Behind Enemy Lines

The Broncos' biggest game of the season is this week, but they have to make sure that last week's game isn't on their mind anymore. Ditto the San Diego Chargers, a team that hasn't seen the postseason in years and is looking to knock off a team that is perennially on top.

The Broncos claim that the disappointment of blowing an 11-point fourth-quarter lead in a home loss to Oakland last Sunday is past them, and they're ready for a game against a San Diego team that is one game ahead of them for first place in the AFC West.

"The mood has been good," defensive end Reggie Hayward said. "We let one get away against Oakland, but we're confident we can come out and still play competitive football against San Diego.

"It's behind us, we came in and made the corrections and we did what we had to do to get ready for San Diego. Oakland is over and now it's on to a more important game."

Forgetting about the Raiders loss won't be easy. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan admitted Monday that it was a little tougher to swallow than a normal loss, because the Broncos had the game in hand. It also is a tough loss because of what it meant in the standings.

The Broncos now are in a position where if they lose against the Chargers, who have only lost once since Denver beat them on Sept. 26, they could miss the playoffs altogether.

If Denver loses on Sunday the Broncos will be two games behind San Diego, and the Chargers would have a big edge in almost every possible tiebreaker. With a loss the Broncos would be looking at getting into the playoffs as a wild card, but they would be behind the Jets, Ravens and maybe Jacksonville in that race.

The importance of Sunday's game isn't lost on the Broncos players, who will try to not focus on what could happen if they lose.

"When you do that, you're setting yourself up for a disaster," safety Nick Ferguson said. "You go into panic mode if something doesn't go your way during the game."

On the flip side, the Broncos would be in pretty good shape if they win Sunday. The Broncos would be tied with the Chargers for first place in the division but own the tiebreaker because of a season sweep. The Broncos only play one team with a winning record after Sunday, and that is at home against Indianapolis. San Diego has to play Indianapolis on the road in the final month of the season.

But the Broncos need to focus more on the game itself than the implications of it.

"It's a big game, but you can't make it bigger than it is," Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said. "It's not a playoff game, but obviously it could have a lot of playoff implications. We know we've got to go down there and beat them if we want to have a leg up in our division. We lost to the Raiders and we didn't want to, but we knew either way we were going to have to beat the Chargers."

The Broncos can go into Sunday's game with history on their side. Denver has won 12 of the past 14 meetings against San Diego.

But it has been a long time since the Broncos and Chargers were playing with a division title on the line, as will be the case on Sunday. Whoever wins Sunday's game will be in first place in the AFC West with four games to go.

"We know we have a big task against an excellent football team," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "Our football team understands what is at stake."

--Shanahan admitted that when Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who didn't play college football at Kent State, was in the NFL Draft, he did not know anything about him. "Zero," Shanahan said. "In fact, I asked about him. I said, 'Where did he play?' They said he played basketball. So, to be honest with you, I didn't know anything about him. But San Diego sure did a great job getting him."

Gates leads all tight ends with 11 touchdown receptions.

The Broncos will try to find a way to rattle Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, who has been nearly perfect since the first time Denver played him. The first time Denver played San Diego, Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer sent a steady stream of blitzes at Brees. Brees didn't do much that day, but he barely missed a couple of deep passes that could have turned the game around. If Denver blitzes Brees as much as it did the first time around, the Chargers will have chances to get plays downfield.

Denver's offense will have to figure out early on if it can run the ball against a tough Chargers defense. The first time, it couldn't. The Broncos had 37 yards rushing in the first meeting. Jake Plummer isn't nearly as effective when he's asked to drop back and pass 40 times, so getting Reuben Droughns may be vital to their success.

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