Game Snapshot: Chargers-Broncos

The Chargers look to snap their longest losing skid since 2003 and douse the flames of Tebow-mania as they host the surging Broncos Sunday. San Diego's offensive line is still ailing and the defensive front is in flux, as well. But if the Chargers don't win this divisional tilt, they can forget the playoffs.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 11/27/11
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

PREDICTION: Chargers 27-24

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chargers should be more concerned about their depleted offensive line than Tim Tebow. San Diego's once-vaunted vertical passing attack has been hamstrung by injuries up front, and the Broncos' resurgence is as much due to the pass rush provided by Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil as it is to the read option.

Chargers QB Philip Rivers will rely on RBs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert to provide balance and versatility as receivers out of the backfield. Denver's offense can be countered by strong assignment-based defense. But while the Broncos had a stretch of seven three-and-outs in eight possessions in their last game, Tebow has shown an undeniable knack for delivering when playing from behind.

FAST FACTS: In Tebow's five starts, Denver has scored 40 combined points in the first three periods and 53 in the fourth quarter and overtime. ... San Diego has its first five-game losing streak since its 4-12 team of 2003.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Chargers

The Chargers' ravaged front line continues to bleed players.

Scott Mruczkowski, a valuable inside backup, was placed on injured reserve Thursday because of a recent concussion.

That development, and a look at the Chargers' injury list, isn't encouraging for Sunday's game against the visiting Broncos.

Pro Bowl left tackle Marcus McNeill (neck) didn't practice and all signs point to him missing another game.

Right guard Louis Vasquez remains out with a high ankle sprain. He won't be in there on Sunday.

Left guard Tyronne Green, who was replacing Pro Bowler Kris Dielman, remains down with a hand injury.

Center Nick Hardwick and right tackle Jeromey Clary are the only opening-day starters in a front that hopes to help the Chargers end their five-game skid.

It could be a tall challenge, but this patchwork line was keen last week in not allowing a sack against the aggressive Bears front.

Brandyn Dombrowski will fill in at left tackle. Rookie Steve Schilling and recently signed free agent Tony Moll will grab guard spots.

But the Broncos will counter with pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil and this is a Sunday matchup worth watching.

Look for the Chargers to employ tight ends to help outside, and possibly use backs Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester more because of their pass-protecting abilities.

Broncos

Earlier this week, executive vice president of football operations John Elway was asked point blank in a radio interview whether he was sold on quarterback Tim Tebow as the starter moving forward.

Elway responded in the negative, pointing in large degree to the team's dreadful recent performances on third down.

It may not ultimately drag Tebow down. That's to be seen. But, for now, third down is definitely bringing the offense to new lows.

Tebow on third down throwing the ball during his five starts is 14 of 34 (41.2 percent) for 139 yards, three touchdowns and an interception while taking six sacks.

That breaks down to 8-of-13 passing accuracy on third and 10 or less for 108 yards, three touchdowns and five sacks.

With 11 yards or more to go: Tebow's passing statistics plummet to 6 for 21 (28.6 percent) for 31 yards and one sack.

Overall, despite Denver's recent 4-1 streak, the team is just 17 of 69 in total on third downs - a 24.6 success rate.

"Better execution. All 11 guys have to do a better job, whether we're running it or throwing it," offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said Thursday. "Better route technique outside separating from tighter coverage. It's really coming down to doing a better job. We have to help (Tim) and make some adjustments here and there as the game goes along."

Here's an even closer breakdown of the last five games:

--On third and 5 or less, Tebow is 4 for 7 (57.1 percent) for 12 yards and a touchdown, was sacked twice and had an interception return for a touchdown. The overall conversion rate by Denver in these situations is 12 of 27 (44 percent).

--Between third-and-6 and third-and-10, Tebow is 4 of 6 for 96 yards, with three sacks and two touchdowns. The overall conversion rate is a pathetic 4 for 24 (16.7 percent).

--On third-and-11 and longer, Tebow is 6 for 21 (28.6 percent) for 31 yards, one sack and zero touchdowns and the team has succeeded in moving the chains just once in 18 such attempts.

His accuracy even at the shortest distances isn't fantastic, but is well below par in down-and-distances where passing is needed.

"We've got to put ourselves in good situations to manage it and to be able to pick it up," Tebow said. "We've got to play more consistent on certain first- and second-down plays to be in good position to execute on third down."

Denver's run 27 plays on third and 5 or fewer; 42 plays at longer distances.

"We've probably been in a few too many (third-and-longs)," Tebow added. "We've probably got to be a little more aggressive on some third-and-longs."

Denver's low scoring output offensively the last five games, which has included scoring totals of 18, 10, 31, 17 and 17 points, can be traced to the third-down bugaboos.

"It's an area that, first of all, is a very hard down for everybody in the league because it's an obvious pass down," coach John Fox said. "You're a little bit one-dimensional. We've made some (schematic) changes, so with change comes lack of familiarity - whether it be the receiver position, the quarterback position. We've had tight ends in and out through the season.

"So we're still a work in progress in that area. We'll continue to improve."

Barring it, a defensive lapse or game that gets Denver playing from behind and the results likely will reflect in the standings.

PERSONNEL NEWS

Chargers

--RB Ryan Mathews (knee) didn't practice Thursday after being limited on Wednesday. Considering his health and recent fumble, he should have a limited role Sunday if he goes.

--OLB Shaun Phillips (foot) has missed four games and didn't practice on Wednesday but he was able to go in a limited role Thursday. There's a chance he goes Sunday, depending on how his foot reacts.

--WR Malcom Floyd (hip) didn't practice and is going to miss his fourth straight game.

--DE Luis Castillo (leg) is out another estimated three weeks.

--DE Jacques Cesaire (knee) was able to work full for the second straight day. He's in the rotation on Sunday.

--CB Marcus Gilchrist (knee), after not working at all Wednesday, took part in the entire practice.

--LB Bront Bird (ankle) was a full participant.

Broncos

--RB Willis McGahee (hamstring) did not have as heavy a workload as Wednesday's practice but coach John Fox said that is part of the usual practice plan with the veteran player to keep him fresh for Sundays. McGahee's leg muscle strain that limited him in the win vs. New York appears to be behind him.

--CB Cassius Vaughn (hamstring) was a limited participant in Thursday's practice. It's likely he'll be listed as questionable when the injury report is released officially Friday.

--TE Daniel Fells (concussion) has gone through two straight practices in reduced fashion after getting medical clearance to work out. Fells appears likely to play, given the way he's felt in recent days.

--S David Bruton (Achilles) took some of the snaps Thursday and likely is a 50-50 decision on facing the Chargers. Bruton is a key special-teams performer on the coverage units.

--FS Quinton Carter was inserted into the lineup after the San Diego loss Oct. 9. He's responded with 15 tackles in the last four games. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said that Carter's abilities as the last line of defense have been part of his group's recent uptick.



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