Denver Broncos (3-6) at San Diego Chargers (4-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural Grass
TV: ESPN, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, Michele Tafoya, Suzy Kolber
PREDICTION: Chargers 40-28
KEYS TO THE GAME: Neither team runs the ball well - and they rarely pay more than lip service to their ground games. This matchup is about Kyle Orton and Philip Rivers, and which quarterback avoids turnovers and is more efficient in the red zone. Denver has tweaked its offensive line in recent weeks to improve the protection in front of Orton. The Chargers hope a healthy OLB Larry English can team with Shaun Phillips to provide pressure off the edges. Rivers might still be without TE Antonio Gates, but has continued to average 327 passing yards per game despite numerous injuries to his receivers.
FAST FACTS: Rivers needs 308 passing yards to break Drew Brees' (3,251, 2008) record for the most passing yards through the first 10 games of a season. ... Denver is the only team in the league with three wideouts with 40-plus catches apiece.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
One by one Thursday, Denver players launched themselves onto a mat, arms outstretched, while special-teams assistant coach Keith Burns kicked the ball into their hands and bodies.
It will be well worth the punishment if the Chargers can once again oblige and add to what to date has been a jaw-dropping total of punt blocks this season.
Consider that San Diego has had that occur already four times, with another attempt tipped and resulting in a 1-yard punt. The rest of the league combined only has had only six punts blocked this season.
"People have found some opportunities there in the kicking game and tried to take advantage of some things there," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "But it's a long season and there's a bye week and you have time to adjust to different things. ... I'm sure San Diego did some of those things on every phase of their team."
In fact, on Nov. 10, instead of spending time on two or three special teams phases, the Chargers official website reported that the time was devoted exclusively to punt protection.
"I know they've had injuries and whenever you're changing people on special teams it's a big deal because you get in a rhythm with one another. Changing people up can be a cause of that," Broncos punt returner Eddie Royal said. "But we're preparing for them like always they have. They're going to be a problem and we've really got to focus on them."
It isn't as if special teams haven't had a glaring effect on San Diego-Denver either. In last year's Monday night meeting in San Diego, a scenario that will replayed again this coming week, Royal returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score and added a 71-yard punt-return TD as well as part of a team record 235 return yards. The Chargers' Darren Sproles added his own 77-yard punt return TD that same night.
"Special teams, it's always hard to say," Broncos fullback Spencer Larsen said when asked if he was surprised at San Diego's special-teams issues to date. "The coach over there (assistant Steve Crosby) has been a great coach for a long time. It's just one of those things -- a thing here, a thing there -- and you have to constantly have to be vigilant on it so it doesn't happen to you.
Royal and Sproles will resume their return roles Monday night, though Demaryius Thomas will have kickoff return duties for Denver.
The Chargers also have yielded a kickoff return and punt return TD this season. The Broncos have allowed one kickoff runback the distance.
Given the backdrop, fans watching on TV may consider postponing a trip to the refrigerator for that next icy beverage until all the way to the commercial break -- especially since Chargers coach Norv Turner has vowed that his team won't have another punt blocked for the remainder of the season.
The Chargers thought the layoff from their bye would aid Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates' foot and toe injuries.
That hasn't been the case as the Chargers practiced again without Gates as they prepare for Monday's game with the visiting Denver Broncos.
"It's not recovering as fast as I would probably want it to, in a sense, but who's to say I won't play?" said Gates, who has a torn plantar fascia band in his right foot. "Obviously they've got things to try to decrease the pain, whatever they've got to do to help me play in the game. But I'm dealing with something different. It's not the pain tolerance, it's the fact that it is a tear."
The normal time needed for plantar fascia injuries to heal is four-to-six weeks. That's time the Chargers don't have after a slow start has made each game so important.
Gates missed Thursday's workout and hasn't worked with the Chargers since an Oct. 31 victory over Tennessee.
"For some reason, I'm just in a situation where I really don't even know how this thing is going to play out, really," Gates said. "It's frustrating for me because I'm normally in a situation where I play and then I come back. But when you have that two-week rest and you still have to rehab almost as if you've played a game, it gets frustrating because I want to be out there and I want to try to do things to help."
Gates is among the team's biggest competitors and has among the highest pain thresholds. But he's mature enough to know that Kris Wilson (although he was out with a back injury) and Randy McMichael could fill in.
"It's a situation where I want to be a part of it and I want to help, but I understand that there's a difference between helping and hurting your team," Gates said. "I think that's a decision I'm going to have to make from this point on, day in and day out, as I try to get better.
"Am I a better player than Kris or Randy, with the thing that I'm dealing with? That's something I'm going to have to decide on my own. That's something I have to feel. That's asking a lot, trying to go out and do something at 80, 85 percent and be better than Kris and Randy."
--OLB Robert Ayers (foot) made it through Wednesday's practice unscathed and once again was on the field Thursday. The team is trying to gauge just how many snaps Ayers can handle Monday, but his availability at this point isn't in question.
--CB Andre Goodman continues to be the only player missing practice with a recurring quadriceps issue. Rookie Perrish Cox likely starts in his place yet again, with Nate Jones manning the nickel.
--NT Jamal Williams for the first time will face the team for whom he played 12 seasons. Williams made the Pro Bowl from 2005-07 with the Chargers and was a two-time All-Pro during that span, too.
--RB Andre Brown returned to Denver's practice squad for the second time, a week after being released by Carolina. Brown originally was acquired via waivers from the Giants after training camp. Brown also made a post-Denver stop with Indianapolis. The Broncos had one open vacancy on the practice squad so they didn't need to cut another player.
--QB Kyle Orton and this week's counterpart, San Diego's Philip Rivers, are the only two AFC players at the position to post seven games with a rating of 85-plus. Eli Manning of the Giants is the only NFC QB to match that feat.
--PK Matt Prater badly missed a 58-yard field goal Sunday, and only two of his eight kickoffs were touchbacks vs. Kansas City. Prater, though, chalked it up to a poor day and not a recurrence of a late-season "dead leg" he's experienced in the past. Prater's foot nicked the ground on his long field-goal attempt. His high kickoffs actually resulted in two returns tackled inside the 20 and another at the 21.
--QB Kyle Orton, the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week, completed 20 of 29 passes for 229 yards and two TDs against San Diego on "Monday Night Football" last season.
--QB Tim Tebow last Sunday became the first Denver rookie quarterback to rush and pass for a TD in the same game since Gary Kubiak on Nov. 20, 1983.
--TE Daniel Graham needs one TD to join Tony Gonzalez and Todd Heap as the only players at the position to have at least one scoring reception from 2002-10.
--WR Malcom Floyd (hamstring) was a full participant again Thursday and all indications are he will start on Monday.
--WR Legedu Naanee (hamstring) was only able to go on a limited basis. The Chargers pushed him hard Wednesday, and it wasn't surprising that he backed off Thursday.
--RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) didn't practice again and he could be out this week.
--ILB Brandon Siler (foot) was a full participant. Siler could be a big part of getting the special teams on track; he plays on short-yardage situations as well.
--TE Kris Wilson (back) was a limited participate. He could be a key on Monday if Antonio Gates can't go.
--K Nate Kaeding (groin) continues to work and he will kick on Monday.
--S Steve Gregory (shoulder) was a limited participant. He's likely questionable.
--DE Travis Johnson (shoulder) did some drills, but no team work. He's questionable for Monday.
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