RB Ryan Mathews (Harry How/Getty)
The San Diego Chargers wrap up an underwhelming season as they visit the Denver Broncos on Sunday. Get set for this surprisingly early season finale with predictions, keys to the game, new team reports and personnel updates.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Don Criqui, Steve Beuerlein
PREDICTION: Chargers 34-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: Broncos rookie QB Tim Tebow has shown big-play ability with his legs and underrated arm strength. He's coming off his first 300-yard passing game, but that was against Houston's league-worst pass defense.
The Chargers - if they travel focused after being eliminated from playoff contention - have a far better pass rush and secondary and will pressure Tebow to make quick decisions into smaller windows. Chargers QB Philip Rivers threw for 233 yards in a 35-14 rout in the first meeting despite a thin receiving corps; he'll again be shorthanded in personnel.
FAST FACTS: The Chargers have averaged 36.3 points in winning seven of the past nine meetings. ... Denver is attempting to avoid a franchise-record 12th loss.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Antonio Gates was on his way to his best season in a stellar career.
Then he hurt his foot and the Chargers have been cursing their fate since.
Gates went on injured reserve Thursday, officially ending a season which really was done on Dec. 12, when it became clear Gates' torn plantar fascia wouldn't let him continue to play.
Gates ends the year with 50 receptions for a team-high 782 yards and 10 touchdowns. Not bad for someone who was active for but 10 games. And really, he played four games with acute pain in his foot.
But Gates was so good that despite his injury he was selected to yet another Pro Bowl. Although Gates relishes the opportunity to share the field with the game's top players, if his right foot isn't fit he won't play. But if he gets the OK from the Chargers' medical staff, he will suit up in Hawaii.
"Over the years I just respect how difficult it is to still play at a high level," Gates said. "This league is very, very tough. Every single year new faces come in, new talent."
Which in Gates' mind means there are no guarantees for future Pro Bowl selections. That's why even if it is unlikely that he will play, he will make that call at the appropriate time.
"Right now my mind is just focused on getting healthy and being able to run," Gates said. "When that time comes I'll try to make a decision from that point on."
Gates' main point about the Chargers is that this team doesn't need to be blown up. Instead, according to Gates, they have to show their strength during a difficult time.
"I truly believe this is definitely the right (core of players and coaches) to win a championship," Gates said. "I really feel like we have the pieces to win it.
"To me this defines character more than any other time. When things are going well, it's so hard to define what a person is made of."
Gates' resume is one which will likely land him in the Hall of Fame -- even if his best season was cut short by injuries.
With Gates out, Randy McMichael and Kris Wilson will take up the slack.
The season finale vs. San Diego likely isn't a referendum on Tim Tebow's future as starting quarterback.
That's because with each passing day it already seems more and more likely that Tebow's fill-in gig is looking to be a full-time affair.
That call is based on the enthusiasm he's generated in Denver and his surprisingly high level of play in his first two NFL games.
Going against San Diego's top-ranked pass defense Sunday, Tebow can go a long way toward cementing his future as the No. 1. But barring an exceedingly poor performance, it should serve as just another career stepping stone.
Incumbent Kyle Orton already has stated publicly that should he return, he's done nothing to negate his solid season prior to his rib injury and should continue as the No. 1 signal caller.
He's not wrong in that assessment.
But, given the state of the franchise at 4-11 and facing a rebuilding project, the timing is right for Tebow regardless of what Orton may deserve.
Yes, Tebow's delivery is funky.
Agreed, Tebow is too reliant on his legs in the early stages of his career.
But he also appears to be the right man at the right time -- growing pains to come notwithstanding.
A moment last Sunday in the comeback win vs. Houston captured by NFL Films neatly sums up why skeptical teammates have suddenly been won over by the rookie and fans have embraced him so passionately.
With Denver poised to score the winning TD at the Texans' 6 last Sunday, Tebow ran to the sideline, briefly approached interim coach Eric Studesville and yelled in his direction, "There's only one person that carries the ball right here!"
Tebow then huddled his teammates, told them, "Get set, we're winning the game right here," and deftly executed a fake boot right, reversing course and running untouched past the left pylon for the 24-23 victory.
That type of leadership is classic Tebow, and it has become readily apparent after just his second NFL game.
The demonstration of that quality doesn't mean Orton did a poor job of firing up teammates.
He's a leader in his own right, in his own fashion, and, with the many uncertain QB openings around the league, will land on his feet somewhere. He may even stay -- but it's a long shot.
The thought of a new coach stepping into a quarterback controversy probably isn't the proper means of introduction for such a fresh start on the sidelines in Denver.
--RB Mike Tolbert (shoulder, neck) did not practice and will not play Sunday.
--WR Patrick Crayton (wrist) didn't practice after being able to go for part of the Wednesday session. Crayton might have suffered a setback which would keep him from Sunday's game.
--WR Malcom Floyd (hamstring) was able to go through at full participation and it looks like his chances are improving to play on Sunday.
--ILB Stephen Cooper (knee) didn't work and signs point to him not playing Sunday.
--OL Scott Mruczkowski (ankle) didn't practice and it's possible he doesn't dress.
--FB Jacob Hester (knee) didn't practice and he could be a game-time decision.
--FB Billy Latsko took Antonio Gates' spot on the roster.
--OLB Antwan Applewhite (ankle) wasn't able to practice and it looks like he won't go Sunday.
--OLB Larry English (foot) continues to miss practice and he hasn't responded well after playing briefly on Sunday. It looks like he is out.
--ILB Brandon Siler (ribs) was a full participant and he will start in place of Stephen Cooper, who is out with a knee injury.
--CB Champ Bailey (heel) missed practice for a second straight day. Bailey didn't sound encouraged about playing when asked about the injury, saying he's aggravated the foot problem several times since Week 2 but that this was the worst recurrence of pain.
--RB Knowshon Moreno (ribs) returned to practice after missing Wednesday's workout. He'll likely be listed as questionable on Friday's injury report, but with the stakes low Sunday, could sit.
--LB Mario Haggan was awarded the fourth annual Darrent Williams Good Guy Award. The honor is named after the late cornerback, who was slain in 2007, and is given to the player who best demonstrates enthusiasm, cooperation and honesty in dealing with the media.
--NT Jamal Williams will appear on the injury report after sitting out Thursday but the veteran is routinely given one practice day off per week and isn't hurt.
--RB LenDale White, on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon, began running in the pool Thursday. He said his target date to jog on solid ground likely falls somewhere within the next month. The veteran tailback is signed through 2011.
Who will win Sunday's Chargers-Broncos contest? Discuss in the message boards.