LB Stephen Cooper (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
The biggest game of the season looms for the San Diego Chargers as they look to put the first blemish on Josh McDaniels' Denver Broncos. Get ready for the big game with injury updates, personnel news and insight from Sunday's action.
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The AFC West race got a little more crowded on Sunday with the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs picking up wins. Oakland shocked the Philadelphia Eagles, 13-9, to improve to 2-4. That means if the Chargers fall versus the Denver Broncos Monday, they will be tied with the Raiders in the win column.
The Chiefs also picked up a win, 14-6, over the hapless Washington Redskins. That gives Todd Haley his first victory as coach of the Chiefs and gives his team momentum heading into its Week 7 match-up with the Chargers.
The only team that looked worse than Washington Sunday was the Tennessee Titans, who dropped a 59-0 decision to the New England Patriots. This could be good news for the Bolts, who play the Titans and Redskins in the final two games of the season.
Antwan Applewhite will miss his fourth consecutive game with a hamstring injury. He will be replaced by Jyles Tucker, who has regressed in his third season; after posting 6.5 sacks in his first five regular season games, Tucker has 2.5 sacks in 12 games since.
Fortunately, Applewhite's absence should be offset by the return of Shawne Merriman, who should be full go this week after battling a nagging groin injury. Fellow linebacker Stephen Cooper (knee) is questionable but is expected to play.
The best injury news is that Travis Johnson (groin) will be back on the field for the first time since the season-opener. Johnson is arguably San Diego's second-best defensive lineman, behind only Luis Castillo, so his return should provide a big boost to a defensive front that was manhandled in Week 5.
Johnson is listed as probable, as are Kassim Osgood (back), Shaun Phillips (calf) and Mike Scifres (groin). C Nick Hardwick is still out with an ankle injury and will be for at least five more weeks.
On the Denver side, only LB Spencer Larsen (shoulder) is expected to miss the game. RB Correll Buckhalter, who missed last week's game with an ankle injury, is listed as probable and intends to play.
The Chargers will play their first game without Clinton Hart; Steve Gregory, Kevin Ellison and Paul Oliver should each play a role in filling the void. Gregory, who had been splitting time with Hart, figures to step into the starting lineup and see the bulk of the snaps.
Oliver saw more time last year as the team's dime back, but that role was reduced this season because the team keeps an extra linebacker (Kevin Burnett) on the field in those situations. With Hart now out of the picture, Oliver should see his minutes expand once again in obvious passing situations.
Ellison, the team's sixth-round pick out of USC, should see some playing time on running downs and in short-yardage or goal-line situations.
Replacing Hart on the roster is veteran DL Ian Scott, who was re-signed after being released in the final round of roster cuts. Scott figures to jump into the rotation along with Castillo, Johnson, Jacques Cesaire, Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Alfonso Boone. The Chargers have been going with only five defensive linemen on game days over the last few weeks, but that figures to change given the team's struggles at the position.
Vaughn Martin, a fourth-round pick out of Western Ontario, will likely be relegated to the inactive list. The Chargers are still high on Martin and liked the idea of giving him playing time to hasten his development, but he is still a liability at this point because of his poor technique and overall inexperience.
What are you looking forward to in Monday's game? Talk it out in the message boards.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.