Denver Broncos (8-7) at San Diego Chargers (7-8)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
TV: NBC (Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer)
SERIES: 98th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series 53-43-1, but Denver is only 18-30 in road games. Denver won the first meeting, 39-38, in Week 2. The last time the Broncos swept the season series from the Chargers was 2005.
PREDICTION: Broncos 31-28
KEYS TO THE GAME: Broncos QB Jay Cutler threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns in the first meeting, and the offense will largely fall on his shoulders again with Denver now having seven running backs out for the season. The two keys will be whether Cutler can avoid turnovers while the Broncos play much of the game in a spread offense, and whether the Chargers' sporadic pass rush can apply pressure without having to worry much about the ground game. Cutler has been sacked just 12 times all season, but does tend to trust his strong arm too much at times. ... San Diego should win time of possession as long as RB LaDainian Tomlinson is given enough opportunities to attack the Broncos' 27th-ranked run defense. That will make life even easier on QB Philip Rivers, who threw for 377 yards in the first meeting. Denver is also 27th in defending the pass, so the Chargers will move the ball. The good news for the Broncos is CB Champ Bailey is close to 100 percent after returning to the lineup last week.
Key Injuries: Broncos: LT Ryan Clady (ankle) is expected to play; TE Daniel Graham (ankle) said he will play. Chargers: WR Malcom Floyd (lung) is uncertain; NT Jamal Williams (foot) could have his snaps limited.
Need to know: The winner clinches the AFC West title. ... Clady has allowed just a half-sack this season, the least among all NFL tackles to start all 15 games this season. ... Rivers needs two touchdown passes to break Dan Fouts' team record of 33 in 1981.
--OT Ryan Clady practiced on Thursday despite a sprained ankle. He was held out of practice Wednesday. Clady should be able to play this week.
--CB Josh Bell has practiced two straight days through an ankle injury. As long as he continues to make progress, he should be available against the Chargers.
--TE Daniel Graham practiced on Thursday and should play through an ankle injury. Graham is a key to the Broncos offense because of his blocking ability, and he has also become a bigger part of the passing game in the second half of the season.
--LB Niko Koutouvides couldn't play last week with a back injury, but practiced in full and should be able to go Sunday. That's good news for the Broncos special teams. Koutouvides leads Denver in special-teams tackles.
--WR Brandon Stokley was a full participant in Thursday's practice. He has a foot injury and hasn't practiced in full for a couple of weeks, so Thursday's upgrade is good news for Denver's passing game.
--DT Jamal Williams (foot) practiced Thursday and is a go for Sunday.
--WR Malcom Floyd (lung) was limited in his work and could be a game-time decision. Chances are he won't go and Legedu Naanee would get additional playing time.
--LB Brandon Siler (foot) did not practice and it looks like he will be down this week.
--LB Anthony Waters (hamstring) went through a full practice and will play this week.
--DT Igor Olshansky returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's while sick. He will start Sunday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
At some point in the past few years, the Broncos and Chargers started disliking each other.
There is more taunting and yelling on the field between the Chargers and Broncos than in most games, and the teams haven't hid that they're not fond of each other. That should heighten the intensity for Sunday night's winner-take-all showdown for the AFC West championship.
"I think these teams probably dislike each other," Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler said. "I know our offense doesn't like their defense, and it works both ways."
In the middle of the scrum are the two quarterbacks. The bad feelings between them go back to last season when late in a game at San Diego, Cutler took offense to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers inching on the field to say something after the Broncos failed on a fourth-down opportunity.
Rivers said he was shouting encouragement to his defense, Cutler didn't feel that way, and the feelings haven't gone away.
"What happened has happened and I haven't forgotten it," Cutler said. "I don't think a lot of guys on this team have forgotten it."
Cutler seems fine with all the bad blood going into the biggest game of his NFL career.
"It adds to the game, adds to the excitement, adds to the rivalry with us," Cutler said. "It's going to be a good one."
The Chargers head into Sunday's game with the Broncos with a playoff spot and an AFC West crown on the line.
But if not for LaDainian Tomlinson rising in a dead-silent locker room back on Nov. 30, maybe Sunday's game isn't such a big thing.
After the Chargers had lost their fifth of their last six games, they were all but out of the playoff chase. That's why the soft-spoken Tomlinson cleared his throat.
"It was something on my heart to say something to the team because at that time it looked like we were pretty much done," Tomlinson said. "When that happens, I've been on a team before where they have tanked. They'll say, 'The season is over and we don't really have anything to play for.'
"At that point, it was all about not quitting and staying with it, finishing strong and being prideful about finishing our work, finishing the season strong. That's basically what it was about."
Apparently the message got through. The Chargers won their next three games and shaved all but a game off the Broncos' three-game lead. A win Sunday will erase that deficit, with the Chargers going to the playoffs with an 8-8 record and a 5-1 divisional mark.
"I'm not going to get up in front of the team and talk a lot," Tomlinson said. "I don't want to do that, I don't want to be that way. Also I think it gets kind of fake when guys hear you saying something all the time. They kind of get tired of you talking all the time. I feel like when I really need to say something, then I'll really say something."
Linebacker Stephen Cooper said people perked up with Tomlinson spoke up.
"Whenever L.T. opens his mouth, it always gets our attention," Cooper said. "Because L.T. doesn't really open his mouth too much. He lets his play speak for itself.
"But when L.T. speaks, we have to listen, because he is the leader of our team."
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