That can all change starting Monday night, when the Chargers entertain the Denver Broncos. Yep, the 5-0 Broncos, who are leaving their AFC West brethren -- including the Chargers -- in the dust.
It was a painful bye week for the Chargers, as fact and fiction were in a constant battle after they were demolished by the Steelers leading into the off week.
Yes, the Chargers are a good team -- but when will they start playing like one?
Yes, the Chargers have won three straight AFC West titles -- but when will they start acting like a champion?
Yes, the Chargers' window of opportunity with this group of core players could be ending after this season -- but when will the team start playing with a sense of urgency?
Monday night would be a good start after licking their wounds for a week.
"We had a chance to regroup a little bit, reevaluate what's going on and now we'll try and get on a roll in these division games," tight end Antonio Gates said.
The table is set for just that. The Chargers haven't dipped into the AFC West division since beating the Raiders in the season opener. Now come the Broncos, a trip to Kansas City and the visiting Raiders over the next three games.
It's easy to go the doom-and-gloom route with the Chargers despite their 2-2 record. In addition to the Broncos' threat to run away with the division, the Chargers have been decimated by injuries, can't run the ball, stop the run or put pressure on quarterbacks.
That's why some are saying this possible Super Bowl year could quickly turn into one where the team is fighting to stay above .500 -- which was right where it ended last season at 8-8.
GM A.J. Smith
als of being the Pats' offensive coordinator. "I'm very concerned," Smith said, on how fast the Broncos got up to speed. "I saw the changes going on and I saw it as a direct threat to the San Diego Chargers.
"I hoped that it would slow down and take a few years to get their program going, but I knew they would be going. I'm not surprised. There's a new beginning in Denver, and they've come out on fire."
Which means now is the time for the Chargers to find their spark. To rediscover the confidence and swagger they broke camp with, something which has seldom been seen in the season's first month.
"I want the players to be consistent," said Smith, adding he has no issues with coach Norv Turner and his staff. "Don't play hard for a quarter and then drift a little bit. That's what I want and I think that's what they'd like to see ... if we continue to stay focused and believe in one another and we play four quarters of hard, consistent football, things will improve."
But time is running out. And that makes Monday night the best time to start proving to the doubters that the Chargers are more than a .500 squad.
SERIES HISTORY: 99th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series 53-44-1, but the Chargers are looking for their fourth straight win over Denver at home. The last time they played in San Diego the stakes were high as the winner advanced to the playoffs as AFC West champions. The Chargers completed their amazing comeback -- and the Broncos continued their historic free-fall - with a 52-21 San Diego win. The Chargers are also 2-0 against the Broncos on Monday Night Football. Neither of these teams has swept the season series since the Broncos did it in 1991. Monday night will be one of the NFL's legacy games, which pays tribute to the original members of the AFL; both teams will be wearing uniforms from the inaugural season of 1960 -- back when the Chargers called Los Angeles home.
Coach Norv Turner
"They're playing outstanding defense," coach Norv Turner said. "Defensively, I think they're coached real well. There are eight new starters and I think talent is more important than how long they've been together."
--Among those new Bronco faces is veteran S Brian Dawkins. The eight-time Pro Bowler could have provided a great deal to the Chargers as well, as they have had trouble getting production from the safety position. Instead, Dawkins has solidified the Chargers' Monday night rival.
"He's an outstanding player and has been a difference maker for a lot of years in Philadelphia," Turner said. "He's all over the field."
--GM A.J. Smith isn't pulling punches on what lies ahead if the Chargers don't improve.
"If this trend continues, we'll be 8-8 -- or worse -- and certainly out of the division (race)," he said. "We won't have the credentials. It's not going well for the San Diego Chargers and we'd better get our act together quickly."
--Much has been made of the drop-off of the Chargers' defensive line. It should be noted Wayne Nunnely, the Chargers' former longtime DL coach, has landed with the Broncos.
--OLB Antwan Applewhite is back at practice and figures to be part of the rotation on Monday. He has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury.
--To toast their 50th anniversary, Monday's pre-game coin toss will include Chargers greats Ron Mix, Lance Alworth and Keith Lincoln. All three were key players on the team's only title squad, the 1963 AFL champions.
--OLB Shawne Merriman won't have his Mohawk for the national TV cameras Monday night. He shaved off the blue Mohawk he debuted during training camp. Other Chargers were giving him the business that he looks like a kid. "I cut five years off my look I guess," Merriman said.
--Turner said the emergence of his younger defensive backs -- although they have struggled as well -- played into the decision of cutting veteran SS Clinton Hart on Wednesday.
"We feel the young guys have come along and are ready to play," Turner said. "I don't know that it was as much Clinton as the young guys have come on. Kevin (Ellison) played a lot in the Miami game and I was impressed with him. Steven Gregory is playing well at that position. It gives us some other options."
--DT Ian Scott played four games last year with the Chargers and spent all of the offseason and camp with them before getting cut in September. He will be thrown right into game action.
"It feels like I wasn't gone," Scott said. "Guys have welcomed me back and hopefully I get a chance to contribute and help these guys continue to win."
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Number of Philip Rivers' touchdown passes in his last five games against the Broncos, with only one interception.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is a big stretch of our season." -- TE Antonio Gates on the Chargers' next three games against AFC West foes.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SS Clinton Hart
Some thought CB Antonio Cromartie would be shown the bench for his shoddy play of late. And that Hart might give way to rookie Kevin Ellison.
But the Chargers decided they had seen enough of Hart and released him in a bit of a surprising move.
What that move does is speak to their dismay of the way Hart, a starter since 2007, has been playing. That and the need for some fresh bodies along the defensive front.
Hart's roster spot will be taken by defensive tackle Ian Scott, who was cut in September. So Hart is out, with his snaps going to Steve Gregory and rookie Kevin Ellison.
And with Scott back, he will quickly be thrown into game action, especially with Travis Johnson nursing a groin injury.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson would love to get the same chances he did the last time the Chargers faced the Broncos to end the 2008 regular season. Tomlinson ran for three touchdowns, which gave him 18 career rushing scores against Denver, his second-highest total against any foe.
--WR Vincent Jackson, who went to school at Northern Colorado, has had 100-yard receiving games in two of the last three games.
--CB Antoine Cason could be pushing for more playing time. He leads the teams with two interceptions, which matches his total during last year's rookie season.
--LB Larry English, a rookie, has something Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips and Jyles Tucker don't -- a sack. English, the 16th overall pick, has the only sack coming from the outside spot; the team has but six total sacks.
--TE Antonio Gates has begun what promises to be a productive season. Since 2003, Gates leads all tight ends with 53 touchdown receptions. His two scoring catches this year ties him with Vincent Jackson for the club lead.
GAME PLAN: While the Chargers love the deep ball, they are going to at least have to try to throw their defense a bone by constructing some decent drives that also eat some clock. That means, for the first time this season, the Chargers need to give the running game more than lip service. It figures the Chargers' defense is going to be on the field for a long time, combating Kyle Orton's short passes and the Broncos' reliable running attack. If the Chargers only way to move the ball is to heave long passes, that might work against them. The defense will be on the field a long time Monday so it needs to catch its breath when the Chargers have the ball.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Chargers pass protection vs. Broncos pass rush.
Elvis Dumervil, who has an NFL-high eight sacks, leads the charge against a makeshift San Diego line. The Chargers have fallen in love with an offense around the deep ball, which means Rivers has to wait for the downfield moves. Those receivers figure to have a tougher time getting open with veteran DBs Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins playing so well. So if it comes to that, the Chargers' pass blockers are going to have to hold their blocks longer or Rivers is going to get clocked. Dumervil will mostly come from the right side, where he will tangle with LT Marcus McNeill and LG Kris Dielman. The youngsters are going to have to play well on their end, because the other side is going to have its hands full.
Chargers running game vs. Broncos run defense.
The Chargers are hoping LaDainian Tomlinson's ankle appreciated the bye week to mend and the run-blocking can show some improvement. Tomlinson traditionally runs well against the Broncos, but the Chargers' play-callers have to do their part. The Broncos, allowing only 81 rushing yards per game, have shifted to a 3-4 and are seeing plenty of production from their active linebackers.
Chargers secondary vs. Broncos WR Brandon Marshall.
The Chargers haven't got the pass rush they had hoped for and it is showing on the back end. Strong safety Clinton Hart was shown the door on Wednesday -- a big drop for a starter. So Steven Gregory will get the majority of Hart's snaps but will that be the answer? The pass defense has to be more physical and play more man coverage or Orton will eat the Chargers up with those short passes. And just when you think he is content to dink and dunk, he will look for Marshall down field. Marshall always kills the Chargers and with his new attitude, he will be primed to show his play of late is not fluke on national TV. The Chargers somehow, someway, have to generate some kind of heat on Orton or it will be a long night for the guys on the back end.
INJURY IMPACT: DE Travis Johnson (groin) probably won't play Monday, and if he does, he won't be 100 percent. The Chargers might have tipped their hand on Johnson's availability by bringing back Ian Scott. OLB Shawne Merriman (groin) is likely to try to play, just like he has done the past two weeks. But he has only been able to play a handful of plays as he continues to be slowed by the groin. He claims his rebuilt knee is fine; not so with his groin. OLB Shaun Phillips (arm) will practice this week and play on Monday. ILB Stephen Cooper (knee) will be careful during this week's workouts and won't push his knee until later in the week. The Chargers are hoping to avoid this becoming a chronic issue, and so far, that hasn't been the case.