Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Broncos I

Our experts, Michael John Schon of and Michael Lombardo of, analyze Sunday's game between the Broncos and Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Let's start this two-part series with six questions from Schon to Lombardo.

Michael John Schon: Now that the Chargers have captured the AFC West, how will Norv Turner handle Monday night's lineup and do you expect any change in the game plan from the straight-ahead rushing attack we saw in the previous meeting in Denver?

Michael Lombardo: Norv Turner will start most of his regulars as the Chargers look to hold on to the No. 3 seed. Two possible exceptions are the team's first-round picks from the 2005 draft: LB Shawne Merriman (knee) and DE Luis Castillo (ankle). The Chargers will go on the attack early on hope to build a big lead, which would allow Turner to pull some of his core players as the game progresses.

The Chargers will once again lean heavily on the running game. San Diego has done a good job sticking with the run and wearing opponents out late in games. LaDainian Tomlinson averages 5.9 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. The Chargers have other options if LT is pulled from the game: Michael Turner rushed for 147 yards in week five against the Broncos, and Darren Sproles rushed for 122 yards last week.

MJS: From an outside point of view, the hiring of Turner came as quite a surprise, but after seeing what he's been able to accomplish this season I imagine the Bolts faithful have got to be pretty pleased with him at this point. What's been the biggest difference between Schottenheimer and Turner from your perspective and how would you gauge the level of confidence in him heading into the postseason?

ML: Schottenheimer is a superb leader and motivator. Players instantly respect him because of his track record (200 regular-season wins). His teams do the little things that win games: avoid penalties, protect the ball, etc. Turner is a more reserved coach who gets it done with X's and O's. Some players questioned his ability in the early going, but he has the team on the right track and he continues to improve as a coach as he gets more familiar with his personnel.

The players are very confident in Turner right now. He has instilled the offense with rhythm and balance, and the players are learning their roles in the system. Turner's sole objective before this season was to guide the Chargers back to the playoffs and he's accomplished that goal with two games to spare.

MJS: After starting out the season 1-3, the Chargers busted it open in Denver with a 41-3 win over the Broncos and have now won eight of their last ten games. What's been the biggest factor in the team's turnaround and how hard will it be to keep up the momentum with the division title already under their belt?

ML: The Chargers spent all offseason hearing that the new coaching staff would maintain the same systems on both sides of the ball. However, the regular season rolled around and the players found that to be far from the truth. The playbooks were very similar, but the play-calling was vastly different. Turner insisted on running into eight-man fronts on first down, while defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell scaled back the Chargers' blitz packages, especially on third down.

Although hesitant at first, the Chargers soon realized what Turner and Cottrell had in mind. The Chargers have become better at running against eight-man fronts and wearing teams down with the running game. On defense, the team realized that fewer blitzes mean more interception opportunities -- the Chargers now lead the league in that category with 27, seven more than the second-place team.

MJS: How would you sum up the play of Philip Rivers this season and do you feel he's really got what it takes to take San Diego to the next level?

ML: Rivers insists he is a better quarterback this season than last. Although the numbers paint a different picture (20 turnovers through 14 games), I tend to agree with him. The Chargers slipped in their pass protection this season, a problem that was only magnified when center Nick Hardwick missed four games with an ankle injury and right tackle Shane Olivea was benched for inconsistent play. Another problem early on was a sub-par receiving corps, although that was rectified with the midseason addition of Chris Chambers.

Rivers still needs a lot of seasoning. He often fails to look off safeties and stares down his primary targets. He is too willing to throw into double or triple coverage, especially when Chambers or Antonio Gates is the intended receiver. Additionally, he tends to force throws when the pocket collapses on him rather than throwing the ball away. That being said, the Chargers are 100 percent sold on him as their franchise quarterback and he could be in line for an extension as early as this offseason.

MJS: After last week's 51-14 demolition of the Detroit Lions, the Chargers took three days off from practice -- good idea, bad idea or simply a matter of resting key players?

ML: The Chargers are focusing on resting up key players more than anything else. Several key players are banged up, including FB Lorenzo Neal (fibula-out), NT Jamal Williams (ankle-probable) and RG Mike Goff (foot-probable). San Diego wants to win this game, but the health of key contributors takes precedence with a playoff spot already in hand. The Chargers have impressive depth across the board, and that will likely be on display during Monday's game.

MJS: Since their first meeting, Broncos WR Brandon Marshall and Chargers CB Antonio Cromartie have both come into their own. Who wins the matchup this week and why?

ML: That depends on your definition of "win." Marshall should rack up more than 100 yards, as I expect the Broncos to be playing from behind for most of the game. The Chargers do not have a corner capable of shutting down Marshall – Cromartie has cover skills but lacks physicality and Quentin Jammer has the opposite problem.

Cromartie will still make an impact. Jay Cutler boasts a rocket arm, which allows him to make some impressive throws but causes him to launch some ill-advised ones, too. Cromartie should corral his 11th interception of the season. He will also make Cutler think twice about throwing to his side of the field, which is a win in itself.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.

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