KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
2006 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 22nd (4th rush, 26th pass); defense 13th (9th rush, 19th pass). Chargers: offense 5th (2nd rush, 13th pass); defense 8th (6th rush, 13th pass)
PREDICTION: Chargers 23-16
KEYS TO THE GAME:
The speed of the NFL clearly got to rookie QB Jay Cutler in the Broncos' loss to Seattle, and now he makes his first career road start against one of the league's most athletic front sevens. Coach Mike Shanahan made the switch in hopes of taking advantage of Cutler's strong arm, but Denver has to be able to run the ball first and help thwart the Chargers' aggressive pass rush.
The Chargers will likely be pretty conservative offensively unless Cutler proves he can move the ball. RB LaDainian Tomlinson will continue to receive a heavy workload, especially with Broncos MLB Al Wilson likely to be slowed even if he is able to return from a sprained neck suffered against Seattle.
Denver has done an excellent job containing Chargers TE Antonio Gates, who does not have a touchdown reception in the past seven meetings. FAST FACTS: Broncos: Are 7-1 when Bell rushes for at least one touchdown. Shanahan is 19-7 against San Diego. Chargers: Will clinch a playoff spot with a win and the AFC West title if Kansas City also loses. Tomlinson's 26 touchdowns are two short of the single-season record set by Seattle RB Shaun Alexander last season.
--K Jason Elam is still improving from a left hamstring injury. The Broncos are letting him rest during the week, and they are optimistic he'll be able to kick this Sunday.
--OT Adam Meadows missed the team portion of practice again Thursday. He has a hamstring injury, and his status for Sunday's game is up in the air. He did not play last week.
--FB Keith Belton was signed to Denver's practice squad. The Broncos have only one healthy fullback, Kyle Johnson, on the active roster. Belton spent most of 2004 and 2005 on practice squads in Detroit and Chicago.
--TE Stephen Alexander has practiced all week despite a sprained ankle. He is listed as questionable on the injury report, but he should play Sunday.
--WR Keenan McCardell is still bothered by a sore calf and will be a game-time decision.
--DE Luis Castillo (ankle) is poised to return to the starting lineup after missing the past four games.
--WR Malcom Floyd, who is a solid red-zone target, is out with an ankle injury.
--TE Antonio Gates felt a pull in his hamstring during practice and was held out of the rest of Thursday's workout. But Gates doesn't think the injury is serious and said he would play Sunday.
--ILB Randall Godfrey (calf) still isn't working and will be a game-time decision.
--S Bhawoh Jue (knee) didn't work Thursday, but he will be a go for Sunday.
--FS Marlon McCree (knee) continues to work and will play Sunday after missing two games.