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NFL Preview - Denver (5-5) at San Diego (4-6)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When John Elway speaks, quarterbacks should listen.
The Denver Broncos Executive Vice President of Football Operations recently said during his weekly radio show that quarterback Tim Tebow needs to do better on third downs and improve his passing. Elway was asked if the young signal-caller's recent success ended any issues at the position and simply replied, "No."
Whether or not the Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl champion Elway likes what he's seen so far from Tebow, the former University of Florida star is 4-1 since taking over for Kyle Orton under center.
Tebow will look to hush the critics once again when the Broncos visit the AFC West-rival San Diego Chargers Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. He won't have Orton as his backup for this one, however, after the Broncos surprisingly waived the former starter on Tuesday and he was claimed by Kansas City the following day.
Elway said in a statement it was the best for the organization at this time.
"We thought it was best for the Broncos at this time as well as for Kyle to catch on with a different team," Elway said. "Kyle is going to have more options in the NFL and he'll get an opportunity to play somewhere else and we wish him the best of luck."
Denver still may not be completely sold on its quarterback situation and is now left with Tebow, backup Brady Quinn and rookie Adam Weber, just promoted from the practice squad. But right now the team is moving forward with Tebow.
The second-year pro saw action in the Broncos' first matchup with San Diego this season, back on Oct. 9, and completed 4-of-10 passes for 79 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown strike to Knowshon Moreno in Denver's 29-24 loss. He also ran for 38 yards and a score on six carries, while Orton passed for just 34 yards with an interception in his final start before his successor took over.
Tebow has the fans and his teammates believing that the read-option offense can work at this level, and just proved that in a 17-13 win over the New York Jets in Week 11. The Broncos were down by a 13-10 score with less than six minutes to go in the game. That's when Tebow took over and eventually drove his team downfield and finished off the Jets with a 20-yard touchdown run to put Denver ahead with 58 seconds remaining in the game.
Head coach John Fox had plenty of praise for last year's first-round draft pick afterward.
"He's gotten better every week," Fox said. "I don't know if you all see it, but we see it. He was better [last week] than he was a week before as far as passing the football. He'll continue to do that. There is no doubt in my mind. Just like any young player, any young quarterback, it's going to take some time and some experiences."
At 5-5 on the season, Denver already eclipsed last year's win total of four and is a game behind the Oakland Raiders for the AFC West lead, with Kansas City and San Diego tied for third in the division with identical 4-6 records. But the Broncos are the hottest team in the wide-open division under Tebow, who has just one interception to go with his seven touchdown passes.
San Diego, however, has seen better days and will try to stop the bleeding on a season-worst five-game losing streak that followed a 4-1 start. A year removed from passing for 4,710 yards, 30 touchdowns and yielding 13 just interceptions, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is having a topsy-turvy type of season.
Rivers and the Chargers suffered a 31-20 loss at Chicago last Sunday in which the quarterback was picked off twice in the fourth quarter -- his seventh multi-interception game of the season after having just two in 2010. He has thrown a league-high 17 interceptions compared to 15 touchdown passes in 2011.
Instead of holding a lead atop the wide-open AFC West, the Chargers now find themselves behind the Broncos in the standings and tied for last in the division.
"It's a first for me, the first for the San Diego Chargers since ," Rivers told the San Diego Union-Tribune in reference to the losing streak. "It challenges you physically and mentally. We have to worry about winning a game. If you look at it like that, and you say you're going to help your team fight like crazy to try and win, that's about all that we can do at this point."
Rivers, who also had an interception in the red zone in the loss, was missing three starters across the offensive line (Marcus McNeill, Kris Dielman, Louis Vasquez), but the unit did not allow a sack after it watched Rivers go down six times in a loss to the Raiders the previous week.
Rivers wasn't the only Charger who made unwanted headlines in the Windy City. Running back Ryan Mathews fumbled twice and the one he lost led to a Bears touchdown. He has now fumbled three times in the last three games
The season is getting away from San Diego, which does play three of its next four games at home. The Chargers have lost two in a row as the host, however.
Though the Broncos lead their all-time series with San Diego by a 54-48-1 margin, the Chargers have now prevailed in four straight and nine of the last 11 matchups between the longtime division rivals following their previously- mentioned victory in Denver back in Week 5. San Diego also took both 2010 meetings with the Broncos, including a 35-14 home win during Week 11 of last season, but did fall to Denver by a 34-23 count at Qualcomm Stadium in 2009. That result stands as the Broncos' only triumph in their five most recent tests as the visitor in this set.
San Diego head coach Norv Turner is 8-7 against the Broncos for his career, including a 7-2 mark since taking over the Chargers in 2007. Fox owns a 1-2 record versus San Diego as a head man, with the first two games prior to last month's loss taking place during his tenure in Carolina from 2002-10.
Turner moved to 2-1 in head-to-head bouts with Fox following San Diego's Week 5 win. Turner's Oakland Raiders bested Fox's Panthers in 2004, while Carolina topped the Chargers in 2008 while still under Fox's direction.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Tebow (709 passing yards, 7 TD, 1 INT) has directed the Broncos to victory in each of his last three starts and has been brilliant in the fourth quarter in wins over the Raiders, Jets and Dolphins. With Orton gone, Tebow can relax a bit and worry less about possibly getting yanked from his starting position, but continuing to complete only 44.8 percent of his passes could send him to the sidelines in time. The athletic and spiritual leader is a danger to defenses with his ability to take off and run, something he did so well at the collegiate level and what the Broncos are trying to emphasize. With the Broncos tailoring their offense to Tebow's style, wide receiver Eric Decker (34 receptions, 7 TD) and tight end Daniel Fells (15 receptions, 2 TD) will be less involved. Decker leads the team with 34 catches, twice as many as the next active Denver player. Running back Knowshon Moreno is out for the season with a knee injury, leaving much of the ground work to Tebow (388 rushing yards) and Willis McGahee (658 yards, 3 TD). Tebow leads all AFC quarterbacks in rushing yards, while McGahee had 125 yards against the Chargers in the first meeting and owns four rushing touchdowns in his last four games against San Diego. Denver is fourth in the NFL in rushing (154.9 ypg).
The Chargers' defense has been put in tough situations this season with Rivers playing poorly. San Diego is allowing 30 points per game over its losing streak and did its best to stop Jay Cutler and the Bears last week. Cutler still passed for 286 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, however. Cornerback Antoine Cason (32 tackles) posted his first interception of 2011 in the loss and safety Eric Weddle (58 tackles) leads the team with five on the season. With Tebow's inaccurate passing, San Diego has to tighten up the NFL's 23rd-ranked rush defense. Linebackers Donald Butler (64 tackles) and Takeo Spikes (62 tackles) will be in for a busy afternoon, but were able to shut down Bears running back Matt Forte last week, holding him to 57 yards rushing and 26 receiving. Oakland's Michael Bush gained 242 yards from scrimmage against San Diego the previous week, however. Chargers linebacker Antwan Barnes (21 tackles) is tops on the defense with six sacks, while nose tackle Antonio Garay (39 tackles, 2 sacks) can plug the lanes up front. The Broncos aren't a high-scoring team, but San Diego is 28th in points allowed (25.9 ppg).
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivers (3023 passing yards, 15 TD, 17 INT) said the current five-game losing streak is rough and the team will continue to fight. He also added that a lot is at stake as far as playoffs are concerned and he needs to break out of his present funk. Rivers has enjoyed success throughout his career against the Broncos, posting a 9-2 record as a starter with 19 touchdown throws and six interceptions for a 109.8 passer rating. Perhaps his success in this matchup will pay off for the Chargers, who are fourth in passing with 287.8 yards per game and eighth in total yards (390.2 ypg). San Diego has nine fourth-quarter turnovers in the last six games and been outscored 41-20 in the final period over that stretch, however, and both Rivers and Mathews can share the blame. Mathews (580 rushing yards, 3 TD) has fumbled nine times in 21 career games. losing five, and had lost just one fumble in the first nine games of the season before struggling with ball security recently. He's also questionable to play on Sunday due to knee soreness, which could be a big blow considering he's rushed for 100 yards in back-to-back games against Denver, Mike Tolbert (296 rushing yards, 4 TD), who would take over as the lead back if Mathews can't play, is tied with wide receiver Vincent Jackson (800 receiving yards, 7 TD) for the team lead in receptions with 42, and Jackson has two 100-yard receiving games in the last three weeks.
Denver's defense has played significantly better with Tebow under center and it may be because of the less time it's had to spend on the field because of the offense's new look. The defense gave Tebow and company great field position in last week's win over New York and sacked Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez three times. Cornerback Andre Goodman (31 tackles) had a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown and finished with two passes defensed, while rookie linebacker Von Miller (48 tackles, 10 sacks) and defensive end Elvis Dumervil (15 tackles, 4 sacks) each had 1 1/2 sacks against the Jets, with Miller totaling 10 tackles and three stops for losses. Miller leads all rookies in sacks. The Broncos are 16th against the rush, but held the Jets to 83 yards on the ground. San Diego is more of a passing team, but it would be wise for Denver to focus attention on Mathews and Tolbert. Denver is only 21st against the pass, allowing 242.3 yards per contest, and matches up well with San Diego's weapons. Champ Bailey (24 tackles, 2 INT) is still one of the top cornerbacks in the league and Goodman is coming on strong. Pressure up front will be key in disrupting Rivers' timing, leaving Dumervil and end Robert Ayers (25 tackles, 2 sacks) responsible for applying pressure from the edge spots.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Can Rivers regain his magic against the familiar Broncos? San Diego has won four in a row against Denver, while the Chargers are 20-8 under Turner versus AFC West foes. All four teams in the AFC West are 2-2 in division play.
The Broncos have won three straight on the road and are hoping their magic doesn't run out this week at Qualcomm Stadium. Many experts feel Denver's new offensive approach will fade out like the run-and-shoot or the Wildcat that Miami broke out a few years ago. Gadget plays rarely work at this level because of the speed on defense, and the Broncos' approach may be running on borrowed time.
Denver's defense has been playing well lately, but will face a San Diego team in dire straits. Rivers has been heavily criticized lately and would love nothing more than to shut his critics up. He said the Chargers still have a chance at turning their mess around and will try to do so against a Denver defense rated 20th in points allowed, 27th in yards surrendered and 31st in opponent's pass efficiency.
Both Rivers and Mathews have fallen on hard times for the Chargers, but will have the fan support this week in a big AFC West matchup. The Chargers must expose the Tebow factor with heavy preparation, which other teams have failed to successfully stop since the left-handed quarterback starting making headlines with his unorthodox style. It won't be easy for Denver's defense trying to stop both Rivers and Mathews either, while its offense will find tough sledding ahead with the read-option. The Broncos could pull the wool over everyone's eyes with an aerial assault to prove that Tebow has the tools to be a consistent passer in the NFL, but this is not the week Elway will be convinced.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 30, Broncos 20
11/25 09:54:39 ET