SAN DIEGO (AP) -To outsiders, the AFC West is one of the NFL's weakest divisions.
The San Diego Chargers see it otherwise, preferring to think that it's simply competitive.
Whatever the choice of words, the Chargers will continue to try to salvage their season when they host the Denver Broncos on Monday night.
The teams' records are anything but special, even if this rivalry is always intense. The Chargers are 4-5, even with a two-game winning streak. The Broncos are 3-6, even with their 49-29 win against the Kansas City Chiefs.
"If you just look at divisions and records, it probably doesn't stack up as one of the toughest,'' said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who's on pace to shatter Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 yards passing. "But you also could look at each game and how they've been won or lost. All four teams in the division are a few plays away from having a lot different record.''
Going into Sunday's games, the AFC West was a combined 17-19, tied with the AFC North for the second-worst in the NFL. The NFC West, of course, brought up the rear at 15-21.
The four-time defending division champion Chargers have yet to be above .500 this year. Repeated special teams blunders and a slew of turnovers contributed to a 2-5 start, the worst in Norv Turner's four seasons as head coach.
Still, in this division, there's always the hope of reaching the playoffs regardless of the record.
"We've been 8-8 before and won the first game of the playoffs,'' Rivers said, referring to 2008. That year the Chargers were 4-8 before a four-game winning streak, coupled with Denver's historic collapse, handed the division title to the Bolts. The Chargers finished off the Broncos with a 52-21 rout in San Diego, beat the Indianapolis Colts in overtime in the wild-card round before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I think it's a game-to-game, week-to-week league. You try to find a way to get in,'' Rivers said. "To get in, you're 0-0. Last year, what were we, 13-3, and the Jets came in here and we lost. We went through the so-called toughest division in football last year in the NFC East. It's a week-to-week deal.''
The Chargers were 4-0 against the NFC East last year.
This year, they're 0-2 against their own division, having lost at Kansas City and at Oakland. They're also 1-2 against the NFC West, having lost at Seattle and at St. Louis while beating Arizona at home. Overall, including the playoff defeat, the Chargers have lost six of their last 10 games.
Going into Sunday's games, Oakland and Kansas City were tied for the AFC West lead at 5-4.
"I expected this going into this year, that this was going to be the most competitive in the West as it's been,'' Rivers said.
Whatever the records, this is expected to be a shootout between Rivers, who leads the NFL with 2,944 yards passing, and Denver's Kyle Orton, who's second with 2,806.
In their two games prior to beating the Chiefs, the Broncos were routed 59-14 by the Raiders, then went all the way to London to lose 24-16 to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Chargers hope star tight end Antonio Gates returns after missing a win at Houston on Nov. 7 with a painful plantar fascia tear in his right foot. The Chargers are coming off their bye week, and Gates said he's been frustrated by the slow rehab.
"Despite what we've done up to this point, this is a big game,'' Gates said. "I know we sound like we're saying it over and over and over, but the reality is, we can put ourselves in a very, very comfortable situation where we can control our own destiny. That's what we talked about when we were 2-5. It's a situation where I want to be part of it and I want to try to help. But I understand there's a difference between helping and hurting the team.''
The Chargers might be on one of their second-half runs under Turner. They won their last 11 in 2009 before their playoff face-plant against the Jets, four straight to end 2008 and six straight at the end of 2007, when they reached the AFC championship game before losing at New England.
"That might be something they plan on,'' Denver defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson said. "Start slow, finish fast late. I think they like that late start. It gets the team motivated.''
The Broncos aren't swayed by San Diego's sub-.500 record.
"That is a good team,'' safety Renaldo Hill said. "I don't know what's kept them from winning. What I do know is they have players that can get things going in a hurry. You can't worry what they've done, but what they can do.''
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