San Diego Chargers (7-2) at Denver Broncos (7-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer
SERIES: 93rd meeting. The Broncos lead the series 52-39-1, including a 34-11-1 mark in home games -- Sunday's game is at Denver. The Broncos 52 wins against San Diego are their highest total against any team. The Chargers have won but twice in Denver since 1987; that includes a six-game losing streak in Colorado.
2006 RANKINGS: Chargers: offense 4th (2nd rush, 11th pass); defense 8th (6th rush, 15th pass). Broncos: offense 19th (4th rush, 27th pass); defense 13th (5th rush, 27th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 23-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson is second in the league in rushing and has 15 touchdowns over his past five games, but he has averaged just 52.8 yards in five career games in Denver. Anything Tomlinson can produce on first and second down takes pressure off QB Philip Rivers, who has shown plenty of poise but is still making his first start in hostile Denver. The Broncos' own running game has struggled of late with RB Tatum Bell nicked up and LT Matt Lepsis out for the year. With the ground game sputtering, QB Jake Plummer has increasingly turned to his tight ends in the short passing game. But the outcome could hinge on the Chargers' ability to prevent WR Javon Walker from cashing in on back-breaking big plays downfield.
FAST FACTS: Chargers: Have lost 10 of past 11 games in Denver. ... Rivers has eight touchdown passes and one interception in his past five games. Broncos: Have a five-game winning streak against AFC West teams. ... C Tom Nalen will tie for third-most in franchise history with his 177th start.
--DE Luis Castillo (ankle) didn't practice again Thursday and looks to be a longshot to be playing Sunday. He would be replaced again by Jacques Cesaire.
--WR Eric Parker (neck) has returned to practice, but he didn't complete all the drills; he is still moving stiffly. He could return to his punt return duties, although the team may go with Keenan McCardell.
--WR Malcom Floyd (ankle) is back practicing. At one time, that would have been no big deal, but Floyd has become a favorite target of QB Philip Rivers. Floyd has three touchdown catches, which leads all of the Chargers' wideouts.
--C Nick Hardwick (ankle) is back practicing, but it will be interested to see how he holds up against Michael Myers and Gerard Warren.
--LS David Binn will set a team record by appearing in his 201st game on Sunday. That will break the mark he shares with Junior Seau and Russ Washington.
--DE Ebenezer Ekuban said he hopes to practice Friday, but his chances of playing this week are diminishing. Ekuban, who has a thigh injury, hasn't practiced this week.
--DE Patrick Chukwurah missed practice Thursday for the second consecutive day. Unless he can practice Friday through a hamstring injury, he is unlikely to play Sunday.
--LB Ian Gold has participated in the warm-up portion of practice Wednesday and Thursday, but not the team portion. Gold has a hamstring injury and is questionable on the injury report.
--TE Stephen Alexander did not participate in the team portion of practice Thursday. He did practice Wednesday, but he is questionable with a thumb injury. Alexander stayed in the game after suffering the injury last week. Alexander is a big part of Denver's running game.
--OT Erik Pears has held his own since replacing injured LT Matt Lepsis, but the Broncos need a little more out of him. Denver has struggled in the running game the past two weeks without Lepsis, one of the most underrated left tackles in the NFL.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Philip Rivers is headed to play the Broncos on Sunday night, trying to do something many Chargers quarterbacks couldn't: win at Denver. The Chargers have won once there in their last 11 visits.
Rivers, though, hasn't blinked yet in what has been an amazing run in the first nine games. He has thrown 10 touchdown and three interceptions, has completed 66 percent of his passes and has ended four games with a passer rating of 100-plus.
Surprising? Not to the Chargers' veterans. "No, I don't think so," LaDainian Tomlinson said. "I don't think anyone is surprised by the way Philip is playing.
"Philip has been here three years now, and every day we've seen the guy work and we've seen him making all the throws that you want from a quarterback, and then when he took over the spot as a starter, we seen him through offseason camps and minicamp and training camp, and so we've seen something special. We knew that we could continue to keep rolling as an offense."
Rivers has been at the helm of the highest-scoring offense in the NFL.
"I think a lot of guys knew that he was going to be good and he wasn't going to take a while to come in and adjust to the speed of the game," Tomlinson said.
Rivers said by sitting behind Drew Brees for two seasons, he watched how the starter prepared. And that has helped him greatly has he's led the Chargers to a 7-2 mark and a share of first place in the AFC West.
Tomlinson knew the Chargers were going to be good, not taking Rivers into the equation. But now that the QB has proven the game isn't too big for him, the Chargers are planning on going deep in the playoffs.
"You knew you had a chance to be good because for one, we knew that we had a good defense, we knew that we could run the football," Tomlinson said. "The only question was would we be able to throw it successfully?
"So obviously when you lose a quarterback, you wonder how good are you going to be. Now, we knew we were going to be good still, but 7-2 after nine games, that's pretty good."
Broncos starting tailback Tatum Bell is still hurting, and his status for Sunday's game at San Diego is up in the air.
Bell did not participate in the team portion of practice on Thursday, the Broncos announced, an apparent setback. The Broncos announced Bell did practice Wednesday.
Bell is questionable on the injury report with two injured big toes. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan admitted earlier this week that he played Bell too much against Oakland last week when it was obvious Bell was hurting.
"It's hard," Bell said. "It's pain. I'm dealing with it. As long as I can run, I'm going to go play."
If Tatum Bell can't play, the Broncos have to figure out who will start. Damien Nash was the backup last week, but he had a fumble and is only one week removed from being on the practice squad. Mike Bell was inactive against Oakland last week, but Shanahan has offered praise for him this week and said he wasn't in the doghouse.
Tatum Bell admitted he probably won't be 100 percent all year, but he'll try to battle through it.
"I think I lost a step a little bit, but I'm getting better," Bell said.
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