Chargers leaving Broncos behind
The Chargers' relentless pursuit of the Broncos is now over
San Diego made up an astounding 4½ games on Denver in five weeks
For the Broncos, the loss may hurt even more in the coming weeks
DENVER -- Looking back, I really can't fathom how these two 6-3 teams were ever tied for first place to start with as this Week 11 Sunday dawned. The only thing I can figure is the standings doubled as the NFL's version of an optical illusion. Maybe it's like when they warn you about objects in the mirror actually being closer than they appear, only to the exact opposite effect in this case.
Because if ever there were two streaking teams that came into a game light years apart from one another, and proceeded to spend the afternoon hurtling furiously in divergent directions, it was the surging San Diego Chargers and the reeling Denver Broncos.
Thanks to their 32-3 win (RECAP | BOX) over the Broncos at a stunned Invesco Field, the Chargers (7-3) technically lead Denver (6-4) by one slim game in the AFC West. But don't believe it. That's like taking a snapshot of Secretariat just as he started to pull away from the Belmont field and inferring that it must have been a very close horse race that long ago Saturday on Long Island.
It's a one-game San Diego advantage, headed for a cakewalk. The regular season might still have six weeks remaining, but that's just chronology. All you needed to see Sunday was the gap that separates these two teams to know how it's going to come out in the AFC West again this year.
"Just to be honest, I didn't think we'd be in the position we're in division-wise at this point,'' said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, in a burst of candor regarding San Diego's ability to make up 4½ games on Denver in the five weeks since the Broncos humbled them 34-23 on Oct. 19 in Southern California. "We didn't think we'd be tied [coming into] this game, but we were. And now we're ahead. But it's not Week 17 of the season. You can't relax, and we won't.''
Maybe not, but the Chargers' relentless pursuit of the Broncos is now over. Now it's Denver's turn to do the chasing, and everybody senses it's not going to be much of a race. The Chargers dominated the Broncos in every facet, and there was nothing fluky about the final margin. Given what was on the line, I really can't remember the last time a bigger game fell this flat -- outside of a Super Bowl or two in the 1980s.
"You'd love to say this was just another game and stuff like that, but it wasn't,'' Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman said. "We were playing for first in the division. It meant a lot to us, and we played like it. We kind of caught them on a little bit of a slope, going down.''
With four losses in a row after their wholly unexpected 6-0 start, the Broncos are in the midst of more than a little slide. They're in an all-out free-fall, and it has perfectly coincided with the five-game winning streak that San Diego began after its homefield loss to Denver last month.
All you had to see in this game to understand how desperate the Broncos were to stop the bleeding was head coach Josh McDaniels' controversial decision to insert injured quarterback Kyle Orton into the game in the second quarter, once Denver trailed 13-0. Chris Simms, Orton's backup, had made his first start in more than three years, but wound up getting just three series before back came Orton, injured left ankle and all.
McDaniels knew what was at stake. He knew Denver's season was on the line here Sunday, and he knew who he was playing. The situation called for drastic measures. No sense saving Orton for games that wouldn't matter anywhere near as much from here on out if the Broncos lost this one.
"In fact, I was surprised Orton didn't start the game, because I saw him in the pre-game and I thought he looked good,'' observed Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "But I think Josh was like, 'This is it. It's time for him to go.' I thought he was going to start, but I guess because he didn't get any snaps during the week they didn't want to do that.''
Orton's entry in the game late in the first half gave Denver it's only flicker of hope all day. Taking over at the Broncos 38, he completed three quick passes in a row, moving Denver to the San Diego 4. The crowd came to life, the Broncos sideline brightened, and then, disaster struck. Rookie running back Knowshon Moreno got the call, and fumbled just shy of breaking the plane of the goal line. The Chargers recovered in the end zone, and with that every last bit of oxygen got sucked from the stadium.
"When Orton came in, it was kind of like Willis Reed coming back to the Garden,'' said San Diego linebacker Stephen Cooper, showing himself to be an impressive student of history. "To see him out there, everyone started running around and making plays. They started moving the ball real fast and it was like they got their second wind. But then Moreno fumbled that ball on the goal line, and it took that wind right out of them.''
These Chargers took the Broncos' best shot right there late in the first half, and never buckled. You can't help but think San Diego's experience at chasing down and catching the Broncos again and again in recent years has produced a supreme confidence. No matter how deep the hole, the Chargers don't panic against Denver. They stay resilient, and by now believe in their own sense of destiny.
"We've been through it before and at this point, anything's possible,'' Tomlinson said. "Whoever thought last year they (the Broncos) would lose three straight at the end of the year and we would win three straight and get into the playoffs? But I can't really say I'm surprised at where we are. It's a long season, and we talked about that five weeks ago (after the loss to the Broncos). We knew Denver still had to play teams in the NFC East, and still had to play a couple teams in the AFC North. We played those teams early. It's a long season, and things happen.''
Who knows what Tomlinson was really thinking when the Chargers were 2-3 and the 6-0 Broncos had built a 3½ game lead over them six weeks into the season? But L.T. realizes how quickly the whole world can change in the NFL, and he and his Chargers have become as adept as anyone at hanging around and giving themselves a chance to make a run.
"This is a tough league, and it's tough to win,'' Tomlinson said. "When you lose one, you say, 'We'll get it back next week.' You lose two, you start saying, 'Holy crap what's going on?' You lose three, and your confidence is shook. You start pointing fingers and starting blaming others. That's just what happens. It's human nature, so I'm not surprised things turn out like this.''
So what happens when you lose four games in a row in the NFL, like the imploding Broncos have? Unrestrained panic?
"I don't want to even get into that,'' Tomlinson said, laughing.
For the Broncos, the opportunity they lost Sunday against San Diego may hurt even more in the coming weeks. Denver has to rebound quickly for a Thanksgiving night visit from the Giants, then travels to improved Kansas City and undefeated Indianapolis in the two weeks after that. With San Diego sitting 7-3 and facing a home date against Kansas City and a trip to Cleveland in the coming two games, the gap in the AFC West is likely to grow.
"There's no question this is our most crucial point of the season,'' Rivers said. "Obviously you don't want to start slow, but we fought back and we're playing our best ball right now. That's something we've been able to do, play our best late in the season. The teams that do that usually have a chance in the postseason. We're not there yet, but we're headed in the right direction.
"This is an excited locker room, and it should be. But nobody's caught up in the hoopla. We've won five in a row, but we're very focused and very grounded in our approach, and I think that's had a lot to do with our success.''
We've seen this movie before, with the Chargers and Broncos passing each other like two ships in the night. San Diego always seems to drop the ball in the season's first half, but these Chargers sure know how to close. Just ask Denver if it feels like a one-game deficit about now. Sometimes the standings do lie, and objects in the mirror are much further than they appear.
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