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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chargers Thundering Into Denver

SAN DIEGO — What a difference a month makes.

When the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos were last on the field together a month agoat Qualcomm Stadium, it appeared the AFC West race was all but settled.

The Broncos defeated the Chargers 34-23 on Monday Night Football to take a 3½-game lead in the division race. Denver left that game undefeated at 6-0, and the Chargers had fallen to 2-3.

But never say never with San Diego, which now owns the same 6-3 mark as Denver atop the AFC West.

"It's like déjà vu, isn't it?" Chargers tight end Antonio Gates says, referring to the showdown in Denver on Sunday. "It's like every time we play Denver, it means more than one game. We'll be fired up."

The reversal of fortunes for these teams smacks of the turn of events late last season, when the Broncos collapsed down the stretch and became the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to blow a three-game division lead with three games to play, allowing San Diego to claim the division crown.

That meltdown seemed so unlikely to be repeated. Denver, with a rebuilt defense and new coach Josh McDaniels, started 6-0.

Yet here we are again. A Broncos collapse has coincided with a Chargers rally. "It's resiliency," Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie says.

The Chargers seemingly thrive on beating such long odds. They entered December last season left for dead at 4-8. In 2007, during Norv Turner's first season as coach, they started 1-3 before winning the division and advancing to the AFC title game.

Now this.

"We've been in this situation before, so it's not anything new to us," linebacker Shawne Merriman says. "You hate to start off the season the way we start off sometimes, but when your back's against the wall, we've shown we can go out and perform."

Turner praises the character and talent he's working with, but maintains that the early season struggles in each of his campaigns were unique in each case.

Two years ago, he actually projected a slow start as the team was adjusting to a new staff and system. Last season, they started 0-2, losing on the final play against the Carolina Panthers in the opener and the following week falling victim to referee Ed Hochuli's erroneous ruling that an apparent fumble by Denver quarterback Jay Cutler in the final minute was an incompletion.

This time, Turner points to injuries as the key factor. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson, nose tackle Jamal Williams and center Nick Hardwick were among five players injured in the season-opening victory at the Oakland Raiders. Williams, anchor of the 3-4 front, was lost for the season with a torn triceps. Hardwick hasn't returned from an ankle injury.

Tomlinson missed two games with a sprained ankle, and Turner saw his performance in Sunday's 31-23 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles (24 rushes for 96 yards and two TDs) as a sign that he's healthy again.

"We were beat up and banged up," Turner says. "We played that first month with guys on the offensive and defensive lines who were just feeling their way and learning how to play in this league."

Merriman's gradual return to form, after missing virtually all of last season with torn knee ligaments, also has been a boost for the defense.

Says Turner: "Merriman is a lot healthier than he was in September. He and (linebacker) Shaun Phillips, the month they've had, they've been on a tear."

San Diego's defense was on the field for 71 snaps and allowed 462 yards against the Eagles, but three times forced them to settle for short field goals when backed up in the red zone. A week earlier, the unit kept the New York Giants from scoring a game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter, forcing a field goal. That allowed quarterback Philip Rivers to lead a game-winning 80-yard drive in the final minutes that was capped with an 18-yard scoring pass to Vincent Jackson.

"Right now, we're on the cusp of being a good defense," inside linebacker Kevin Burnett says. "We can talk about being great later. If we can be consistent and then put together a string of victories — six, seven, eight in a row — then you can say we're a good defense."

The Chargers know all about winning streaks.

They won five in a row last season before an AFC divisional playoff loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers. Two seasons ago, they took an eight-game streak into the AFC title game. In 2006, they closed the regular season with a 10-game winning streak before a playoff-opening loss that cost Marty Schottenheimer his job as Turner's predecessor.

"We know how to rally," cornerback Quentin Jammer says. "When we put our minds to it, we know how to get it done as a team."

They'll soon get another chance to prove that to the Broncos.