Coach Norv Turner (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
The San Diego Chargers look to catapult back into the thick of the AFC West race with a win over the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. Get set for this match-up with injury updates, keys to the game, predictions and more.
KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN (Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden)
SERIES: 99th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series 53-44-1. Chargers have won the last three meetings in San Diego. In last year's season finale, the Chargers beat Denver 52-21 to take the AFC West title. It turned out to be Mike Shanahan's last game as Broncos coach.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos' excellent offensive line is setting the tone as the skill position players grow increasingly comfortable in coach Josh McDaniels' complex system. Denver will start off by hammering between the tackles against San Diego's run defense allowing 4.6 yards per carry. In the passing game, QB Kyle Orton has plenty of options and San Diego shook up its secondary by releasing starting SS Clinton Hart this week. San Diego comes out of its bye needing to increase its 2.7 yards per carry to help control the clock and save the defense. The Chargers will have a difficult time relying solely on their deep passing game as that's also the strength of Denver's defense.
FAST FACTS: The Broncos seek their first 6-0 start since 1998. ... Chargers QB Philip Rivers is 4-0 with a 106.9 passer rating on Monday nights.
PREDICTION: Broncos 23-10
--ILB Stephen Cooper (knee) didn't work on Thursday and he hasn't practiced since the loss to the Steelers. Look for Cooper to go, but he won't be near 100 percent, which will hamper the Chargers' run defense.
--WR Kassim Osgood (back) didn't practice but he will go Monday. Osgood is the team's top special teams player.
--OLB Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) practiced and is a go for Monday.
--DE Travis Johnson (groin) was able to practice and if he doesn't have a setback, will return to the line rotation after missing two games.
--OLB Shawne Merriman (groin) practiced and will play Monday. But how much is still to be determined as he suited up the last two games and gone but a handful of plays.
--OLB Shaun Phillips (calf) took all the practice snaps and will be ready for Monday.
--P Mike Scifres (groin) got work in during Thursday's workouts and will be available on Monday.
--RB Correll Buckhalter said Thursday that his ankle is 90 percent and he will play Monday against San Diego. That's not a huge surprise since he has been practicing this week. Buckhalter might not start but should get playing time behind Knowshon Moreno.
--RB LaMont Jordan missed his second straight day of practice because he was attending a funeral. His status for this week's game is uncertain.
--S Brian Dawkins missed a couple days of practice last week, but that was precautionary. Dawkins is not listed on the injury report this week.
--LB Robert Ayers hasn't broken into the starting lineup in the base defense, but is playing with more confidence on passing downs. He could have a solid impact this season rushing the quarterback opposite Elvis Dumervil.
--RB Peyton Hillis hasn't been a big part of the Broncos' offense yet this season. He has been the fourth tailback and is playing fullback when the Broncos use one. Hillis' main value is on the goal-line back, but the Broncos have been leaving in Knowshon Moreno in short-yardage situations the past couple weeks.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Chargers will welcome the Broncos to San Diego on Monday night and they also hope to see an appearance from their ground game.
Dead last is where the Chargers rank in the NFL, spitting out but 215 yards in four games. Hard to believe a backfield with $12 million in salary and a future Hall of Famer can average but 53.8 yards per game.
"The running game is all about tempo," LaDainian Tomlinson said. "We haven't had the opportunity to run very much, but I'm confident that when we get a chance to run, we'll be successful."
The run-blocking has been suspect, what with two of the five offensive line positions in a state of flux.
Plus the Chargers have come out so flat in their games, they often are looking at a significant deficit, which minimizes their motivation to run.
"We want to run the ball. I say it each week," coach Norv Turner said. "Each week, the game dictates what you're going to do. If you get behind, you're not going to spend time running the football. Hopefully we're not in that position."
The Broncos, with the No. 2-ranked defense, hardly seem like the unit to have a breakout game against on the ground. But if the Chargers don't start getting some traction with their rushes, it's going to be a long and painful season for quarterback Philip Rivers.
"We need to get better in the running game and we're going to do that," Rivers said. "You look at some of these teams and there haven't been many teams running on them. That doesn't mean we surrender or that we couldn't do it. We're going to be as balanced as possible, and I think you'll see that on Monday night."
The Chargers have faced some tough run defenses in the Steelers, Dolphins and Ravens. And they get another one in the Broncos.
But time, and excuses, are running out.
"Everyone needs to get on the same page," rookie right guard Louis Vasquez said. "That's the feeling I've got. As an offensive line, we need to trust one another and believe that everyone will do their job."
Job No. 1 is getting knocking the cobwebs off what was once a stellar running game. If not, the Chargers are going to be knocked from this AFC West race.
Broncos' receiver Brandon Marshall has insisted all along his swagger never left. He felt fully recovered from hip surgery and just needed opportunities to shine.
Five weeks into the Broncos season, Marshall looks better than ever. Marshall missed the entire preseason with off-field issues, but has four touchdowns in Denver's last three games. There was some question, after he missed the entire offseason rehabilitating his hip and most of training camp, how long it would take for him to get on the same page with Kyle Orton, but two have a pretty strong connection now.
On the first of Marshall's two touchdowns against New England, Orton put some air under a ball and let Marshall work inside of the cornerback in one-on-one coverage, a play that obviously came from many practice reps together.
"I don't think we have had an instance here for a few weeks where we were kind of off or anything," Orton said. "He has put the time in practice and in the film room. I think he is a special talent and has certainly caught up with the rest of the guys."
Marshall looks healthy, and has insisted for a while he feels good. He didn't have the same explosiveness last year after he hurt his hip, and didn't make many big plays. He is on pace to shatter his career high in touchdowns.
"My hip? I had a 51-yard touchdown (against Dallas) where I cut off my hip, stopped a couple times, jumped up...I don't think that should be a question anymore," Marshall said.