The Title Bout

Although there is virtually no chance the Chargers and Broncos will combine to score 90 points, this week's AFC West showdown has the potential even more exciting than the amazing comeback in Cincinnati.

This contest features the AFC West co-leaders, meaning one team could earn the inside track to a first-round bye while the other may be relegated to wild-card status.

While both teams want this one badly, there is no doubt the Broncos need it more. After all, if the Broncos can't win in Denver with Shawne Merriman suspended, how can they expect to win in San Diego with Lights Out on the field? The answer: they can't.

"It's hard to say," quarterback Jake Plummer said of how the Chargers defense will be without Merriman. "They play fast. He's a great player, obviously, to not have him out there. He's definitely a force against the run and the pass. Just like, anytime on any position, if we lose a player you've got to have a guy step up and play. They've got guys behind him that play fast and play hard, so they're not going to change the way they play. They're just going to keep doing what they do, and we've got to be ready to adjust to it."

The Chargers, however, are not prepared to give this game away. Despite the cliché about every game counting the same in the standings, players have made it clear that this one matters more than most.

"We know what is at stake – first place," LaDainian Tomlinson said. "It is exciting. It is a primetime game and a big game. Every week, the game gets bigger." On offense, the Chargers will have to take care of the football. The Broncos defense can be suffocating at times, and it will be important for Phillip Rivers to take what the defense gives him and not force the ball downfield.

The bar has certainly been raised for the offense after scoring 42 second-half points against the Bengals, but a punt cannot be seen as a bad thing this week. In the mile-high air, Mike Scifres' punts could go a mile long.

"It always comes down to ball security. Give them field position and they will take advantage of you. Field position will be critical," coach Marty Schottenheimer said.

It will be equally important for the defense to have a resurgent effort. The Chargers were the No. 2 ranked defense at the season's midpoint, but now appear vulnerable. It would be an incredible boost if Luis Castillo can get back on the field, but that is still up in the air at this point.

No matter who is on the field, the defense will have to play better to make winning in Denver a feasible quest. One week after making its first crunch-time stop of the season, the defense is ready to go another round.

"Ali versus Frazier – they are going to be ready for us," Marlon McCree said. "We want to be number one in the division, have home-field throughout the playoffs and control our own destiny."

This fight will be settled under the primetime lights, with the rest of the league anxiously awaiting the outcome. All that's missing is someone to ring the bell.

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