Broncos lead the all-time series with San Diego, 53-44-1, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. Denver earned 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. San Diego had the last laugh, however, claiming the AFC West title with a thorough 52-21 pounding of the Broncos at Qualcomm Stadium in Week 17.
San Diego has now won five of the last six in the series, including three straight at home. The Broncos last won at Qualcomm Stadium in 2005.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner is 4-6 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 will be meeting both Turner and San Diego for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
McDaniels was billed as an offensive mastermind when he took the head job with the Broncos, and though the 5-0 start has included quite a bit of great defense, the Denver attack quietly ranks sixth in NFL total offense (376.8 yards per game) as Week 6 begins. Orton (1236 passing yards, 7 TD, 1 INT) has been impressively efficient, with his only interception coming on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half against the Patriots last week, and has shown a growing chemistry with wideouts Brandon Marshall (24 receptions, 4 TD) and Eddie Royal (18 receptions). Marshall followed up a heroic performance against the Cowboys with a two-touchdown afternoon against the Patriots last week, while Royal shook off a quiet early season by hauling in 10 balls for 90 yards. Third receiver Jabar Gaffney (17 receptions) also logged six catches for 64 yards against his former team, and tight ends Daniel Graham (12 receptions) and Tony Scheffler (10 receptions, 1 TD) combined for seven grabs in the win. An ankle injury to Correll Buckhalter (267 rushing yards, 1 TD) pushed rookie Knowshon Moreno (337 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 2 TD) into the primary rushing role last week, and the first-rounder did not disappoint. Moreno had 124 total yards on 25 touches, including 88 yards on the ground, in the win. Buckhalter is expected to return on Monday but it is unclear how McDaniels will distribute carries. A solid Broncos line has allowed just eight sacks during the season to date.
The San Diego defense has had trouble against both the pass and run through the first four weeks, a situation that was underlined in the team's most recent outing, against the Steelers. The Chargers allowed an eye-popping 497 yards in the loss, including 333 through the air to Ben Roethlisberger, and 165 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to the emerging Rashard Mendenhall. The Chargers' only bye week answer to solving the problem seems to be the release of Hart on Wednesday, with his roster spot taken by the ex-Bear Ian Scott. The good news for the Chargers in the Pittsburgh loss is that San Diego doubled its sack output of the season, dragging Roethlisberger down three times. Rookie pass rusher Larry English (6 tackles, 1 sack) notched his first sack of the year in the game, but fellow outside linebacker Shawne Merriman (8 tackles) came up empty once again. On the back end, cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie (10 tackles) and Quentin Jammer (17 tackles, 1 INT) will have primary responsibility for slowing Marshall and Royal this week, with safety Eric Weddle (30 tackles, 1 INT) helping out over the top. The Bolts rank a distant 27th in NFL rushing defense (151 yards per game) as Week 6 begins, with inside linebacker Stephen Cooper (39 tackles) and end Luis Castillo (13 tackles, 1 sack) ranking among the club's best run-stuffers,
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The Chargers' biggest offensive problem through the first four weeks is that they haven't had a 100-yard rusher...as in, leading rusher Darren Sproles has 90 ground yards for the entire season. Clearly, San Diego must do a better job of establishing LaDainian Tomlinson (70 rushing yards, 1 TD) and Sproles (15 receptions, 2 TD) if they wish to have a chance to beat the Broncos on Monday night. Elsewhere on offense, it's hard to argue with the work that Rivers (1245 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) and the San Diego passing game has done. The former first-rounder is averaging well over 300 passing yards per game, while throwing primarily to wide receiver Vincent Jackson (20 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Antonio Gates (24 receptions, 2 TD). Gates had a huge night against the Steelers in Week 4, catching nine passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns and almost single-handedly getting the Chargers back in the game. Jackson ended up with five catches for 56 yards in the loss, while Chris Chambers (6 receptions, 1 TD) had his best game of the season with four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. A San Diego line that has dealt with injury problems from the outset of the season has surrendered 10 sacks on the year.
Denver enters Week 6 ranked second in the league in total defense (252.8 yards per game), including fifth against the pass (171.8 yards per game) and sixth versus the run (81 yards per game). One thing Rivers will have to be conscious of is a very good Broncos pass rush, led by outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (18 tackles), who is tied for the league lead in sacks (8) entering Week 6. Veteran Vonnie Holliday (7 tackles, 2 sacks) had the lone sack of Tom Brady last week, however. On the back end, a veteran secondary led by cornerback Champ Bailey (23 tackles, 1 INT) and safety Brian Dawkins (34 tackles) has been outstanding. The run-stopping effort, which held the Patriots under 100 yards last Sunday, has been led by inside linebackers D.J. Williams (40 tackles, 1 sack) and Andra Davis (33 tackles, 1 sack). Williams had a team-high nine tackles in the win over the Pats. End Kenny Peterson (15 tackles) has been the team's most active run-stopper up front.
Despite its 5-0 start, the Broncos have not had a wealth of consistent fantasy playmakers, though intriguing options abound. McDaniels seems to have more trust in both Orton and Moreno with each passing week, and Marshall is rounding into form after his off-field behavior led to a slow start to 2009. Royal comes off a huge week, but don't forget that he had only six catches through the team's first four games. Tight ends Graham and Scheffler seem to be canceling one another out in terms of production. The Denver defense has been a great play, and don't hesitate to use them given the struggles of the San Diego attack. Broncos kicker Matt Prater is going to miss some field goals, but is also capable of adding value with his long kicks.
With Tomlinson ranking high on the list of fantasy busts, all of the Chargers' worthy fantasy players are members of the passing game. Rivers and Gates are must-starts, and Jackson has posted 100 yards, a touchdown, or both in three of his four games this year. Kicker Nate Kaeding is 8-of-9 on field goals this year, but only one of those has come beyond 40 yards. The San Diego defense currently resides on most waiver wires for a reason.
It's always dangerous to expect a Norv Turner-coached team to answer the bell in a must-win situation, especially when that situation comes in the first half of the year. But given the way Denver is playing, one would hope that San Diego's coaches and veterans understand that this is not a year to count on recovering from 5-5 or 4-8 to make the playoffs, and that a home game against the division leaders represents a sort of Waterloo if the club wishes to contend for the West title. For that reason, look for the Chargers to come in with a rare bit of October focus and a solid game plan given their extra week to prepare. Denver will compete, but the undefeated ride comes to an end here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 25, Broncos 17
10/15 17:46:38 ET