Michael Lombardo: The Chargers were considered the favorites for two reasons: 1) the Chargers are supremely talented; and 2) the rest of the AFC West has been spectacularly mediocre. So even though San Diego's home loss to the Panthers didn't change the former condition, Denver's romp over the Oakland Raiders may have altered the latter.
Another factor is San Diego's health, with no issue more disconcerting than Shawne Merriman's season-ending knee injury. Throw in a number of other worrisome injuries –- C Nick Hardwick's foot, LT Marcus McNeill's neck, TE Antonio Gates' toe and NT Jamal Williams' knees -- and there are legitimate reasons to consider the AFC West up for grabs. McNeill and Hardwick will miss Sunday's game, while Gates and Williams will give it a go.
MJS: How will the loss of defensive MVP Shawn Merriman will be handled on the field and, more importantly, how much will his absence be felt in the locker room?
LB Shawne Merriman
The other player in the mix is four-year vet Marques Harris, who has been San Diego's top backup at outside linebacker for most of the last two seasons. Harris is a talented pass-rusher but is too small (6 foot 1, 245 lbs) to be an every-down defender. Overall, Merriman will be missed most for his ability to command double-teams and blow up running plays in the backfield.
Merriman was certainly a clubhouse leader, but the Chargers have enough of those to compensate in that regard. Shaun Phillips has long been the player who pumps up the rest of the defense. He will have to embrace that responsibility all the more.
MJS: TE Antonio Gates is another Charger who seems to be battling some injuries, with toe and hip issues. How much can we expect this Sunday? Or will his role be significantly reduced in favor of Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers?
ML: I expect the Chargers to make a concerted effort to get Jackson and Chambers more involved in the offense. Chambers only caught one pass against the Panthers, which was his first game as a Charger without multiple receptions. Jackson, meanwhile, didn't make his first reception until the fourth quarter.
Chambers and Jackson must come up big, as Gates is only a shell of his All Pro self at this point. He still has the same straight-line speed, hands and body control, but his route running has become far more labored. He struggles to change direction or explode out of cuts. However, Gates was similarly limited in Week 1 and he still managed four catches for 61 yards and a touchdown.
MJS: Norv Turner did an excellent job in his first season in San Diego, but there still seems to be some speculation on his abilities as a head coach. What's the general consensus in So Cal and, personally, how would you rank his leadership and play-calling abilities?
ML: Turner bought himself a lot of slack with San Diego's performance in the 2007 playoffs. After beating the Tennessee Titans in Round 1 and upsetting the Indianapolis Colts in Round 2, the Chargers pushed the New England Patriots to the limit despite an injury-ravaged roster.
RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Turner's play calling is a bit predictable; case in point, the Chargers ran on 12 of their first 17 first-down plays against the Panthers. Nonetheless, Turner looks at football games like chess matches. He not afraid to call plays he knows will fail if they set up success later in the game.
MJS: There was a lot made out of last season's Phillip Rivers/Jay Cutler sideline confrontation. How much of that will come into play this Sunday? Is there a real dislike between the two or was it more a case of the media blowing something out of proportion?
ML: This story was nothing more than the media looking to manufacture drama. Rivers is a big talker and always has been. It's not out of disrespect; it's merely the competitor in Rivers coming out. Rivers respects Cutler, as does the entire Chargers defense. Every member of the San Diego defense feels Cutler is an emerging star.
I thought the more noteworthy story was Champ Bailey coming out and saying Rivers hadn't earned the right to talk. Of course, Rivers is 4-0 as a starter against the Broncos, so perhaps it's Bailey who should bite his tongue. Because Rivers and Bailey will actually go at each other on Sunday, that's the more intriguing matchup.
MJS: Last season, the Chargers completely dominated in their two wins over the Broncos and LaDainian Tomlinson was a big key to that success. There's been some talk of a toe injury suffered during last week's game. What's the latest on this and how do you expect it to affect his performance against Denver?
ML: Tomlinson will be good to go against the Broncos. He sat out practice on Wednesday and Thursday to rest his sprained toe, but returned to practice on Friday and has stated he will "definitely" play. I don't suspect it will affect his performance.
Now, if Tomlinson's toe acts up on Sunday, it will instantly become a big story. Top backup Michael Turner is no longer available to bail out the Chargers, so San Diego would have to turn to scat-back Darren Sproles or rookie Jacob Hester. Sproles and Hester are talented in their own rights, but both still have much to prove.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.