Cushion the lead

The San Diego Chargers may not have to worry much about their division foes but they can drive the stake home this week with a win, locking up a playoff berth and potentially a division title in the process.

The Chargers are cooking, winners of six straight and owners of a three-game cushion in the AFC West.

But the best is yet to come, so says Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman.

"Some of our key guys are banged up," said Merriman, who played for the first time Sunday since coming off his four-game suspension for steroids. "I think once we get some of our guys back, then we should be in full stride."

Ailing Chargers include defensive end Luis Castillo (ankle), free safety Marlon McCree (calf), wide receiver Keenan McCardell (calf) and running back/kick-returner Michael Turner (hamstring).

At least Merriman is back, and he was a force in Sunday's 17-14 victory over the Bills. Merriman is the type of player who makes everyone around him better.

"I think we were a lot more confident, especially when it came down to the wire when we had to win a game," Merriman said. "That's what teams have to do, they have to win close games. Every game, you're not just going to blow teams out."

The Chargers have done little of that of late, winning close games against the Bills, Raiders, Broncos and Bengals. But what they really don't want to blow is their chance in the next four games, with three of them being at home.

The Chargers are tied with the Colts with the best record in the AFC at 10-2. Although Indy holds the No. 1 seed as one of their losses came against an NFC foe.

A win Sunday over the visiting Broncos and Kansas City tie or loss would clinch the Chargers' second AFC West title in three years.


Running back Tatum Bell will be a key for the Broncos this week. Denver ran the ball well against San Diego in the first meeting, and now Bell is healthy after sitting out some games with two injured big toes.

Bell said he is good to go for the rest of the season.

He previously said his two turf toe injuries would mean he wouldn't be 100 percent all season. But after running hard and strong against Seattle on Sunday, Bell said he should be fine for the stretch run.

"The toe's good," Bell said. "I'm back, man."

Bell had 133 yards on 23 carries against Seattle. That was a much-needed boost for a running game that had struggled without him. Bell was inactive three times in a four-week span because the toe injuries were slowing him down.

The Broncos need to be effective running the ball down the stretch, especially with rookie Jay Cutler at quarterback. The running game sets up most of Denver's passing plays, including the bootleg plays they are well known for.

Getting Bell back and having him run well was a relief. The only issue was in the second half, when Denver's offense had problems moving the ball. Overall, the performance was encouraging.

"We were pretty good in the running game," coach Mike Shanahan said.

Quarterback Jay Cutler had a rough debut, and Mike Shanahan admitted he made the game plan too complicated. Expect a simpler approach this week at San Diego, which could help the rookie making his second start.

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