Broncos Update Insider - Thursday, Dec. 2

The Broncos' biggest game of the season is this week, but they have to make sure that last week's game isn't on their mind anymore. The Broncos claim that the disappointment of blowing an 11-point fourth-quarter lead in a home loss to Oakland last Sunday is past them, and they're ready for a game against a San Diego team that is one game ahead of them for first place in the AFC West.

"The mood has been good," defensive end Reggie Hayward said. "We let one get away against Oakland, but we're confident we can come out and still play competitive football against San Diego.

"It's behind us, we came in and made the corrections and we did what we had to do to get ready for San Diego. Oakland is over and now it's on to a more important game."

Forgetting about the Raiders loss won't be easy. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan admitted Monday that it was a little tougher to swallow than a normal loss, because the Broncos had the game in hand. It also is a tough loss because of what it meant in the standings.

The Broncos now are in a position where if they lose against the Chargers, who have only lost once since Denver beat them on Sept. 26, they could miss the playoffs altogether.

If Denver loses on Sunday the Broncos will be two games behind San Diego, and the Chargers would have a big edge in almost every possible tiebreaker. With a loss the Broncos would be looking at getting into the playoffs as a wild card, but they would be behind the Jets, Ravens and maybe Jacksonville in that race.

The importance of Sunday's game isn't lost on the Broncos players, who will try to not focus on what could happen if they lose.

"When you do that, you're setting yourself up for a disaster," safety Nick Ferguson said. "You go into panic mode if something doesn't go your way during the game."

On the flip side, the Broncos would be in pretty good shape if they win Sunday. The Broncos would be tied with the Chargers for first place in the division but own the tiebreaker because of a season sweep. The Broncos only play one team with a winning record after Sunday, and that is at home against Indianapolis. San Diego has to play Indianapolis on the road in the final month of the season.

But the Broncos need to focus more on the game itself than the implications of it.

"It's a big game, but you can't make it bigger than it is," Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said. "It's not a playoff game, but obviously it could have a lot of playoff implications. We know we've got to go down there and beat them if we want to have a leg up in our division. We lost to the Raiders and we didn't want to, but we knew either way we were going to have to beat the Chargers."

SERIES HISTORY -- 90th meeting. The Broncos lead the series 50-38-1, and beat the Chargers earlier this season. In Week 3, Denver won 23-13, with Ashley Lelie's 33-yard touchdown reception on a fourth-and-nine in the third quarter being the big play of the game.

The Broncos can go into Sunday's game with history on their side. Denver has won 12 of the past 14 meetings against San Diego.

But it has been a long time since the Broncos and Chargers were playing with a division title on the line, as will be the case on Sunday. Whoever wins Sunday's game will be in first place in the AFC West with four games to go.

"We know we have a big task against an excellent football team," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "Our football team understands what is at stake."

--Shanahan admitted that when Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who didn't play college football at Kent State, was in the NFL Draft, he did not know anything about him.

"Zero," Shanahan said. "In fact, I asked about him. I said, 'Where did he play?' They said he played basketball. So, to be honest with you, I didn't know anything about him. But San Diego sure did a great job getting him."

Gates leads all tight ends with 11 touchdown receptions.

--DE Trevor Pryce wasn't cleared to practice after a scheduled examination by Dr. Robert Watkins on Tuesday. Pryce's unresponsive nerve in his hip is improving, and the Broncos said his playing status will be determined on a week-to-week basis.

The Broncos have played almost all season without Pryce. He played in Denver's first game of the season, but was at less than full strength. Pryce hasn't played since the regular-season opener.

BY THE NUMBERS
4 -- The Broncos sacked Chargers quarterback Drew Brees four times in their first meeting, because they blitzed him often. That is tied for the Broncos season high in sacks.

QUOTE TO NOTE
"This is a better (Chargers) team than I saw in the Super Bowl in 1995." -- Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who was San Francisco's offensive coordinator when the 49ers beat San Diego in that Super Bowl.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

If the Chargers spread the field with multiple receivers, the Broncos will have to hope their nickel and dime cornerbacks are up to the challenge.

With Lenny Walls on injured reserve after he dislocated his shoulder for the third time this season last Sunday, Willie Middlebrooks is back as Denver's nickel back and rookie Roc Alexander will be the dime cornerback. Middlebrooks has played well for most of the season, but struggled badly as Denver's nickel back against New Orleans' Donte Stallworth and was demoted in favor of Walls.

Alexander, who was the only undrafted rookie to make the Broncos roster, has played sparingly on defense. He has very good speed and has played well on special teams, but the Chargers might try to exploit a matchup against him when Denver is in its dime defense. Denver's other option at cornerback is rookie Jeff Shoate, a fifth-round pick who has been inactive most of this season.

--K Jason Elam was not at fault on Sunday's miss in the final seconds against the Raiders. Elam said he thought the kick was good when it left his foot, but the Raiders got too much penetration up the middle and the kick was blocked. Elam has missed only three field goals this season.

--TE Mike Leach, Denver's long snapper, had a couple of high snaps against Oakland. Leach didn't blame the cold, snowy conditions for the snaps, but it probably played some part. Leach has been a reliable snapper for the Broncos.

--WR Triandos Luke was active against Oakland but didn't return punts. That's because in poor conditions, the Broncos felt more comfortable with sure-handed Rod Smith fielding punts. Luke, a rookie, did get his first career reception in Denver's final drive.

--RB Reuben Droughns is 54 yards away from his first 1,000-yard season. He has one more yard this season than former Broncos back Clinton Portis, whom Denver traded to Washington in the offseason. Droughns was Denver's starting fullback for the first four weeks of this season and had 10 carries for 30 yards in those games.

-- CB Champ Bailey could find himself taking some turns on Chargers tight end Antonio Gates on Sunday. San Diego will line up Gates all over the field, and if he is split wide then Bailey could stick on him. Bailey took turns against Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez in Denver's season opener.

GAME PLAN

The Broncos have to find a way to rattle Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, who has been nearly perfect since the first time Denver played him. The first time Denver played San Diego, Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer sent a steady stream of blitzes at Brees. Brees didn't do much that day, but he barely missed a couple of deep passes that could have turned the game around. If Denver blitzes Brees as much as it did the first time around, the Chargers will have chances to get plays downfield.

Denver's offense will have to figure out early on if it can run the ball against a tough Chargers defense. The first time, it couldn't. The Broncos had 37 yards rushing in the first meeting. Jake Plummer isn't nearly as effective when he's asked to drop back and pass 40 times, so getting Reuben Droughns going early will be very important.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

--Broncos S Kenoy Kennedy vs. Chargers TE Antonio Gates. The first time the Broncos and Chargers played this season, Gates had a quiet four-catch, 30-yard day. Give Kennedy a lot of credit for that because he was on Gates plenty of times in that first meeting. Strong-side linebacker Donnie Spragan will also take some turns against Gates in coverage, as could cornerback Champ Bailey.

--Broncos interior OL vs. Chargers NT Jamal Williams. The Broncos line is smaller than most, and Williams is a load in the middle. The first time the two teams played, Williams was a big reason Denver only had 37 rushing yards, the lowest total for the Broncos in Mike Shanahan's 10 seasons as head coach. The Broncos need to run the ball to be successful, and the key to that on Sunday will be making sure Williams doesn't get too much penetration and ruin Denver's zone blocking scheme.

--Broncos WR Ashley Lelie vs. Chargers CB Drayton Florence. Florence will be in the lineup with starter Sammy Davis out with a leg injury. Lelie has been one of the best deep threats in the NFL this season with six touchdowns, all of which were 30 yards or longer. His 18.6-yard average is tops in the NFL among receivers with 35 or more catches. Expect Denver to take plenty of shots downfield against the new starter Florence.

INJURY IMPACT
DT Luther Elliss said in his mind, if he practices by Friday this week he'll be ready to play on Sunday against the Chargers. Elliss took a few reps during practice on Wednesday with the scout team, but Shanahan said the team would continue to list him as doubtful.

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