Rick Jussel Column November 23, 2008

Broncos should be up 3 on Chargers by tonight

There are big wins.

Denver’s 24-20 win over Atlanta last Sunday certainly rates as one.

There are big losses.

San Diego’s 11-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (downgraded from 18-10 by NFL officials after the game was over) certainly should be included in those ranks.

Can you say two-game swing?

The Broncos have — thanks to that huge win over the Falcons that featured a chorus of backup singers and band of studio musicians on stage with Pavarotti — opened a two-game lead over the unfortunate Chargers with six games to play.

And, as pointed out last week, the Chargers don’t exactly have it easy the rest of the way.

Denver hosts Oakland today.

The Chargers host Indianapolis tonight.

I know which team I’d rather play.

Denver will have a three-game lead over the Chargers with five games to play by the time we hit the sack tonight.

Let’s go back to the backup singers and studio musicians:

When is the last time a rookie fullback, a longshot to make the team in training camp and then only as a special teams player, becomes your starting tailback? Meet Peyton Hillis. All Hillis did last Sunday was rush for 44 yards on 10 carries, two of those for touchdowns, and catch three passes for another 26 yards.

This effort came two weeks after Hillis’ breakout game two weeks ago when he caught seven passes for 116 yards.

In short, the 250-pound rookie blocking back is on his way to becoming a force in the league.

But Hillis certainly isn’t the only youngster making an impact.

Another rookie, Spencer Larsen, set the clock back roughly six decades when he started on both sides of the ball, working as the lead blocker for Hillis and other Bronco rushers, as starting middle linebacker, and as the wedge-buster on special teams. In addition to his blocking, he had seven tackles, six of them unassisted.

Those two were huge in Denver’s huge win over Atlanta.

But they weren’t the only unsung heroes.

Linebacker Jamie Winborn, a 29-year-old veteran who has played for more teams than I’ve had cars, led the team with 10 tackles. Two weeks ago, he was a situational backup.

Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Kentucky, had nine tackles.

Recently he was practice squad tackling dummy fodder.

Just for the fun of it, let’s go through the Broncos defense:

The linebacking corps of Winborn, Woodyard and Larsen led the team in tackles.

The defensive backs were led in tackles by Jack Williams and Josh Bell, both rookie corners, who both had five tackles. Veteran corner Dre’ Bly also had five tackles. Also starting for the Broncos against Atlanta was Chris Lowry, a free-agent signee from Tennessee only a few weeks ago, who played alongside Marquand Manuel at safety.

The defensive line is where most of the “veterans” resided, with John Engleberger, Ebenezer Ekuban, Kenny Peterson and Dewayne Robertson seeing plenty of action. But playing with them were second-year men Marcus Thomas and Jarvis Moss and third-year player Elvis Dumervil.

If you go over those names, the only players starting when the season opened were Bly, Engleberger, Dumervil, Robertson and Manuel.

Doing the math, seven new starters on defense.

And maybe, with the way things went against Atlanta, youth and aggressiveness are not bad things.

This new defensive unit, while it shouldn’t be confused with past great Steelers, Ravens and maybe even New England defenses, won’t take a step back today at home against Oakland.

The 2-8 Raiders have a new “interim” coach in Tom Cable, haven’t scored an offensive touchdown in 13 quarters and are averaging only 8.3 points per game in six games under Cable.

JaMarcus Russell, in his first year as a starting QB,  is completing only 51 percent of his passes and throwing for only 1,445 yards in 11 games, an average of only 135 yards per game.

The team’s biggest offensive threat, rookie running back Darren McFadden, has just returned from an ankle injury and should see plenty of action today against the Broncos’ new defense.

But the Broncos won’t be defeated by potential today.

I’ll take my 4-6 record picking with or against Denver (4-5-1 vs. the spread), a 10-point favorite today, and say the Broncos win this one, but don’t cover. Let’s make it Denver 24, Oakland 16.


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