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NFL Preview - Denver (3-6) at San Diego (4-5)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The second half of the season has been a time the San Diego Chargers have savored in past years, and a period the Denver Broncos have come to dread.
While the four-time AFC West champion Chargers attempt to put together another strong stretch run to propel themselves into the playoffs, the Broncos enter Monday's divisional showdown at Qualcomm Stadium intent on avoiding the late- year collapses they've been identified by in recent times.
San Diego got off to its customary slow start under head coach Norv Turner, dropping five of its first seven contests of this 2010 season, but once again has begun to kick it into gear as the holidays approach. The Chargers headed into last week's bye with a head of steam, having followed up a critical 33-25 home victory over contending Tennessee on Oct. 31 with a stirring come-from- behind triumph at Houston in Week 9.
The surge has vaulted San Diego within one game of first place in the AFC West, a spot presently shared by Kansas City and Oakland.
The Chargers scored 15 unanswered points on two touchdown passes from MVP candidate Philip Rivers in the second half to upend the fading Texans by a 29-23 count, with the verdict extending the club's winning streak in November games to six. The Bolts have been even better in the season's final month, having prevailed in 19 straight non-playoff tilts in December and January since 2006.
Denver has often gone in the other direction during the season's final stages. The team is a subpar 15-23 from November on since 2006, with San Diego having amassed a stellar 32-5 record over that same time frame.
The Broncos lost eight of their last 10 bouts following a 6-0 start under first-year head coach Josh McDaniels last season, and were overtaken by the Chargers for the AFC West crown in 2008 after ending the campaign with three consecutive defeats that triggered the dismissal of longtime sideline boss Mike Shanahan.
Denver seemed on its way to another dismal second half of this season after being dealt four straight losses prior to its own Week 9 bye. The Broncos came out like gangbusters in their first outing after the break, however, opening last Sunday's game with Kansas City with 35 consecutive points en route to a 49-29 thrashing of the shell-shocked Chiefs.
Quarterback Kyle Orton led the outburst by throwing for a career-high four touchdowns in a 22-of-34, 296-yard display. The standout signal-caller has now racked up 2,806 passing yards through the first nine games, second only to the 2,944 compiled by Rivers in his assault on the NFL single-season record books.
Rivers also had four touchdown passes in San Diego's latest win, despite participating with a depleted receiving corps that didn't have All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates due to a lingering foot problem and wideouts Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee because of hamstring strains.
Both Floyd and Naanee appear to be on track for a return on Monday, but Gates' status figures to remain in limbo up until game time.
Monday's matchup has significant meaning as well for Denver, which trails the Chargers by one game in the division standings, and especially so for Broncos nose tackle Jamal Williams. The 34-year-old spent his first 12 NFL seasons with San Diego before being released in March, earning three Pro Bowl citations during that stretch.
The Broncos lead the all-time series with San Diego, 54-45-1, including an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home. Denver earned a 34-23 upset road win when the teams met in a primetime game in San Diego in Week 6, with the Chargers returning the favor in the form of a 32-2 thrashing in Denver in Week 11. The teams embarked on a conventional split of the 2008 home-and-home, including the Chargers' thorough 52-21 pounding of the Broncos at Qualcomm Stadium to win the AFC West title in Week 17.
Turner is 5-7 in his career against the Broncos, including 4-2 since taking over in San Diego in 2007. The Broncos' McDaniels is 1-1 against both Turner and San Diego as a head coach.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
The former coordinator of a New England Patriots offense that shattered numerous NFL records in 2007, McDaniels operates a diverse pass-first attack in which Orton (2806 passing yards, 16 TD, 5 INT) has thrived since coming over from Chicago in the Jay Cutler trade prior to last season. The sixth-year pro been able to skillfully spread the ball around to a solid cast of receivers headlined by another ex-Bear in Brandon Lloyd (48 receptions, 968 yards, 6 TD), the league's current leader in receiving yards. The breakout star is averaging better than 20 yards per catch as the big-play threat in Denver's second-ranked aerial assault (312.1 ypg), with journeyman Jabar Gaffney (48 receptions, 573, 2 TD) and slotman Eddie Royal (43 receptions, 2 TD) usually working the lanes underneath. The Broncos have had trouble mounting a steady running game, having averaged league lows of 76.8 rushing yards per week and 3.2 yards per attempt, but are coming off a landmark performance in last Sunday's rout of the Chiefs. Top back Knowshon Moreno (358 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 5 total TD) had a season-best 106 yards on 22 carries in the game, while adding 50 receiving yards and a score. Denver's longest running play on the season is just 19 yards, also the worst in the NFL.
Denver's prolific passing numbers will be put to the test by perhaps the best defense Orton has seen this year. The Chargers have yielded the third-fewest passing yards in the league (185.2 ypg) as well as only eight touchdowns through the air, while Texans All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson was held to just four catches for 41 yards by cornerbacks Quentin Jammer (24 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD) and Antoine Cason (37 tackles, 2 INT, 9 PD) in that Week 9 meeting. San Diego also stands among the NFL leaders with 27 sacks, with nearly half that total coming from the linebacking duo of Shaun Phillips (30 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) on the outside and Kevin Burnett (52 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INT) along the interior. Antonio Garay (30 tackles, 4 sacks), who's taken over for Williams on the nose, has also helped out in that area in addition to lending support to the league's fourth-rated run defense (89.4 ypg). The Chargers have given up their two highest yardage numbers in their two recent wins, with Tennessee gaining 370 yards in Week 8 before Houston managed 392 on the unit, 140 of which came on the ground.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
A revolving door at the skill positions has done little to slow down Rivers (2944 passing yards, 19 TD, 8 INT), who's averaging an astounding 327.1 passing yards per game while completing 65 percent of his throws in expertly directing the NFL's top-ranked total offense (420.2 ypg). The fiery field general helped make a star out of unknown rookie Seyi Ajirotutu (9 receptions, 2 TD) in the Houston game, with the undrafted wideout producing 111 yards and two scores on only four catches, while little-used veteran Randy McMichael (7 receptions, 2 TD) also had a pair of touchdown grabs in subbing for Gates (40 receptions, 663 yards, 9 TD). That may the case on Monday as well, with the star tight end slow to recover from a plantar fascia tear in his foot. The physical and dangerous Floyd (24 receptions, 513 yards, 3 TD) does appear ready to come back from a three-game absence to take his spot alongside Cowboys castoff Patrick Crayton (25 receptions), however. The Chargers are also dealing with injuries at running back, with talented rookie Ryan Mathews (382 rushing yards, 2 TD, 15 receptions) likely to be limited on Monday due to an ankle sprain. Converted fullback Mike Tolbert (395 rushing yards, 7 TD, 14 receptions) will be the top candidate for carries this week, with the diminutive Darren Sproles (131 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 1 TD) maintaining his duties as the third-down back.
Rivers could be set up for another big night this week, considering the Broncos are a troubling 28th overall in pass efficiency defense and have come up with only five interceptions on the year, and the group was lit up for 469 yards and four touchdowns by Kansas City's Matt Cassel a week ago. A secondary in which all four regulars are 32 years old or over has begun to show its age, as cornerback Andre Goodman has played in only four games due to a quadriceps problem and isn't expected back on Monday and 37-year-old free safety Brian Dawkins (39 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) hasn't been able to make the same impact the eight-time Pro Bowler has in years past. A sporadic pass rush that's generated a mere 13 sacks hasn't helped matters, although the team did take down Cassel four times last Sunday. Outside linebacker Mario Haggan (57 tackles, 3 sacks) had three of those sacks, one of which forced a fumble that counterpart Jason Hunter (36 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) returned 75 yards for a touchdown. Inside linebacker and leading tackler D.J. Williams (74 tackles, 3.5 sacks) will be back in the starting lineup after being benched for part of the Week 10 win following a DUI arrest, while rush linebacker Robert Ayers (19 tackles, 1.5 sacks) could return from a broken foot that's kept the 2009 first-round pick out since early October.
Rivers and Orton have been the top two point-getters at the quarterback position this season, and this potentially up-and-down affair certainly won't hinder either's standing as a must-start. Denver also has three usable receivers in Lloyd, Gaffney and Royal, while Moreno's excellent last week is a positive sign for the young running back's future prospects. San Diego's situation is a bit cloudier due to injuries, especially the one to Gates. With the game falling on a Monday, it may be risky a proposition to wait and out and see if he'll play. Floyd appears safe to use, however, and his value would get a nice boost if Gates is indeed inactive. Crayton becomes a solid choice for the same reasons. Sit Mathews and give a thumbs-up to Tolbert, while Sproles is a worthy selection in point-per-reception leagues as well as one that count return yardage. Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding is on track to return from a groin injury that sidelined him for three games, so owners shouldn't hesitate to use him as well. Avoid either defense, however, as this one could be high scoring.
Even if the past histories of both these teams are disregarded, it's hard not to like the Chargers here. San Diego comes off a bye and is 3-1 at home so far this year, and a Denver defense that's held the opposition under 24 points just twice this season figures to have a very hard time dealing with Rivers and the Bolts' high-powered attack. Orton will once again put up impressive numbers, but the Broncos' one-dimensional offense won't be able to keep up with a San Diego squad that can light up the scoreboard and is starting to once again round into form at the right time.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 34, Broncos 21
11/19 15:08:04 ET