8:30 PM ET, October 19, 2009
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, CA
Instead, it's the undefeated Broncos who seem to be running away with the division.
Coming off an emotional win over an AFC power, surging Denver looks to create further separation atop the division when it visits the Chargers on Monday night.
San Diego (2-2) won the mediocre West with an 8-8 record last season, thanks in large part to the Broncos' historic collapse. Denver (5-0) lost its final three games while the Chargers won their last four, including a 52-21 victory over the Broncos in the regular-season finale.
Denver's late-season meltdown kept the team out of the playoffs for a third straight season, and expectations weren't high heading into 2009 following an offseason filled with distractions.
The trade of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler to Chicago in April and the suspension of top receiver Brandon Marshall in the preseason didn't make things easy for first-year coach Josh McDaniels, but the team has managed to flourish.
The Broncos beat New England 20-17 in overtime last Sunday to improve to 5-0 for the first time since opening with 13 straight wins in 1998, their last Super Bowl season. This is the fifth time Denver has opened with five consecutive wins and each of the previous times the team ended up in the Super Bowl.
Last Sunday's victory was especially sweet for McDaniels, who beat his old boss, Bill Belichick. After the game, McDaniels ran to the corner of the stadium near where his family sits and pumped his fist repeatedly before sharing bear hugs with his players.
"This doesn't mean a whole lot unless you can share it with somebody," McDaniels said. "Sometimes, you're allowed to have fun. That's what I was doing."
Denver is having plenty of fun as one of four 5-0 teams in the league.
Kyle Orton, doing an exceptional job of stepping in for the departed Cutler, was named the AFC offensive player of the week for his performance against the Patriots. He completed 35 of 48 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns and marched the Broncos 98 yards for the tying score in the waning minutes of regulation.
On the season, Orton has passed for 1,236 yards with seven touchdowns and just one interception, which was picked off by Randy Moss on a desperation heave to end the first half against New England.
"He tries to get better," McDaniels said of Orton, who improved to 26-12 as an NFL starter. "He knows he's not where he could be if he continues to improve and he sees there are plenty of things he can fix and get better at."
While Orton leads the offense, the defense is the stingiest in the league.
The Broncos have given up 43 total points, nine fewer then they allowed in the 2008 season finale against the Chargers, and rank second in total defense (268.8 yards per game). They've also given up only seven points in the second half -- none since a season-opening 12-7 victory over Cincinnati.
"We have got a confident group here from top to bottom," McDaniels said. "I think they trust our game plans, and I think we trust them to execute our game plan."
While everything seems to be clicking for Denver, the Chargers are off to another slow start.
San Diego limped into last week's bye following a discouraging 38-28 loss at Pittsburgh on Oct. 4. The Chargers fell behind 28-0 and surrendered 497 total yards to the defending Super Bowl champions.
"Nobody has a crystal ball or answer for what's going on, but one thing we've got to do for sure is play better," outside linebacker Shawne Merriman said.
With the defense getting run over, the Chargers, who rank last in the league in rushing offense (53.8 yards per game), never got a chance to get their running game going. LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 15 yards on seven carries in his return from a two-game absence because of a sprained ankle.
Tomlinson rushed for 96 yards and three touchdowns in the 2008 season finale against Denver, while Philip Rivers completed 15 of 20 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns.
Rivers, who has passed for 1,245 yards with six touchdowns and three picks in 2009, has thrown 12 touchdowns and three interceptions in six career starts against the Broncos with the Chargers winning five times.
"One thing that gives us a chance is that we're still in the hunt in the AFC West," San Diego tight end Antonio Gates said. "We never said it had to be pretty, and it wasn't pretty last year."
More from ESPN.com
San Diego pushing to keep Chargers around
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Thursday that the city and county will collaborate to facilitate future talks on a stadium deal with the Chargers.
Goodell: Long-term fit vital for move to L.A.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters at the conclusion of the league owners meetings here on Wednesday that speed is not driving the process in the inevitable return of professional football to Los Angeles.
McCoy: Plan is for Rivers to retire a Charger
Essentially asked the same question several different times over a 45-minute period during the AFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings Tuesday, San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy did not waver on the future of his quarterback, Philip Rivers.
NFL delves into stadium, relocation details
As momentum builds toward an NFL return to Los Angeles, Eric Grubman, the league's point man on relocation, addressed the assembled owners on what's happening in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Oakland and San Diego on Monday morning.
Broncos-Chargers: 10 observations
After breaking down film of both teams, Scouts Inc. offers 10 things to watch in this week's Broncos-Chargers matchup.
1. Will the Broncos' pass rush get to QB Philip Rivers? Denver knows Rivers will throw the ball more than the Chargers will run it, especially on third down, and that makes San Diego's offense fairly predictable. That's good news for a Denver defense that is the best in the league at getting to the quarterback. The Chargers are vulnerable on the edge versus speed-rushers, and they prefer not to use their backs in blitz pickup. Rivers likes to air out the deep ball, but he may not have enough time for a lot of seven-step drops -- and he is facing corners who can play single man-to-man coverages behind the pass rush and blitz.
Recent Blog Posts
- Race will be fierce among the Denver Broncos' running backs for top spot
- Gary Kubiak's play-calling will be rooted in Peyton Manning's comfort
- Gary Kubiak: Broncos will look at Peyton Manning's workload
San Diego Chargers
|Avg Points Allowed||11.0||27.2|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||DEN|
|Rush Yds Allowed||DEN|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Series tied 9-9|
|Dec 28, 2008||DEN 21, @SD 52|
|Sep 14, 2008||DEN 39, SD 38|
|Dec 24, 2007||DEN 3, @SD 23|
|Oct 7, 2007||DEN 3, SD 41|
|Dec 10, 2006||DEN 20, @SD 48|
|Nov 19, 2006||DEN 27, SD 35|
|Dec 31, 2005||DEN 23, @SD 7|
|Sep 18, 2005||DEN 20, SD 17|
|Dec 5, 2004||DEN 17, @SD 20|
|Sep 26, 2004||DEN 23, SD 13|
|Nov 16, 2003||DEN 37, SD 8|
|Sep 14, 2003||DEN 37, @SD 13|
|Dec 1, 2002||DEN 27, @SD 30|
|Oct 6, 2002||DEN 26, SD 9|
|Nov 11, 2001||DEN 26, SD 16|
|Oct 21, 2001||DEN 10, @SD 27|