Denver Broncos (7-5) at San Diego Chargers (10-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 94th meeting. The Broncos lead the series over the Chargers, 52-40-1. The Chargers seized a rare victory in Denver earlier this month, only their second in Colorado since 1999. The Broncos have split their last four games at Qualcomm Stadium. The Broncos capped their 1997-98 season with a Super Bowl victory over the Packers. Denver beat the Chiefs -- then coached by Marty Schottenheimer -- during those playoffs. 2006 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 22nd (4th rush, 26th pass); defense 13th (9th rush, 19th pass). Chargers: offense 5th (2nd rush, 13th pass); defense 8th (6th rush, 13th pass)
PREDICTION: Chargers 23-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: The speed of the NFL clearly got to rookie QB Jay Cutler in the Broncos' loss to Seattle, and now he makes his first career road start against one of the league's most athletic front sevens. Coach Mike Shanahan made the switch in hopes of taking advantage of Cutler's strong arm, but Denver has to be able to run the ball first and help thwart the Chargers' aggressive pass rush. RB Tatum Bell is coming off a strong game, but it's not easy to find running lanes against San Diego with DT Jamal Williams clogging up the interior. The Broncos will likely be pretty conservative offensively unless Cutler proves he can move the ball.
RB LaDainian Tomlinson will continue to receive a heavy
workload, especially with Broncos MLB Al Wilson likely to be slowed even
if he is able to return from a sprained neck suffered against Seattle.
Denver has done an excellent job containing Chargers TE Antonio Gates,
who does not have a touchdown reception in the past seven meetings.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: Are 7-1 when Bell rushes for at least one touchdown. ... Shanahan is 19-7 against San Diego. Chargers: Will clinch a playoff spot with a win and the AFC West title if Kansas City also loses. ... Tomlinson's 26 touchdowns are two short of the single-season record set by Seattle RB Shaun Alexander last season.
--K Jason Elam is still improving from a left hamstring injury. The Broncos are letting him rest during the week, and they are optimistic he'll be able to kick this Sunday.
--OT Adam Meadows missed the team portion of practice again Thursday. He has a hamstring injury, and his status for Sunday's game is up in the air. He did not play last week.
--S Steve Cargile was signed from the practice squad to the active roster. The Broncos had an extra roster spot after Cecil Sapp went on injured reserve. Cargile could help on special teams.
--FB Keith Belton was signed to Denver's practice squad. The Broncos have only one healthy fullback, Kyle Johnson, on the active roster. Belton spent most of 2004 and 2005 on practice squads in Detroit and Chicago.
--TE Stephen Alexander has practiced all week despite a sprained ankle. He is listed as questionable on the injury report, but he should play Sunday.
--WR Keenan McCardell is still bothered by a sore calf and will be a game-time decision.
--DE Luis Castillo (ankle) is poised to return to the starting lineup after missing the past four games.
--WR Malcom Floyd, who is a solid red-zone target, is out with an ankle injury.
--TE Antonio Gates felt a pull in his hamstring during practice and was held out of the rest of Thursday's workout. But Gates doesn't think the injury is serious and said he would play Sunday.
--ILB Randall Godfrey (calf) still isn't working and will be a game-time decision.
--S Bhawoh Jue (knee) didn't work Thursday, but he will be a go for Sunday.
--FS Marlon McCree (knee) continues to work and will play Sunday after missing two games.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Broncos linebacker Al Wilson said he isn't worried about playing again. Wilson was involved in a scary scene Sunday night when he was strapped to a stretcher and taken to a hospital after spraining his neck.
Wilson returned to practice Wednesday after tingling in his shoulders and triceps went away.
"I put my life on the line every time I step out there," Wilson said. "This is what I live for, to play football. If something happens to me on the football field, just know that I feel good about it, and I'm doing what I love to do."
Wilson said the neck injury he suffered against Seattle on Sunday wasn't as bad as it looked. He said he didn't want to be carted off the field, but the doctors were cautious with him because he lost feeling in his arms.
"I can't say what was truly going through my mind, but it was a few bad words for the doctors," Wilson said about being carted off the field. "I told them they didn't have to do that. They could have let me get up and walk off the field."
Wilson took most of the snaps in practice Wednesday and Thursday, and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he should be ready for Sunday's game against the Chargers.
"Unless there's a setback, he'll play," Shanahan said.
Now isn't the time to collect atta-boys.
"You can't get complacent until everything is set in place," Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "It's hard to get complacent when you still got four games to play."
Tomlinson continues his trek to the rookie book and the Chargers their drive for the playoffs when they entertain the Broncos on Sunday. Four games remain in the regular season, and San Diego plays three of them at home.
"We're in the fourth quarter now," Tomlinson said. "We are just starting the fourth quarter. We have played three quarters so far, and this team has a tendency of finishing games, so hopefully we can finish this fourth quarter."
Tomlinson needs two touchdowns to tie Shaun Alexander's single-season NFL record at 28. And the Chargers with a win can clinch their second playoff berth since 1995.
But Tomlinson, and the Chargers, aren't there yet. That's why Tomlinson isn't doing cartwheels.
"After the season is usually the time you get a chance to reflect," said Tomlinson, who is 20 points shy of Paul Hornung's single-season record of 176. "During the season is not the time to reflect on what you have done, and I don't want to start patting myself on the back or my teammates on the back because we still have unfinished business."
The Broncos tried to rattle the Chargers' high-powered offense last month with blitzes and stunts, but San Diego rallied for a 35-27 win. This time? One only knows, as the Broncos are desperate to snap a three-game losing streak and stay in the AFC wild-card hunt.
"I think the first time they tried to put pressure on us and thought
that would be the key to stopping our offense," said Tomlinson, who
scored four touchdowns in the win over Denver. "Who knows what they are
going to do? Treat us like the Colts and try to stay back and cover? I
don't know what to expect from them, but whatever it is, we have to be
ready for it."
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