San Diego Chargers (0-1) at Denver Broncos (0-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Randy Cross
SERIES: 91st meeting. The Denver Broncos lead the series, 50-39-1, and have won three of the last four encounters. The Chargers lone win in that span was a big one, when they prevailed last December, 20-17, with a share of the AFC West lead at stake. *2005 rankings: Chargers: offense 24th (13th rush, 23rd pass); defense 10th (21st rush, 13th pass). Broncos: offense 20th (25th rush, 13th pass); defense 32nd (27th rush, 26th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 23-21
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chargers hope the return of TE Antonio Gates will make life easier on RB LaDainian Tomlinson, who had his streak of at least one reception snapped at 63 games last Sunday. With Gates back, the Broncos can't key in on stopping Tomlinson. Denver CB Champ Bailey hopes to play through a separated shoulder, but count on Chargers QB Drew Brees to test him or replacement rookie CB Darrent Williams early and often. To assist a reeling defense, the Broncos need to get their running game untracked. They rushed for just 111 combined yards in two meetings last year, and starting RB Mike Anderson is battling a rib injury. Anderson expects to play and the Broncos need him because backup Tatum Bell has not proven effective in short-yardage situations. San Diego will also blitz QB Jake Plummer, who threw four interceptions in the last meetings.
FAST FACTS: Chargers: Tomlinson has scored at least one touchdown in 13 consecutive games, tying the NFL record held by John Riggins and George Rogers. ... WR Keenan McCardell's 764 career receptions is tied for 14th place on the all-time receptions list with his receivers coach, James Lofton. Broncos: 28-6-1 in home openers since 1970. ... Lead the series 50-39-1 and have won the past five meetings at home by an average of 13 points.
--RDE Igor Olshansky (ankle/knee) didn't practice on Thursday. If he can't go, Jacques Cesaire would switch from left starting spot to the right side.
--DE Luis Castillo could get his first NFL start if Igor Olshansky can't go. Castillo, who played defensive tackle at Northwestern, would play at Cesaire's left defensive end.
--WR Vincent Jackson (Achilles' tendon, calf) was out again. He's listed as questionable; he won't play this Sunday.
--LG Toniu Fonoti (hairline fracture in his hand) didn't practice. He was wearing an ace bandage, so the injury isn't thought to be serious. He's listed as probable and all signs point to him starting.
--WR Kassim Osgood drew praise for his work on the kickoff coverage unit.
--RB Darren Sproles is getting closer to working his way into some packages.
--CB Sammy Davis, despite getting beat for the game-winning touchdown on Sunday, will remain the nickel back.
--CB Champ Bailey, who dislocated his left shoulder in Denver's season opener, practiced on Thursday and proclaimed himself ready to play Sunday against San Diego as long as he doesn't have a setback before then. Bailey said he was able to do everything during practice, including jamming receivers.
--RB Mike Anderson practiced Wednesday but was not at practice Thursday because he was attending a funeral. He is questionable with separated rib cartilage. The Broncos have said Anderson can't make the injury worse but he'll have to deal with pain if he plays.
--QB Jake Plummer has been bad in his three season openers with the Broncos, with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. He had two interceptions against Miami last week. But in his two Week 2 games with Denver, he has three touchdowns and no interceptions.
--TE Jeb Putzier might never be a great blocker, but he is a dangerous receiver at his position. His seven catches last week tied a career high. The Broncos haven't gotten much out of Putzier in the red zone, however, and that is an area in which the team has struggled.
--DE Courtney Brown has practiced all week after being inactive last week. Brown missed all of the preseason with a dislocated elbow but could be ready to make his Broncos debut this week.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Change is in the Chargers' air, and it answers to Antonio Gates.
"I think it definitely changes things a lot because he's obviously one of our playmakers," Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "I think our offense, hopefully, opens up a lot more and we'll be able to get the ball down the field some and put more points on the board."
Gates, an All-Pro tight end, makes his season debut on Sunday when the Chargers travel to Denver. Gates missed the opener, serving the final game of a three-game suspension for missing a Chargers signing deadline.
The Chargers offense stalled in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys in the red zone - where Gates does his best work. The Chargers had a first down at the Dallas 7 in the closing minute and couldn't connect on four straight Drew Brees passes.
Count Brees as among those welcoming Gates back.
"Because of the matchups that he creates, when we're trying to throw him the ball, he's able to get open in a lot of different ways against just about anybody," Brees said. "So there he's a great weapon.
"Also, just the fact that he's on the field and people have to worry about him opens things up for other guys - other receivers, L.T. in our running game, and L.T. in our passing game. So, you talk about just a guy who not only gets the ball, but even when he's not getting the ball, he makes an impact."
Gates, a team-oriented guy, is bummed about the loss in the opener.
"Obviously I felt I let my team down because I wasn't there to help them this past Sunday," Gates said. "It opens up an opportunity for us to go to Denver and take care of Denver because that was a lost opportunity. We wanted to win our home opener, and we didn't do that."
And regrets in staying out a day past the deadline which cost the team his services?
"You know what? In a way, I mean, considering the circumstances," he said. "I wasn't out there on Sunday. Obviously I wanted to be there, I wanted to be here long-term, just things happened. You learn from them and now it's time for me to look forward and get ready for Denver."
Ashley Lelie was hoping to improve on last year's 1,000-yard season, but he didn't start 2005 in that direction.
Lelie had a poor season opener against Miami. He caught two passes for 17 yards. He had one pass on a third-and-goal go through his hands. He misplayed another deep pass that probably would have been a touchdown and let it go over his head for an incompletion.
"Ashley has been very consistent this year throughout the preseason and camp," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "He didn't play one of his better games. He has to look at it, be tough on himself and get ready for the Chargers."
Lelie was pretty consistent last season. Only once was he less productive than he was in last week's game against Miami, when he had one catch for 3 yards at Tampa Bay in Week 4.
Lelie wanted to become a better all-around receiver after becoming one of the best deep threats in the NFL, and he said that aside from the obvious mistakes, he did improve in some areas.
v "I blocked well, I was physical, I didn't let myself be guarded," Lelie said. "They didn't do a great job covering me, I just didn't make the plays like the easy catches or the read with Jake downfield."
Lelie said he was happy with his effort against Miami. He also said there won't be a repeat of the many mistakes he had.
"No, no, no, no," Lelie said. "There's going to be dropped balls and stuff like that, but I don't think it's going to be as bad as it was."
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