Broncos, Chargers to play for all the marbles

December, 21, 2008
12/21/08
11:16
PM ET
 
  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."

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