Jussel: Chargers, AFC West left wondering ‘Who are those guys?’

For those of you roughly my age — old enough to have seen the original Temptations and a young Waylon Jennings in concert — you’ve watched the scene a dozen times, probably three or four times in a theatre.

Sundance and Butch are hiding in the rocks overlooking a large valley as horses and riders make their way toward them, kicking up a cloud of dust and very much in a hurry.

“Who are those guys?” Sundance asks no one in particular, a question he repeats often throughout the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

The San Diego Chargers, to a man, had to be watching the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots play last Sunday, and when push came to shove, when all had been said and done, when Matt Prater’s 41-yard field goal in overtime was halfway to the goalposts and dead in the middle, they had to be asking, “Who are those guys?”

San Diego knows these aren’t Mike Shanahan’s Broncos.

These aren’t the Broncos who have been kicked in the mouth for the best part of the last three seasons, aren’t the same Broncos who have had to put up with constant bullying from the Chargers.

Heck, these Broncos actually survived the saga of the mustard-and-brown vertical stripes and should deal just fine tonight with white-and-brown stripes.

Tonight in San Diego, it’s just going to boil down to which team is the best.  Period.

And you know what?  It just might be the Broncos.

Call me crazy — and many have over the years — but Josh McDaniels’ team has defeated two upper-echelon NFL teams in the past two weeks and owns another win over 4-1 Cincinnati that suddenly isn’t looking like a win over the Lions, Raiders or Rams.  The Broncos are now one of only four unbeatens in the league — the Colts in the AFC and the Giants and Vikings in the NFC are the others — and are looking as if they can actually compete with the best.

Which begs the question, can they beat the Chargers in San Diego?

It’s been well-documented that the Chargers have literally run roughshod over the Broncos’ porous defensive front seven.  LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles have had their way on the ground repeatedly.  Charger quarterback Phillip Rivers has barely had to break a sweat as San Diego has averaged 166 rushing yards per game over the last three years.

In that time, the Chargers have outscored Denver 237-113.

Denver’s one win over San Diego in that three-year period came last year in Denver, 39-38 when the Broncos led 31-17 at the half, then held on.

It’s not been pretty.

What’s changed?

It’s obvious.

First, Denver can control the football without making mistakes.  The short-passing and draw-running attack is getting better every week — even against good defensive teams.  Quarterback Kyle Orton, while certainly not Jay Cutler in terms of scary, has not turned the ball over, save last week’s Hail Mary at the end of the half against the Patriots. Cutler had a tendency to give the ball up about as often as he threw TD passes.

One will notice that Denver, without giving the ball up, at worst is going to punt the football and make the other team drive 60 or more yards.

That makes any defensive unit better.

Speaking of defense, the Broncos have stopped the run.  Last year, the Broncos gave up roughly 150 yards rushing per game.  This year, the Broncos have almost cut that in half, allowing only 81 rushing yards per game.

Even last week after a first half spent rushing three people and dropping everyone else into the middle of the field, then watching the Patriots run draws or screens effectively, the Broncos stepped up when they needed to.  They shut the Patriots out in the second half — something that under the legendary Bill Belichick happens only about once every leap year.

What Denver needs to do against the Chargers is force them into a passing game, then let Denver’s secondary, which has proven to be very capable, clamp down on a mediocre receiving corps.

Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy again and playing well with 24 catches through the four games, and Vincent Jackson has been a big-play guy with 20 catches at more than 18 yards per catch.

It’s simple:  Put Champ Bailey on Jackson, keep Gates underneath, and don’t let Sproles catch screen passes that go for 60 or 70 yards.

Can Denver actually start 6-0?

Don’t see why not.  I’ll take my 5-0 record picking with or against Denver and say the Broncos control the football, frustrate the onetime bullies and put a stamp on the new official order of things in the AFC West.

Denver, 28-24.


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