Source: USA Today
They arrive in Denver not quite a mile high but at least not at their usual early-season spot.
The Chargers, 3-1 and in first place in the AFC West, are looking for a big win Sunday against the Broncos before the big wave hits.
Beating the Broncos is job No. 1 and that's most important. While peeking ahead at their demanding schedule, the Chargers know a key game when seeing one against a divisional foe.
Denver will see a Chargers team that no longer slugs from the gate, sprinting to 3-1 for the first time since 2006. The strain of digging out of yet another hole is absent from this more well-rounded squad.
"We've tried to eliminate the stigma that comes with past years' teams," free safety Eric Weddle said. "I think we're not so reliant on one side or the other, and because of that we're really playing team football. We really behind each other. We relish the moment and the chance to make a big play."
Big sighs have accompanied the Chargers' three wins. Instead of dancing off to loud music after victories, players looked more relieved than jubilant.
The Chargers will focus on being 3-1, thank you, and not the 1-11 combined marks of the teams they beat: Minnesota, Kansas City and Miami.
San Diego still needs some road credentials. The Chargers got thumped in their first away game at New England, steamrolled by four turnovers and allowing more than 500 yards.
On Sunday they face a cranky Broncos team that may turn on itself first. But if Denver's disjointed energy is pointed at the Chargers, it's a compelling game.
Not yet showing four quarters of consistency the Chargers haven't blown anyone out. That may keep the Broncos around and, in Denver, the Chargers know anything can happen.
In San Diego, the most baffling thing occurred: the Chargers started fast. But those quick beginnings vanish if not built upon.
So don't forget No. 4 while enjoying No. 3.
"The only thing on my mind right now is getting the next one," coach Norv Turner said.
What's next, after Sunday, is what makes this game so critical. Stumble in Denver and then the real tough sledding comes. The Chargers follow a bye with road trips against the Jets and Chiefs. That's followed by games vs. the Packers, Raiders and at Chicago.
By then, many questions will be answered about the Chargers. On Sunday, the Chargers can prove, on the road, they can be dominating against an inferior team.
Or, like they have in their other victories, play just well enough to win.
The Chargers will take either one.
SERIES HISTORY: 103rd regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 54-47-1. The Chargers have won eight of the past 10 games and three in a row. The Chargers have been successful in each of their last two visits to Denver and the Broncos were the only AFC West team San Diego swept last year, en route to a 3-3 divisional mark.
—The Chargers are upbeat regarding their pass rush, coming off a three-sack game. But can they do it without the crowd noise while being on the road? The Chargers think so, as giving the quarterback something to think about is the key.
"The quarterback always feels it when he gets sacked a couple times," S Eric Weddle said. "The time clock's going to be a lot quicker."
OLB Larry English said the pass package was expanded, and maybe that had something to do with backup Matt Moore playing. "We were running games up front," English said. "We were running some blitzes. We did a good job of putting pressure on them."
Something similar is hoped for against Kyle Orton.
—CB Marcus Gilchrist has taken a liking to veteran ILB Takeo Spikes? Or is it the other way around? Spikes, a 15-year pro, is getting a kick out of Gilchrist, a rookie with a start and an interception now under his belt.
Spikes even jabs him by calling him Cookie Gilchrist, in honor of the former Bills star running back of the AFL.
"He's even, even keel," Spikes said of his teammate. "Because he understands. The best way to explain Cookie is just to say that he's a young guy with an old soul."
Gilchrist, a second-round pick, has opened eyes since training camp.
—It's clear any team would miss Pro Bowl TE Antonio Gates but maybe where it shows up most for the Chargers is in the red zone. They have converted but 47 percent of their red-zone visits into touchdowns. It could also speak to lanky WRs Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd being absent with various injuries.
"If four field goals wouldn't have been enough, then I'd be pondering the fact we didn't get touchdowns," QB Philip Rivers said of the Chargers scoring but once on four red-zone visits against the Dolphins. "But we did enough to win the game. We'll continue to fix things and worry on problem areas and get better as a football team."
—RB Ryan Mathews continues to learn about being a top-notch running back. What he does know is each NFL game is tough. If the teams the Chargers have their three wins over are 1-11, so be it.
"It's the NFL," Mathews said. "Anyone can win on any given Sunday. That's really what it is. You've got to just come and play regardless of the rankings."
—Coach Norv Turner appreciates K Nick Novak's work, especially with his offense struggling in the red zone. Novak is coming off a four field-goal game.
"I've been in a situation where you lost your kicker and it took three years to find another one," Turner said. "He knows we have great confidence in him. He has earned that confidence."
—It was a pretty cool tip of the hat to former Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson by Vincent Jackson. When his 55-yard touchdown pass allowed him to eclipse Tomlinson for ninth-place on the team's list for yardage, Jackson did a lay-up off his right shoulder, just like Tomlinson once did for the Chargers.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 — Number of consecutive road games for the Chargers, starting Sunday in Denver.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everybody seems to think we can't start fast, but no matter how we win or how ugly it is, we are 3-1" — RB Mike Tolbert, on the team's early season success.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Until others get healthy, keep an eye on the Chargers' defensive line and how productive it is.
Antonio Garay has been solid in the middle but the are fresh ends in rookie Corey Liuget and Vaughn Martin.
The team added Tommie Harris before last week's game but he didn't do much. Maybe a week later he can spell Garay more.
This unit is thin, especially at end with Luis Castillo (leg) and Jacques Cesaire (knee) out.
If the line can't keep Denver's front off the linebackers, then just maybe Denver can establish a running game to keep the ball away from Rivers.
—TE Randy McMichael will continue to see his playing time increase with the uncertain status of Antonio Gates. McMichael has 11 catches for 102 yards, and just as important, the confidence of the coaches.
—WR Vincent Brown is starting to contribute as various injuries have opened up some opportunities for the rookie. Brown could get some more looks with Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd nursing injuries. Brown, a third-round pick, had two catches for 26 yards last week, with one being a long of 20.
—CB Dante Hughes doesn't get much attention but he is a key in the defensive backfield in covering receivers in the slot as the nickel back. Rookie Marcus Gilchrist remains the first backup to go in, although it is Hughes that must handle the nickel role and he is doing a good job.
—OLB Larry English broke out last week with a career-high two sacks. Now can he show the consistency the Chargers had hoped for when reaching for English in the first round of the 2009 draft. Injuries have derailed his production, but he is showing a quick burst again which could have him seeing more snaps.
—OLB Shaun Phillips is the key benefactor if OLB Larry English can get off the dime. Defenses are usually able to slide protection Phillips' way, as he is by far the team's best pass rusher. Phillips has but one sack, and that could change if some heat starts coming from his opposite side.
—WR Patrick Crayton is slowly working his way back into the mix after camp injuries delayed his start of the season. But he showed well last week when given the chance in his one target and he also gave a bit of a boost to the punt-return game with a return of 14 yards.
—WR Vincent Jackson (leg) didn't work on Wednesday and will likely try to practice before the week is up. He didn't work last week until Friday, and was able to play about a half against the Dolphins.
—TE Antonio Gates (foot) didn't practice and the Chargers could be resting him through the following bye week. Hopefully being cautious now will pay off, but his long-term status is still undetermined. He is out Sunday.
—C Nick Hardwick (neck) didn't practice but it is believed he will start Sunday.
—CB Quentin Jammer (hamstring) practiced and should be able to go on Sunday. Jammer could rotate with Marcus Gilchrist if he becomes fatigued.
—DE Luis Castillo (leg) is out.
Look for the Chargers to be aggressive against Kyle Orton, hoping to take advantage of a pass rush which shows signs of being productive. If the Chargers get after Orton and force him into mistakes and sacks, they'll take not only the crowd off their back but on the Broncos'.
Shaun Phillips has always been the best at getting in the pocket but hasn't had much help. Now Antwan Barnes, Larry English and Travis LaBoy are threats. With the Chargers so thin up front, maybe you don't want to battle with your run defense. The defense is feeling confident and just maybe coordinator Greg Manusky turns it loose.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Chargers pass offense, which has had Philip Rivers a bit jumpy, vs. Broncos pass rush, with revved rookie Von Miller disrupting protection — The Chargers' line looked better last week, but Rivers has been sacked eight times and hit at least 10 other times. He got through last week without an interception, in part, to better pass-blocking. But Miller is a quick study, leading all rookies with four sacks. If he and Elvis Dumervil, who's been hurt, can supply some heat off the edges, Rivers may be forced to move up in the pocket and possibly expose those tender ribs. Rivers is good at throwing on the roll out, away from significant hits, but if the edges are cloudy with Miller and Dumervil it could be difficult. Tackles Marcus McNeill and Jeromey Clary need to be on their games.
Chargers coverage teams vs. Broncos return team with Eric Decker — Any unit would be stunned by allowing the opening-day kick to be returned 103 yards for a score, so whenever the coverage units face a player like Decker, one hold's their breath. Units are still giving up nearly 30 yards on kickoffs and 19 on punts. Maybe the kickoffs aren't a factor in the high altitude but Decker does his damage on punts. He brought one back 90 yards for a score.
Chargers pass offense with QB Philip Rivers vs. wobbly Broncos secondary — If the Chargers can block it up, Rivers could continue to show his season has turned. He'll likely be without TE Antonio Gates, but the Chargers could be in for a game of getting the ball downfield if defenses start paying more attention to RB Ryan Mathews on receptions in the flats.
The Broncos are shaky with Champ Bailey possibly out again as the back end was exposed by the Packers' Aaron Rodgers last week. Denver is giving up 378 passing yards per game and Rivers could test it.