- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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As they did a month ago in San Diego, the Broncos huddled near where the Chargers were warming up. Some Denver players were facing the Chargers and pointing. It appeared as though no San Diego player even noticed the Broncos’ bait job. The Chargers were far more interested in stretching their muscles than their tongues.
On Oct.19, the Chargers were incensed when Denver pulled the same trick on their home field. A shoving match ensued before the Broncos went on to beat the Chargers and take a commanding 3.5-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West.
A lot has changed since then.
“That stuff wasn’t going to work this time,” said San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman, who was said Denver’s display last month was disrespectful. “We weren’t interested in any of that stuff [Sunday]. We were interested in winning the football game.”
Denver coach Josh McDaniels also got involved in the pregame chatter. He exchanged trash talk (which he told the San Diego Union Tribune that Chargers players started) with some San Diego linebackers. After the game, Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips called McDaniels “a little cocky [rear end].”
The Broncos had nothing Sunday -- not even effective pregame bravado.
The Chargers completed an amazing month in the division by plastering the Broncos 32-3 on their home field. Denver was completely outclassed by the Chargers, who appear to be the team they were expected to be in the preseason.
“We had it working today,” San Diego safety Eric Weddle said. “We knew what we were playing for.”
The Chargers were playing for power in the AFC West. And they got it. San Diego is 7-3 and leads Denver (6-4) by a game with six to go. The Chargers have an easier schedule down the stretch than the stumbling Broncos, who have to regroup and play host to the New York Giants on Thursday night. San Diego, which is in the hunt to earn a playoff bye, has two games remaining against teams with winning records.
The Chargers are poised to win their fourth straight division title. If they do, it will be the third straight year in which they came from behind to do so. San Diego started 5-5 in 2007 before winning its final six games. Last year, the Chargers became the first team to start 4-8 and make the playoffs as they won their final four games and Denver lost its final three games.
“Same old Chargers,” Weddle said.”This year, we’re starting early.”
The Broncos joined the 2003 Vikings as teams that won their first six games and then lost their next four games. The Vikings finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs that year. No NFL team has ever had a 3.5-game division lead and not made the playoffs.
In no way do the Broncos resemble the team of the first six weeks. The Broncos, who were given a spark by an injured Kyle Orton in the second quarter, were careless on offense (they lost two fumbles in San Diego territory, one coming in the end zone) and are worn down on defense. Denver had no pass rush against the Chargers and was riddled again on the ground as San Diego had 203 yards rushing.
“The plays that we were making when we were 6-0 we are no longer making,” Denver defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. “We have to regroup.”
The Chargers entered the game knowing they had the Broncos where they wanted them.
“We knew if we played the way we are capable, that we’re a better football team,” Weddle said. “We showed them that today.”
From the pregame warm-ups forward.
Rivers light up Denver again: After the loss last month, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers was back to his dominant self against the Broncos. He has won six of his last eight meetings against Denver.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Rivers has completed at least 60 percent of his pass attempts against Denver in the past eight games. In his past six games against Denver, Rivers has 12 touchdown passes and one interception.
Rivers was a tidy 17-of-22 for 145 yards against Denver. He had one touchdown pass and no interceptions. He made every play he needed to as the Chargers cruised after taking a 13-0 lead at the half. Rivers completed 13-of-14 passes in the first half.
Orton shows toughness: The question, privately, in the San Diego locker room was why Denver didn’t start Orton. He didn’t start because of a badly sprained ankle. But after backup Chris Simms -- who played poorly in the second half at Washington last week in a loss that may haunt Denver -- was ineffective, Orton was put in with the Broncos down 13-0.
He completed his first three passes and led Denver to the goal line, where rookie running back Knowshon Moreno lost a fumble in the end zone. Had Denver scored there, it would have had all the momentum.
Orton finished the game and was 15-of-29 for 171 yards. The Broncos hope he can play against the Giants.
McDaniels said Orton didn’t start because Simms had all the practice reps last week and Orton wasn’t fully healthy.
“Give Orton credit,” Weddle said. “He showed a lot of toughness and he played pretty well.”
Broncos squabble on the sideline: Denver receiver Brandon Marshall got into Moreno’s face after his fumble at the goal line. Moreno, a rookie, responded by shoving the four-year veteran. Moreno tried to go after Marshall on the sideline and had to be restrained by teammates.
“It was frustrating,” Marshall said. “Those are plays that kind of kill drives and we need to punch it in next time.”
McDaniels downplayed the altercation.
“We’ve got a lot of emotional players on our team,” McDaniels said. “Obviously, we don’t want it make scenes or problems for ourselves on the sideline. There are a lot of things that happen on the sideline that involve emotion.”
DENVER -- The San Diego Chargers were in control before the game even started Sunday against the desperate but still cocksure Denver Broncos.As they did a month ago in San Diego, the Broncos huddled near where the Chargers were warming up.