Denver Broncos (12-3) at San Diego Chargers (9-6) ========================================
KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein
SERIES: 84th meeting. The Denver Broncos lead the San Diego Chargers 51-31-1. The Chargers lost 20-17 earlier this season at Denver. Last year at Qualcomm Stadium, Jake Plummer threw four interceptions and San Diego won, a pivotal game in the Chargers' AFC West championship season.
2005 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 5th (2nd rush, 14th pass); defense 16th (3rd rush, 29th pass). Chargers: offense 8th (8th rush, 11th pass); defense 13th (1st rush, 30th pass)
PREDICTION: Chargers 20-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: With the No. 2 seed in the AFC locked up, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan admitted he will rest several key players including MLB Al Wilson and RB Mike Anderson. The question is, do the Chargers have enough pride to take advantage despite being knocked out of the playoff race last weekend? The Broncos want to prove they can run the ball against the Chargers' top-ranked 3-4 run defense, especially with Pittsburgh a possible playoff opponent. But mostly, Shanahan wants to get his guys enough work to stay in the groove and then get them out of the game. The Chargers need a victory to secure a winning home record, but the offense has been inconsistent at best with RB LaDainian Tomlinson battling a rib injury over the past month. He's expected to play Saturday, but backup Michael Turner could see significant snaps as well.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: RB Tatum Bell needs 131 yards to join Anderson as the first teammates with 1,000 rushing yards in the same season since Cleveland's Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner in 1995. ... Anderson tied an NFL record by going five years between 1,000-yard rushing seasons (2000-05). ... Lead the series 51-39-1. Chargers: Tomlinson has gone four games without rushing for at least 100 yards or scoring a rushing touchdown. ... TE Antonio Gates needs one touchdown reception to become the first tight end in franchise history with consecutive 10-touchdown seasons.
--LB Keith Burns likely will start in Al Wilson's place at middle linebacker this week. Wilson will miss the game with a broken thumb. Burns is Denver's best special teams player but has rarely played on defense.
--LB Louis Green could see some playing time on defense. He is a solid special teams player, and with Al Wilson out of the lineup, he could get some time at outside linebacker against San Diego.
--LB Ian Gold was added to the injury report with a groin strain. Gold could get an early hook against San Diego because the Broncos can't improve their playoff seed.
--DE Ebenezer Ekuban will start in place of Courtney Brown, who is out with shoulder and knee injuries. Ekuban has played well off the bench all season, mostly in pass-rushing situations.
--C Tom Nalen and the rest of the offensive line can't expect to get too much rest this week. The Broncos have only two backup offensive linemen on the roster, so they can't substitute very liberally on the line. If anyone gets an early rest, it probably will be Nalen, 34. Ben Hamilton could slide over to center.
--SS Terrence Kiel (ankle) has been placed on injured reserve. Clinton Hart replaces him in the starting lineup.
--DE Igor Olshansky (quadriceps) didn't practice Thursday and will be a game-time decision. He would be replaced by DeQuincy Scott.
--NT Jamal Williams (foot) didn't practice Thursday and will be a game-time decision.
--FS Bhawoh Jue (knee) didn't practice Thursday and said he will not play. Veteran Jerry Wilson replaces him.
--CB Markus Curry, a rookie out of Michigan, was signed to take the roster spot of SS Terrence Kiel (ankle).
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson needs one touchdown to set the team's single-season record at 20. He is tied with Chuck Muncie. Tomlinson's bruised chest still bothers him, but he's intent on finishing on a high note.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Tatum Bell has gotten more playing time than most backup tailbacks in the NFL, but he still hasn't gotten much of a chance to prove he can be an every-down back for the Denver Broncos.
Bell should get that opportunity on Saturday against San Diego. Bell likely will start with Mike Anderson out with an ankle injury. That would be the first start of Bell's NFL career. Bell might get pulled early so he can rest for the playoffs and Ron Dayne could get some carries, but Bell probably will get a fair share of attempts. His career high in carries is 17.
"I want to prove to the coaches and my teammates I can carry 25 times and still come out of a game healthy," Bell said.
Bell struggled earlier this year when Anderson went down in the first quarter against Miami. He got 13 carries and gained 47 yards, 30 of which came on one run, and he failed to score near the goal line in the first quarter. Bell said he thought that might have set him back in the eyes of the coaches.
"I felt like I had a decent training camp and preseason and all that stuff, but I think they lost confidence in me the first game," Bell said. "Hopefully I can bring that confidence back."
One knock on Bell is he hasn't stayed healthy. Bell dealt with finger, rib, shoulder and hamstring injuries last year. He missed one game this season with a bruised chest.
Bell, who needs 131 yards to get 1,000 for the season, could eliminate some of the questions about him with a solid game against San Diego.
"He's got a great opportunity," coach Mike Shanahan said.
It will be interesting to see the effort the Chargers put out Saturday, as they close what is nothing short of a disappointing season.
Right tackle Shane Olivea said there is only one way the Chargers will play: hard.
"The season isn't 15 weeks long," Olivea said about Saturday's meaningless game against the visiting Broncos, with the Chargers eliminated from the playoffs. "We owe it to everyone in the locker room and this organization to give it everything we got."
The Chargers had hoped the season finale wouldn't come so soon. But Saturday's loss in Kansas City ruined those plans. So now the carrot is posting consecutive seasons with double-digit wins, something not done in San Diego since 1981-80.
Olivea insists the Chargers will be motivated to gain their 10th win. They've lost six games, but not their pride.
"We signed up for 16 weeks, and we have to prepare like it's another week," he said.
Even when carting the pain of a season gone haywire.
"No one feels as bad we all do in here," he said.
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