AFC West: Bills-Broncos

Moving away from Week 16

December, 22, 2008
12/22/08
1:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

I am traveling from Denver, where I watched the Broncos fall to Buffalo, setting up a winner-take-all-game at San Diego for the AFC West division title next Sunday, to California for the next several hours.

When I get there, I will give updates and analysis from around the AFC West as we prepare for Sunday night's showdown.

 
  Denver quarterback Jay Cutler.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- No, Chargers fans, Ed Hochuli will not be officiating next week's game in San Diego.

John Parry's crew is scheduled to work the winner-takes-all game between the Broncos and the Chargers. Hochuli should now be off the hook in the minds of San Diego fans. The Chargers are getting a second chance at the AFC West championship.

Perhaps the weakest division in the NFL this season, the AFC West will be in the spotlight in Week 17 as Denver and San Diego play for the division crown next week and the right to face No. 5 seed Indianapolis in the wild-card round on the weekend of Jan 3-4. Because of the playoff implications, the game has been flexed to prime time Sunday night.

The under-the-lights holiday affair was made possible by a Denver choke job at home against Buffalo, which had nothing to play for. Denver blew a 13-0 lead in the second quarter and ended up losing 30-23 to a team it dominated in nearly every key statistic.

A win would have clinched Denver's first division championship in three years. San Diego had won earlier at Tampa Bay 41-24, setting up next week's clash. Denver players said they were unaware of the Chargers outcome until after their game.

Two weeks ago, Denver was 8-5 and San Diego was 5-8. Yet, thanks to a three-game winning streak by the Chargers and back-to-back Broncos losses in games where a win would have clinched the division, it will be a dramatic Christmas week in the AFC West. If San Diego wins, it will win the division based on a better division record than Denver.

The turn of events gives San Diego new life. Chargers fans have been up in arms since their team was the victim of an incorrect call by officials. In the final seconds of the team's first 2008 clash in Denver, Hochuli blew a call on a Cutler fumble that San Diego recovered. The Broncos then scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to beat the Chargers, 39-38. The NFL later admitted that it was a blown call. "Hochuli" has essentially become a dirty word in San Diego ever since.

Now, the Chargers, among the biggest disappointments in the NFL this season after being preseason Super Bowl contenders, have a chance at redemption. If Denver wins the division, it will become the fifth NFL team to go wire-to-wire without ever being tied for the division lead. That milestone looks tenuous at this point, though.

The Chargers, who are in this position thanks to a wild comeback win at Kansas City in Week 15, will enter Sunday's game playing as well as they have all season.

For Denver, this game is a shock to its system. Two weeks ago, the division looked like a done deal. And for much of Sunday it looked like a done deal. Now, Denver will head to San Diego as a clear underdog.

The Broncos were trying to erase the Bills loss from their minds moments after the game and focus on their chance in San Diego.

"It's been a roller coaster for us all year," Denver quarterback Jay Cutler said. "This is pretty normal for us. We win a few and then we lose a few ... It's par for the course at this point."

Added Denver cornerback Champ Bailey: "Our season is still in front of us. We have a one-game chance in San Diego."

Here are other key elements to Sunday's game:

All passing Broncos: The Broncos, long a premier run-first outfit, threw the ball 45 times Sunday. They ran the ball 27 times.

However, the major disparity came in the fourth quarter, when Cutler threw 22 times and the Broncos ran three times. One of the runs was by Cutler, who led Denver with eight carries.

The Broncos' battered running game took another big hit Sunday when starter P.J. Pope went out in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. He didn't return and his status for Sunday's game is unknown. He is Denver's seventh injured tailback this season.

Pope was running hard when he was hurt. He had 44 yards on six carries. Now, Denver's running backs are Tatum Bell and Selvin Young. It was clear in the second half that Denver coach Mike Shanahan doesn't trust either player to get tough yards.

Denver has to find a way to get a running attack going at San Diego or it will have no chance.

Red-faced in the red zone: A quick glance at the statistics from Sunday's game might make it look like Denver won easily. Denver outgained Buffalo 532 yards to 275. It owned the time of possession battle by six minutes, 22 seconds. It gained seven more first downs than Buffalo did.

But the killer statistic for Denver was its lack of efficiency in the red zone. Buffalo scored touchdowns on three of its five trips inside Denver's 20-yard line. The Broncos, though, scored touchdowns on two of six trips to Buffalo's red zone. The Broncos had to settle for two short field goals in the first half.

"Our inability to score touchdowns hurt us," said Denver receiver Brandon Stokley, who had the ball knocked from his hands on Denver's final play, a fourth-and-5 play in the end zone from Buffalo's 15 with 39 seconds remaining in the game.

Bailey battles: Bailey was clearly not completely ready to play. He was playing for the first time after missing seven games with a torn groin.

He had to leave the game twice. Bailey said there's no way he won't play against San Diego.

"I have to," Bailey said. "I have to be out there next week."

Wrapping up Week 16

December, 21, 2008
12/21/08
10:49
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- Wrapping up the day in the AFC West:

While there is going to be plenty of storylines for Sunday's winner-take-all game in San Diego between the Broncos and the Chargers, one of the best will be the Philip Rivers-Jay Cutler rivalry.

The two had a famous verbal spat last December in San Diego. The game, and the division title, will likely come down to how has a better game Sunday night.

The Chiefs had no sacks on Sunday and they are stuck on nine sacks for the season.

If the Broncos lose next Sunday, they will become the second team in NFL history to blow a three-game division lead. The 2003 Minnesota Vikings did it.

The Broncos have allowed at least 30 points in three of their past four games. They were all losses.

The Broncos scored a touchdown on a drive in which its communication device wasn't working. Cutler had to run to the sidelines between plays to get the call from the coaching staff.

The Bills were stuck in Denver on Sunday night because of weather issues in Buffalo.

The Broncos finished their home schedule 4-4 after starting 3-0 at home. San Diego is 4-3 at home.

The Chiefs will get the second or third pick in the draft.

The Raiders will choose in the 4-8 range.

Rapid Reaction: Bills 30, Broncos 23

December, 21, 2008
12/21/08
7:17
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- See you in San Diego.

The Denver Broncos had two chances to win the AFC West in the past two weeks. They were unable to seal the deal.

Denver's loss in a thriller Sunday to Buffalo creates a winner-takes-the-division game in San Diego next Sunday. The Broncos are 8-7. San Diego, which has won three straight games, is 7-8.

The Broncos will have to forget the stinging loss to the Bills quickly. They squandered a 13-0 lead. The victory was secured for Buffalo when Denver receiver Brandon Stokley had the ball knocked out of his hands in the end zone on fourth down and 5 from the Buffalo 15 with less than a minute to play.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- We're early in the fourth quarter and the game is tied at 23.

Buffalo countered a Denver touchdown drive with a quick one of its own to take the lead in this wild game.

Denver quarterback Jay Cutler scored on a 6-yard run to give Denver the lead late in the third quarter. It was the only run on a nine-play drive by Denver. The Broncos went down the field despite having communication device problems. Cutler often ran to the Denver sideline to get the incoming play. Buffalo had scored 16 unanswered points.

Cutler also set the Denver passing mark for the season. He broke Jake Plummer's team record of 4,089 yards set in 2004.

Buffalo running back Marshawn Lynch is out with a shoulder injury.

Denver cornerback Champ Bailey has departed the game twice. This is his first game back after missing seven games with a groin injury.

Halftime notes from Denver

December, 21, 2008
12/21/08
5:41
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- Halftime notes from beyond-freezing cold Denver where the Broncos lead 13-10:

  • Denver kicker Matt Prater, who has struggled the past couple of months, was very short on a 54-yard field goal attempt with 2 minutes to go in the first half. It gave Buffalo life and the Bills scored a touchdown with 15 seconds left to make it a new ballgame.
  • The game is somewhat reminiscent of the Broncos' game against San Francisco in the final contest of the 2006 season. All Denver needed to do was beat San Francisco, which was out for the playoff hunt, and it would have went to the playoffs. Denver lost in overtime. The Broncos led that game 13-0 at one point. Denver was leading Buffalo, which is out of the playoff hunt, early in the second quarter.
  • Denver all-time leading receiver Rod Smith, who retired in July, addressed the crowd just prior to the game.
  • Denver running back P.J. Pope, Denver's seventh starting tailback this season, is still out with a hamstring injury he suffered in the first quarter. He had 44 yards on six carries. Tatum Bell and Selvin Young are playing for Denver.
  • It was 17 degrees at kickoff. It was the second-coldest Broncos game in Denver and the coldest game in the eight-season history at Invesco Field at Mile High.
  • Denver rookie receiver Eddie Royal had a 71-yard run on an end-around in the first quarter. It was his fifth play of 50 yards or longer this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DENVER -- Another game another injured Denver Broncos tailback.

Playing in a game in which they will clinch the AFC West title with a win, the Broncos have lost starting tailback P.J. Pope with a left hamstring injury. Pope is questionable to return, according to the Broncos.

He is the seventh Denver tailback this season. Five tailbacks were lost for the season because injuries.

Pope, who was recently elevated from the practice squad, was running well Sunday early in the first quarter. He had 44 yards on six carries.

Tatum Bell, signed off the street last month, and Selvin Young are playing as Denver's lead backs.

Bailey back with style

December, 21, 2008
12/21/08
4:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Champ Bailey is back.

Bailey

After missing the past seven games with a torn groin, Bailey is back in the lineup Sunday against Buffalo and he made an instant impact.

On the first play, Bailey, who hasn't played since Oct. 20 at New England, made a tackle in run support after a 1-yard gain by Marshawn Lynch. On the second play, Bailey came in on a cornerback blitz and blasted Bills quarterback Trent Edwards for a 5-yard loss. Edwards fumbled the ball after being hammered by Bailey. The Bills recovered the ball.

Bailey came up from the ground, yelling and pumping his fists. Bailey is known for being calm and relaxed on the field. He was obviously looking forward to getting back on the field.

Earlier in the week, Denver coach Mike Shanahan called Bailey the greatest defensive back ever to play in the NFL.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The San Diego Chargers are keeping the heat on the Denver Broncos.

In a game they had to win, the Chargers battered the host Buccaneers Sunday, 41-24. It was the Chargers' third straight victory and one of their more impressive wins of the season. San Diego is now 7-8.

The Chargers' road to the playoffs is now simple. If Denver (8-6) loses Sunday at home against Buffalo, it will set up a winner-takes-the-division game next Sunday in San Diego between the Broncos and San Diego.

The Chargers got new life in the division after their wild comeback win last week at Kansas City. The Chiefs led 21-3 at the start of the fourth quarter and they led 21-10 at the two minute warning.

The Chargers were clearly fired up in Tampa Bay as they dominated the Buccaneers for much of the afternoon. Now they wait to see if it matters.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Pre-game news and notes from Denver:

Denver star left cornerback Champ Bailey is active and is expected to start against Buffalo. Bailey has missed the past seven games with a torn groin. Bailey said last week that he needed to get on the field at least once if Denver were to make the playoffs so he felt good in January.

Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman is the Bills' No. 3 quarterback Sunday behind Trent Edwards and No. 2 quarterback Gibran Hamdan. Losman had been starting in recent week with Edwards injured.

Buffalo left tackle Jason Peters is inactive and is replaced by Kirk Chambers.

The game-time temperatures are expected to be in the high teens in Denver. It is very cold but clear.

Denver rookie free safety Josh Barrett will start for the injured Marlon McCree.

Buffalo top pick Leodis McKelvin is starting for the injured Jabari Greer at cornerback.

Denver rookie left tackle Ryan Clady will play despite an ankle injury that kept him out of two days of practice this week.

Denver right guard Chris Kuper will play despite a hand injury that kept him out of two days of practice this week.

Denver No. 3 receiver Brandon Stokley will play despite being hobbled for the past two weeks with a foot injury.

As promised by Denver coach Mike Shanahan, there are no updates from the Chargers game in Tampa Bay on the stadium scoreboards or in the Denver locker room. The televisions in the locker room, which are usually tuned into the early action, are turned off Sunday. Denver will clinch the division in the Buccaneers beat San Diego. The Chargers are leading 27-24 midway in the fourth quarter.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The Broncos got good news Friday when rookie left tackle Ryan Clady practiced on a limited basis. He missed the first two days of practice with an ankle injury. He is listed as questionable to face visiting Buffalo. Denver can clinch the AFC West with a victory or a tie.

Clady told reporters Friday that he is hopeful to play Sunday. He was injured late against Carolina. Clady is essential to Denver's offense. He has allowed a half sack all season. If the first-round pick can't play, undrafted rookie Tyler Polumbis would likely play.

While Clady made good strides, so did right guard Chris Kuper. He practiced Friday and is expected to play despite a broken bone in his hand. Star left cornerback Champ Bailey is making progress and has a chance to play Sunday after missing seven games with a groin injury. The team also expects No. 3 receiver Brandon Stokley to play despite a foot injury.

In San Diego, Malcolm Floyd who suffered a lung injury at Kansas City is out Sunday at Tampa Bay. Linebacker Anthony Waters us doubtful with hamstring injury. He did not hamstring injury.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are hopeful quarterback Jeff Garcia (calf) and linebacker Derrick Brooks (ribs) will be able to play against San Diego. The Chargers have to win to stay alive in the AFC West race.

Smoking hot Colts likely headed West

December, 19, 2008
12/19/08
12:54
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

While we wait to see who will represent the AFC West in the playoffs, it looks like the Indianapolis Colts will be headed out West in the wild card round on the weekend of Jan. 3-4.

The Colts secured the No. 5 spot in the AFC playoffs with a win at Jacksonville on Thursday night. It appears likely the winner of the AFC West will be the No. 4 seed. If San Diego wins the West, it will definitely be the No. 4 seed. Thus, if the Chargers get past Denver, they will host Indianapolis.

If Denver wins the division, there is still a chance it could be the No. 3 seed but it seems unlikely.

Denver, 8-6, can clinch the AFC West title with either a win or a tie in its final two games or with a loss or a tie by San Diego, 6-8, in its final two games. San Diego plays at Tampa Bay on Sunday and Denver hosts Buffalo. If the Chargers win and the Broncos lose it would setup a winner-takes-all regular season finale in San Diego on Dec. 28.

Then, it appears, the Colts, who have won eight straight games, wait for the winner. Both Denver and San Diego have a recent playoff history against Indianapolis.

Denver was blow out in Indianapolis in the wild card round after both the 2003 and 2004 seasons. San Diego won at Indianapolis last season in the divisional round. The Colts and Chargers have played in the regular season in San Diego both this season and last season. The Chargers secured the win late in the game last season and the Colts won as time expired in San Diego last month.

AFC West news and notes

December, 18, 2008
12/18/08
9:36
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Former Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil told the Kansas City Star he has not been contacted for the Chiefs' leadership position that will open in the wake of this week's announcement that GM Carl Peterson will be out at the end of the season. Vermeil wouldn't discuss whether he was interested in the job. Expect Vermeil's name to stay in the rumor mill on this one.

The Raiders' final home game of the season will be blacked out and will not be shown on local television.

The Bills practiced outside for the first time in a month Thursday to prepare for Sunday's game at Denver. The temperature is expected to be in the low teens at kickoff.

Rod Smith, who retired in July as Denver's all-time leading receiver, will address Denver fans Sunday as part of the team's fan appreciation day.

AFC West chat transcript

December, 18, 2008
12/18/08
6:07
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Here is a transcript from our AFC West chat from earlier Thursday.

We had a great session talking about the huge games this weekend in Denver where the Broncos host Buffalo and in Tampa Bay where the Chargers visit. Thanks to those who participated.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The Broncos might have to play without two of their starters on the offensive line, including star rookie left tackle Ryan Clady, Sunday against Buffalo in a game in which Denver could clinch the AFC West title.

Clady and right guard Chris Kuper missed practice Thursday for the second straight day. Clady has an ankle injury and Kuper has an injured hand. Both players were hurt late in Denver's 30-10 defeat at Carolina. Clady and Kuper likely won't play against the Bills if they don't practice Friday.

If Clady is out, rookie Tyler Polumbus would likely start and if Kuper can't go, rookie Kory Lichtensteiger would likely play. He allowed a sack on the first play he spelled Kuper on Sunday. The loss of Clady would be huge for Denver. The first-round pick has allowed just half a sack all season.

Receiver Brandon Stokley also missed practice for the second straight day with a foot injury. Cornerback Champ Bailey continued to be limited by a groin injury. He will test it later this week. Bailey has missed seven straight games.

In San Diego, backup receiver Malcolm Floyd (lung) and linebacker Anthony Waters (hamstring) didn't practice. Linebacker Stephen Cooper (knee) was back at practice Thursday.

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