Many thought it would be the Chargers reaching the Mile High City with momentum. But they stumbled in their opener, choking away a late lead when the defense couldn't contain Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme in a home loss.
Waiting in Denver are the Broncos -- and they are feeling good. They whipped the Raiders in their opener and many in the Broncos organization feel quarterback Jay Cutler is on the verge of a breakout year.
Is the Chargers year broken as well?
LB Jyles Tucker
"I don't know how tough it is except that it should be a no-brainer and obvious to anybody that when you lose a great player, it makes things more difficult," Smith said. "It's disappointing when you lose a great player.
"So what are you going to do? You're going to rally the troops and the next guy steps up. The next guy is Jyles Tucker and he's somewhat of an unknown."
Another mystery is how the Chargers will react, sans Merriman. Not only did he give the defense impressive production -- his 39.5 sacks the past three years leads the NFL -- but he was also a team leader.
The rest of the team -- the defense in particular -- fed off the energy that Merriman supplied with his play and his emotions.
It's doubtful the Chargers have anyone on the roster that can replace even one of those things for which Merriman was known.
A team doesn't lose a game-changer -- and that's what Merriman was -- without suffering a setback.
And the Chargers' first test comes against a confident Broncos team that is feeling good about themselves and Cutler.
The Chargers have said to a man that everyone has to step up, that everyone has to give a little more -- starting Sunday -- to compensate for a player that has an impact by just stepping on the field.
"When you lose a player like (Merriman), the challenge of winning the (AFC) West just became more difficult, but not impossible," Smith said. "That's an easy statement to make when great players depart."
And there's no doubt the Chargers are down one with Merriman headed to injured reserve.
"Of course he makes a difference," defensive end Luis Castillo said. "Every time Shawne Merriman steps on that field, whether it is his play, stopping the run, getting after quarterbacks, or his emotional presence on the field, of course he makes a difference."
That difference won't be felt again from Merriman until next season.
So far, a season which the Chargers had hoped would be super, is getting off to a shaky start.
SERIES HISTORY: 97th meeting. Broncos lead series, 52-43-1, although the Chargers have won four straight against Denver. The Chargers' two consecutive wins in Denver marks the first time they've done that since 1967-68.
--Keep an eye on running back LaDainian Tomlinson's injured toe. He hurt it near the end of Sunday's game and said it is no big deal. Still, there was enough concern about it that the Chargers had him undergo an X-ray. That X-ray was negative, but considering the Chargers problems with toes -- especially tight end Antonio Gates -- it's worth watching Tomlinson closely.
--FS Marlon McCree, who was with the Chargers the past two years, now plays for Denver. McCree will long be remembered in Chargers lore for not falling on a late interception in a playoff game in the 2006 season. He fumbled the ball, which gave the Patriots a chance for a comeback win.
--Some say Tomlinson would be more effective in the season's early going if he played some in the preseason. Tomlinson, the two-time defending NFL rushing champion, disagrees. "I've been doing it for a while now and I know how to prepare myself for the real situation," said Tomlinson, who rushed for 97 yards in the loss to Carolina.
WR Buster Davis
--The Chargers not only swept the Broncos last year, they dominated them to the tune of a combined score of 64-6.
--FB Michael Tolbert, an undrafted rookie, earned some high praise as he heads into his second career game on Sunday. "Mike did a great job," Tomlinson said of Tolbert's play against the Panthers. "He really had some critical plays that he came up big for us and I was proud to see that. He's a guy that will continue to grow and I think he can be a huge asset to this team."
--The Broncos have won eight straight home openers, the longest streak in club history.
--QB Philip Rivers now has the highest career passer rating among active quarterbacks with New England's Tom Brady out. Rivers' 88.3 rating (minimum 500 pass attempts) is a team record and has helped him to a 25-8 regular-season record.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- LaDainian Tomlinson's listing on the NFL's all-time touchdown list with 129, two behind Cris Carter.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Good thing this is a marathon and not a sprint." -- OLB Shaun Phillips, looking ahead after the Chargers absorbed an opening-day loss.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Jyles Tucker has played in but seven regular-season games and now the undrafted rookie is asked to fill a considerable role left by Shawne Merriman's absence.
Tucker, who had three sacks in a game last year against the Raiders, has plenty of promise. But make no mistake, this is a considerable drop-off from a healthy Merriman -- not the one limping around on Sunday.
Hopefully, Tucker can hold up as he became dehydrated in the San Diego last week. If Tucker needs a blow, the team will insert another undrafted player in Marques Harris.
Look for OLB Shaun Phillips to also be moved around to come off both edges at various times.
In other news, Merriman went on IR and was replaced by linebacker Antwan Applewhite. His place on the practice squad was filled by linebacker Eric Bakhtiari, who was with the Chargers in camp.
--ILB Matt Wilhelm is getting roasted for his game on Sunday. Wilhelm looks to rebound after being pummeled by some run blocks and not knocking down the final pass, which was the game winner.
--Is CB Antonio Cromartie too wrapped up in his stated goal to set an NFL record with 15 interceptions this year? Cromartie, who led the league with 10 last year, was on occasion going for picks instead of playing straight up on his man on Sunday.
--C Nick Hardwick appears to be getting closer to returning. He could start practicing in the next week or so.
--DT Jamal Williams will hopefully have knocked off his rust and will contribute more on Sunday. Williams, a Pro Bowler, didn't look like his usual self against the Panthers. The Chargers are crossing their fingers his aching knees can handle another full season.
--The Chargers need to stretch the field more Sunday and Chris Chambers' numbers from last week tell the story. He had but one catch, although it was for 44 yards and a touchdown.
GAME PLAN: Go, L.T., go! The Chargers figure to give the Broncos a heavy heaping of LaDainian Tomlinson. While the Broncos run defense showed some life against the dreadful Raiders on Monday night, Oakland got so far behind that it had to abandon the run -- and it still got 150.
The Broncos were 30th in the NFL last year in trying to stop the run and until they prove they have shored that up, the team with the NFL's best back should stick the ball in his gut.
Plus, Philip Rivers had trouble getting the ball to the outside as the wideouts had but four catches in the loss to Carolina. If Tomlinson can get going, that could loosen up the Broncos so Rivers can occasionally go over the top.
But it depends on establishing the run, and the Chargers have to prove as well this patchwork offensive line can do just that.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Chargers OLB Jyles Tucker, in his first NFL start, vs. Broncos rookie LT Ryan Clady. Tucker not only carries the pressure of being thrust into the starting lineup but also trying to replace a Pro Bowler in Shawne Merriman. Clady held up well in Monday's opener and will enter the game with a dose of confidence. Look for Tucker and Shaun Phillips to flip sides on occasion, giving the veteran Phillips a few shots at Clady.
--Chargers QB Philip Rivers and the team's passing game vs. Broncos pass defense that includes CBs Champ Bailey (42 career interceptions) and Dre' Bly (38 career picks). They are clearly among the best tandems in the NFL. Bailey has been selected for eight straight Pro Bowls. The only cornerback in NFL history to play in more Pro Bowls is Hall of Famer Mike Haynes (nine). Rivers was under duress for much of the early part of Sunday's game and it doesn't figure that will change greatly with three starters along the offensive line who weren't in last year's opening-day lineup. If Rivers is pestered and has to hurry the ball -- plus his players getting off the ball slower because of the noise -- that could lead to some interceptions by Bailey and Bly.
--Chargers secondary vs. a Broncos passing game that gets a boost with the return of standout WR Brandon Marshall. This is worth watching as the defensive backs' best friend -- Shawne Merriman -- won't be in there to get after quarterbacks. If the Chargers can't find someone else to supply the pressure -- and they had but one sack last Sunday -- it could compute into a long day for the defense's back end. It's critical the Chargers scheme a way to get to Jay Cutler or he could carve up the secondary. In three previous starts against the Chargers, his high passing total is 232 yards.
--CB Antonio Cromartie (hip) didn't work but he should play on Sunday.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (toe) didn't work but is expected to play Sunday.
--C Nick Hardwick (foot) did some limited work. Jeremy Newberry replaces him.
--TE Antonio Gates (toe) did work and should be a go for Sunday. But it's obvious he is nursing along his injury. He is also slowed by a hip contusion.
--LT Marcus McNeill (neck) didn't practice and will be replaced by L.J. Shelton.