Mile-High Screwjob

The Denver Broncos took advantage of two significant blunders by referee Ed Hochuli to steal a 39-38 victory from the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers overcame an 18-point deficit only to lose when the defense failed on two opportunities to secure the victory.

Consider referee Ed Hochuli public enemy No. 1 in San Diego. His first error came on San Diego's opening drive when he mistakenly ruled a Chris Chambers catch to be a catch-and-fumble recovered by Champ Bailey. The play was unable to be reviewed because the replay equipment was conveniently malfunctioning.

"That should have never gone to review," Coach Norv Turner said.

Hochuli's most glaring mistake came on Denver's final offensive drive. With less than two minutes left to play, Jay Cutler fumbled a ball that was recovered by Tim Dobbins- something that was confirmed by the suddenly resuscitated replay booth. However, Hochuli mistakenly blew an early whistle on the play, which gave Denver possession and another opportunity to win the game.

Chargers vs. Broncos
Doug Pensinger/Getty

"That's not acceptable to have a game decided on that play," Turner said. "Our guys fought to come back and compete in all phases. It's disappointing to have that kind of performance spoiled by that call."

Of course, the referees cannot take all the blame, as San Diego's defense no-showed for the second consecutive week. The Broncos rolled up 456 yards of total offense and converted 60 percent of their third downs. As for the impact of Shawne Merriman's absence- Cutler dropped back to pass 50 times and was never sacked.

More importantly, the defense failed to close the door with the game on the line. The trend started on Opening Day, when Jake Delhomme found Dante Rosario on the game's final play for a walk-off win in Qualcomm Stadium. In Week 2, the Chargers had two opportunities to lock in the win, a fourth-and-4 with less than 30 seconds to play and the subsequent two-point conversion.

For anyone who's counting, that means the Chargers' defense is 0-for-3 with the game on the line.

"We're rotating a lot of young players in, especially in our sub packages," Turner said. "Those players are getting better and they'll have to get better."

No young player needs to show more improvement than Antonio Cromartie, who allowed Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall to set a new franchise record with 18 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. Cromartie finished with as many penalties (three) as he did tackles and dropped an easy interception in the second half.

Through two weeks, Cromartie has been outplayed by rookie Antoine Cason, who came through with his second fourth-quarter takeaway in as many games. Perhaps Cromartie can learn a thing or two from the humble yet confident rookie. Defensive Coordinator Ted Cottrell can only hope that's the case.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the 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.

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