WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivers (1286 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT) is off to a slow start, and his six interceptions and the loss of Gates are proof of that. Rivers was intercepted only 13 times a season ago and had four through the first five contests of 2010. He still leads the AFC with 5,996 passing yards since the start of last season and recorded a 110.6 quarterback rating against the Dolphins last week. The Chargers are 33-8 when Rivers posts a rating of 100 or better, but must improve inside the red zone after they scored one touchdown in four chances inside Miami’s 20-yard line. They have the sixth-best pass attack in the league and are seventh in total yards, mustering 415.8 yards per contest. San Diego must also improve its 18th-rated ground game, though it appears Ryan Mathews is about to do just that. Mathews (288 rushing yards, 3 TD) is enjoying a productive second season and is on pace to break LaDainian Tomlinson’s franchise mark of 2,000 total yards established back in 2006. The second-year back has accumulated 542 yards of offense in four games and is a threat out of the backfield as well, having made 19 receptions for 254 yards. Mathews had 120 rushing yards and three scores the last time he faced the Broncos, back in the 2010 season finale. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson (20 receptions, 374 yards, 3 TD) has been picking up the receiving slack with Gates sidelined, but is also dealing with a leg problem that could affect his production this week.
Denver was gashed for more than 500 yards of offense against the Packers and could fall into the same trap against Rivers, who has yet to truly break out this season. Rookie free safety Rahim Moore (13 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerback Jonathan Wilhite (14 tackles, 2 sacks, INT) each picked off Rodgers in last Sunday’s loss, however, while rookie linebacker Von Miller (16 tackles, 4 sacks) posted a pair of sacks. Miller is the first Broncos rookie to record multiple sacks in one game since Tim Crowder in 2007, and has a quarterback takedown in three straight contests. He leads all rookies in that category as well and can give the Broncos a real edge if he can get plenty of pressure on Rivers. Linebacker D.J. Williams (8 tackles) led the team in stops with eight last week in his first game of the season. He led the Broncos in tackles a season ago as well. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who missed the 2010 season after suffering a torn pectoral during training camp, appeared in his second game of this year on Sunday and seems over a shoulder problem that had sidelined him for Weeks 2 and 3. The Broncos are 29th in points allowed, 23rd in pass defense and total defense and 13th against the run. They must keep San Diego one-dimensional and cool down Matthews.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Fox was impressed with how well the Broncos moved the ball against Green Bay in defeat. An interception return for a touchdown by Packers cornerback Charles Woodson changed the momentum of the game, however, and Denver never regained its confidence after that. Orton (945 passing yards, 8 TD, 6 INT) was picked off three times in all and said the offense played well, but there were plenty of things that the team did wrong. Orton, who needs one more touchdown pass for 50 with the Broncos, was sacked only once behind a line that gave him enough time to get wide receiver Brandon Lloyd back on the map. Lloyd (18 receptions, 263 yards) is still without a touchdown catch this season, but hauled in eight passes for 136 yards against Green Bay. He has reached the 100-yard receiving mark 11 times in his career and is aiming for his third consecutive game with a touchdown catch against the Chargers. Eric Decker (20 receptions, 270 yards, 4 TD) has taken some of the receiving spotlight away from Lloyd and is the first Bronco since Rod Smith in 2001 to catch four touchdown passes in the team’s first four games. McGahee (259 rushing yards, 1 TD) leads the team with 69 carries and is helping fans forget about Moreno’s early struggles. Moreno (26 rushing yards) has appeared in just two games this season, with 10 carries and three receptions to show for it, and seems to have fallen out of favor with the new staff. Behind Decker and Lloyd, McGahee is third among Broncos in catches with 11.
The Chargers can expect a lot of pass plays coming from the Denver offense on Sunday, even though Orton has yet to find his stride this season. Safety Eric Weddle (26 tackles, 2 INT) and cornerback Marcus Gilchrist (11 tackles, 1 INT) both had picks last week against the Dolphins, while Weddle has an interception in back-to-back weeks. Gilchrist was making his first career start in place of cornerback Quentin Jammer (8 tackles), who did not play last week because of a hamstring issue. He was back at practice this week, however, and the Chargers are hoping he will be ready to go for Sunday. Decker and Lloyd are two top targets, but the Chargers have a solid pass defense, allowing 196.2 yards per game through the air that ranks fifth in the league. Linebacker Takeo Spikes (32 tackles), who is nursing a injured neck and is listed as day-to-day, leads the team in tackles and outside rusher Shaun Phillips (15 tackles, 1 sack) owns three sacks in the Chargers’ past three meetings with the Broncos. Linebacker Larry English (5 tackles) posted a career-high two sacks last week and has 3 1/2 sacks over his previous five games. Young linemen Vaughn Martin (12 tackles) and Corey Liuget (3 tackles) are improving on opposite ends of nose tackle Antonio Garay (18 tackles, sack) in San Diego’s 3-4 look.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turner is 6-2 against the Broncos and Rivers has won eight of 10 games as a starter in this series, while throwing 18 touchdown passes. Those strong records will be put to the test Sunday in the Rocky Mountains, where the Broncos are 14-6 in their last 20 contests against the Chargers, however.
Denver is facing another pass-friendly quarterback in Rivers, one of the premier signal-callers in the league and who can pick apart a defense with his arm. Rodgers did it to the Broncos a week ago and Fox, a defensive-minded head coach, hopes his unit can tighten up some gaps on that side of the ball.
Who will win the war on the ground between Mathews and McGahee? Depending on how well their respective offensive lines play, it appears Mathews has the edge against a shaky Denver defense.
Prediction – The Chargers haven’t knocked my socks off with their play this year, but they have been above average, and now is the time they will start to dominate the division. The Broncos are still in the midst of trying to find themselves, and while John Fox is sticking with Kyle Orton, this year clearly isn’t going as the team thought with injuries as well as poor play in various positions. San Diego 24 Denver 14