Division title on the line

At the beginning of the year, the Denver Broncos would have gladly taken a one-game playoff on Dec. 28 at San Diego to decide the AFC West title.

That's not the case anymore. The Broncos led by three games with three to play, but now the Chargers will win the AFC West with a win on Sunday night. The Broncos have lost two in a row, and the Chargers have won three in a row. If the Chargers win, both teams finish 8-8 but San Diego wins the tiebreaker based on a better divisional record.

After Sunday's 30-23 loss to Buffalo, Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler tried putting a positive spin on Denver's situation, saying they would have taken a win-and-in game at the end of the season against the Chargers at the beginning of the season. He wasn't pleased when it was brought up that a couple weeks ago the Broncos didn't want to be in that position.

"Well, we are now, so that's reality," Cutler said.

Denver had two chances to clinch the AFC West themselves. They lost at Carolina, which is understandable considering the Panthers were undefeated at home. The disappointing loss was to the Bills, who were 6-8 and fell behind 13-0 in the first half to the Broncos.

Denver blew the lead and now has to go on the road to win a game with the division on the line.

"Everybody is sick to their stomachs," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "You can't get sicker than that."

The Broncos have to figure out a way to bounce back after the tough loss. They were devastated after the Bills loss, a game they were confident going into. The Broncos gave up many big plays on defense and had two harmful second-half turnovers in the loss to the Bills. Their offense bogged down inside the red zone and became one dimensional because the running game was ineffective.

Now the Broncos have to play a Chargers team that has to feel good after staying alive for three straight weeks.

"They've got all the momentum," receiver Brandon Marshall said. "Guys like myself, Jay, Daniel Graham, Champ (Bailey), we've got to do a good job this week of getting our guys ready to fight four quarters."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's not going to be easy." -- Broncos WR Brandon Marshall, on this Sunday's game at San Diego.

LINEUP WATCH: P.J. Pope was making an impression after getting his first career start and running for 42 yards on Denver's first series. Then he took a carry on his second series and injured his hamstring. He didn't return to the game, which was appropriate considering the Broncos have five tailbacks on injured reserve.

Pope might miss this week's game, which leaves the Broncos very thin at tailback. Tatum Bell and Selvin Young combined for 36 yards on 12 carries, which left the Broncos one dimensional on offense. Quarterback Jay Cutler almost matched them with 30 rushing yards. If Pope can't play, the Broncos might need to sign another tailback.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--CB Champ Bailey returned to the lineup after missing seven games with a groin injury. He made an instant impact, tackling Marshawn Lynch for a 1-yard gain on his first play and sacking Trent Edwards on his second. Bailey had to be spelled at times during the game by backup Josh Bell.

--WR Brandon Marshall had 10 catches for 129 yards against Buffalo, but also had a costly fumble. He gets San Diego again this week. He caught a team-record 18 passes against the Chargers in Week 2.

--WR Eddie Royal had a 71-yard run against Buffalo. That is the rookie's fifth play of 50 or more yards this season.

--TE Daniel Graham continues to emerge as an option in the passing game. He had three big catches for 52 yards against the Bills.

--OT Ryan Clady played against Buffalo despite a sprained ankle. He should be ready to play in Denver's important game at San Diego next week.



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