Christmas Wish One Win Away

QB Philip Rivers (Jeff Gross/Getty)

A lot of people wish for a lot of different things this time of year. The Chargers are no different.

They hoped Sunday's season finale against the Denver Broncos would mean more than playing four quarters and jetting off to an offseason vacation.

But first they had to erase two games off the Broncos' three-game lead in the AFC West standings.

The Chargers have done that thanks to a three-game winning streak and the Broncos getting a lump in their throat. The result is Sunday night's game could hardly mean more.

If the Chargers prevail at Qualcomm Stadium, they, and not the Broncos, will open the playoffs against the visiting Colts the following weekend.

Hey, December dreams really do come true.

"I give a lot of credit to our guys," coach Norv Turner said. "They have hung in there and they have stayed in there.

"We had a tough loss a month ago against Atlanta and had to turn right around and play an Oakland team that was playing extremely well. They rebounded and playing that game the way we did I think got us to a point we said, 'Hey, we can't control what happens outside of this building but we certainly can control what happens over the next month.'

"We found a way to win in Kansas City and played maybe our best game against Tampa, against a real good team that hadn't lost down there and had played awfully good defense at home.

"Now we have a real challenge. Denver is one of the best offenses in the league. They've got guys that have 100 catches, 90 catches. The quarterback has thrown for over 4,000 yards. They've got a lot of playmakers on defense. It's a real challenge for us."

The stiff test was surviving a midseason, which saw an unexpected collapse. The Chargers lost five of six games -- in a variety of wacky ways -- to all but fall out of the playoff hunt.

But they didn't buckle and can another AFC West title with a win that would get them only to eight, but mean so much more.


WR Vincent Jackson
Doug Benc/Getty

Wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who is fresh off reaching 1,000 yards in the season, said the makeup in the locker room was among the reasons the Chargers were able to make up their deficit.

"That has a lot to do with just our coaches and our staff upstairs keeping the guys together for a lot of years," he said. "We don't have a lot of trades. We bring free agents in every once in a while, but we just draft rookies. We keep a lot of the same family in and we have guys here for a lot of years.

"We grow together. We bleed, sweat, work out together all year, so just being around each other, we keep that confidence inside despite what's going on outside of us. We're going to stick together. We've got each other's back. That kind of stuff, it shows its colors late in the season."

It's late, and the stuff didn't hit the fan when things went haywire at Chargers Park. Instead, they stayed together only to watch the Broncos fall a bout.

The Broncos would be only the second team to miss the playoffs -- if they lose Sunday -- after owning a three-game advantage.

The Chargers could care less -- all they care about is taking care of business one last time in their baffling season.

"It's funny, everyone says that and we knew last March that we were going to end the season in San Diego against Denver," Turner said. "We knew it after that game in Denver. I had a feeling it would have great meaning.

"We traveled a different road than I would have liked to have traveled to have it have great meaning but now it does.

"They know us, we know them. They were explosive in that game (in Week 2, a 39-38 Charger loss). They made big plays. They moved the ball. We know we've got our hands full. We've got to get ready to play the best game we've played this year."

SERIES HISTORY: 98th meeting. The Broncos lead the series, 53-43-1. In a thrilling game in September, the Broncos prevailed by one point on a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute. The game was known for referee Ed Hochuli blowing his whistle after a Jay Cutler fumble that was recovered by the Chargers and would have iced the win. Hochuli said he was sorry, but that did little to sooth the Chargers. This will be the 11th time the teams have met in the regular-season finale, with the Chargers holding a 6-4 edge and 5-2 in the games at San Diego.

NOTES, QUOTES

--With a victory, the Chargers would match Denver's 8-8 record. The Chargers would advance as the AFC West champs, based on a 5-1 record in the division. The Chargers would be the first team since 1985 (Cleveland) to win the division at 8-8.

--QB Philip Rivers was asked why the Chargers-Broncos matchup always draws such interest. "It's exciting," he said. "First off, Chargers-Broncos (game) is exciting every year, especially the last couple. We've been battling for the division. You're always looking for matchups to throw things in the mix but I know one thing and I know Jay (Cutler) feels the same way: We're not playing one another out there. We've both got tough defenses to worry about and we're trying to help both of our teams advance into the playoffs."


LB Stephen Cooper
Harry How/Getty

--ILB Stephen Cooper said the rivalry with the Broncos is always intense -- but especially lately. "Yes, it has intensified but that's because they're an AFC West opponent," said the Chargers' leading tackler. "We've been battling the last couple years in who is going to win the AFC West and it's been a battle between us and Denver and that's why it's become a rivalry game. People build it up to be like that because they have a great quarterback (Jay Cutler) and we have a great quarterback. At the end of the day, it's 11 guys going out there trying to do a great job and win the AFC West."

--Coach Norv Turner admitted it was tough letting go of that controversial call in the teams' last meeting. "Yes, I mean, if you believed me when I said that I could, I could sell you some other things," he said. "You can't let it go, but you have to. You have to put it behind you and you can't let it affect what you're doing in the future."

--The Chargers have won three of the past four AFC West titles, with the crown they missed -- in 2005 -- going to the Broncos.

--Denver S Marlon McCree returns to Qualcomm Stadium, the site of a play that is entered in Chargers' lore. The Chargers had the Patriots beat late in a 2006 playoff game when McCree intercepted the ball. But instead of falling on it, he fumbled it on his return and the Patriots recovered and went on to win the game.

--Ex-Charger FB Andrew Pinnock is playing with the Broncos. Pinnock was in the Chargers' camp last summer, set to take the place of Lorenzo Neal. But Pinnock was slow to recover from a knee injury and cut.

--Sunday's game was recently moved into the prime-time slot because of its implications. The Chargers had been moved out of the prime-time position the previous week in Tampa Bay.

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Consecutive AFC West titles the Chargers claim with a victory Sunday. It would also be their fourth in five years.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's exciting. That's why you coach, that's why you play, that's why you're involved in this, to be in a game that has great meaning. This game is as big as it gets for us at this point." -- Coach Norv Turner, on Sunday's winner-take-all game against the Broncos.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Wide receiver Malcom Floyd (collapsed lung) could be down again this week. Floyd is the No. 3 wideout, but a big part of the red-zone package. Look for Legedu Naanee to get more playing time. Don't overlook his versatility as the second-year player can also run reverses and throw the football. He caught it twice last week for 29 yards.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Philip Rivers is one touchdown pass shy of 33 on the season, which would tie Hall of Famer Dan Fouts' team mark.

--WR Vincent Jackson is coming off his third 100-yard game of the season. Jackson has already set career highs in catches (570), yards (1,051) and touchdowns (seven).


LB Shaun Phillips
Harry How/Getty

--OLB Shaun Phillips has come on of late to produce a solid season. Phillips leads the team with 7.5 sacks. His tackle for a loss in the win over Tampa Bay was his 13th of the season, which also paces the Chargers.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson is only the third player in NFL history to go over 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first eight seasons. The others are Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin.

--ILB Stephen Cooper leads the team with four interceptions and they have all come in three December games. The four picks are the most by any NFL linebacker this season and the most by a Chargers linebacker since Donnie Edwards had five in 2004.

--RB Darren Sproles has gone over 2,000 all-purpose yards on the season at 2,053. He had 221 yards last game in Tampa Bay, including a season-long 43-yard punt return.

--P Mike Scifres continues to be a weapon for the Chargers. Only five teams have more than 15 punt-return yards against the Chargers this season.

GAME PLAN: The Chargers should let it rip and be aggressive against the NFL's No. 28th defense. While the Broncos can also score, the Chargers defense is playing better right now than Denver's. There's also some bad blood between Rivers and Cutler, and Turner would love to scheme an attack, which would let Rivers pile up some numbers. Look for LaDainian Tomlinson to get his touches early on the ground, then for Rivers to heave it downfield.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Chargers CBs Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie vs. Broncos passing game, which includes WR Brandon Marshall.

One of these corners must come through to slow Marshall. In the last meeting, he torched Cromartie, who maybe had his worst game as a pro. Marshall would catch 18 passes -- the second-highest game total in NFL history -- as he consistently exposed the Chargers' defensive backs.


LB Jyles Tucker
Al Messerschmidt/Getty

Chargers pass rush, which had two sacks and kept pressure on Tampa Bay's Jeff Garcia last week, against a stout Broncos pass protection scheme.

The Chargers get Cutler one week after trying to contain the mobile Garcia. Cutler doesn't have Garcia's moves but he deftly evades and steps aside when feeling the heat. But the Broncos' offensive line must also get some credit as it has allowed but 12 sacks all year, three below their team record set in 2004. It's essential the Chargers get to Cutler or he will carve them apart as he did when facing them in September.

Chargers passing attack, led by Philip Rivers, vs. a Broncos secondary featuring Champ Bailey.

If you don't think Rivers would love to have an eye-popping day, think again. Rivers and Denver's Cutler have a heated rivalry and it was Cutler, not Rivers, selected to the AFC Pro Bowl roster. Rivers has a new toy in WR Vincent Jackson and he is having a career year. But keep an eye on Chris Chambers, who has been quiet of late. Bailey is back for his second game after suffering a groin injury. But Denver's secondary has a few other bumps and bruises and Rivers would love to exploit it.

INJURY IMPACT:

--WR Malcom Floyd (lung) was a limited participant on Wednesday. That's encouraging but Floyd has yet to take a hit on that lung he collapsed two weeks ago. If he plays, he may not be able to go late in the game or after his first hit.

--ILB Anthony Waters (hamstring) went through the entire practice and seems fine.

--ILB Brandon Siler (foot) wasn't able to work and hopes to go later in the week.

--DT Igor Olshansky (ill) didn't practice but is expected to play Sunday.

--DT Jamal Williams (foot) was out and there is some concern. It's likely Williams would play but his performance could be compromised.

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