Divisional Disaster

There are many reasons the Chargers will not return to the playoffs this season, chief among them their poor record in the AFC West. With a loss on Sunday, San Diego would finish with twice as many divisional losses as wins. That's why this game – with no playoff ramifications – matters.

The Chargers dominated the AFC West during their four-year run atop the division, going 5-1 in the division during each of those seasons. If San Diego loses on Sunday, it will finish with a losing divisional record for the first time since 2003, a year in which the Chargers posted the worst record in the NFL.

But Sunday's game is about more than avoiding a bad mark in what is already a lost season. It is about avoiding a full-out power shift inside the AFC West.

The Kansas City Chiefs, who won the division thanks to San Diego's loss in Cincinnati, clearly feel they are the better team. And why shouldn't they? They beat the Chargers in the opener, lost the rematch only after Matt Cassel was rendered suddenly unavailable, and clinched the crown with a week to spare.

WR Vincent Jackson
Stephen Dunn/Getty
The Oakland Raiders feel like they've caught up with the Chargers, too. After all, the Raiders still have a chance to finish second in the division after sweeping the Chargers to end a 13-game losing streak in the rivalry. The second loss to the Raiders, a 28-13 whooping at Qualcomm Stadium, will be remembered as the game that squashed San Diego's playoff push.

Now, here come the Denver Broncos, rejuvenated by the promotion of rookie QB Tim Tebow. The first-round pick from Florida won his first start last week when he rallied his team to a victory over the Houston Texans. He'll go for two in a row against the Chargers, knowing that a win will give hope to Broncos fans that their team is in store for a Chief-like ascension.

It is vital the Chargers squash the Broncos, just as they did earlier this season (35-14), to offer a reminder that there is still a talent gap in this rivalry. Ron Rivera needs to pressure Tebow, force him into some bad decisions and leave Broncos fans to spend all offseason speculating whether their savior is ready for the big leagues.

The good news for Chargers fans is that the last time their team failed to make the playoffs, it responded the following year with a dominant 14-win season. The bad news is that their team has a chance to finish 8-8 for the second time in a three-year stretch, a shocking run of mediocrity for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

Who will be the AFC West favorite in 2011? Discuss inside the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

BoltsReport Top Stories