Rick Jussel Column September 14, 2008

It’s early, but Broncos-Chargers a key game

Here they come, the big, bad San Diego Chargers.

The team that pushed the then-unbeaten New England Patriots to the very limit in last season’s AFC title game.

The team that waltzed to AFC West titles the past two seasons without so much as a hint of a challenge from anyone else in the division.

The team that made the Denver Broncos look like an NCAA D-II football squad over that same period.

And, oh yes, the team that is now one game back in the West of, you guessed it, the Denver Broncos.

The opening weekend of the National Football League season was chock full of stunners:

The Chicago Bears beat up on the Colts in Indianapolis.

The Patriots struggled at home to beat the hapless Kansas City Chiefs and lost the best quarterback in the game in Tom Brady for the rest of the season to a knee blowout.

The Favre-less Pack looked decent in beating Minnesota …  and the Favre-ful Jets looked good in traveling to Miami and beating the Dolphins.

Buffalo scored 34 points in romping over the ballyhooed Seahawks, and the Atlanta Falcons, with a rookie at quarterback and a longtime sub, Michael Turner, rushing for 220 yards, also managed 34 points in blasting Detroit.

Perhaps the biggest shocker, however, came in San Diego when Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme found tight end Dante Rosario in the end zone with no time left on the clock to lead the Panthers to a 26-24 win over the Chargers.

That stunner, combined with Denver’s 41-14 pasting of the Raiders on Monday night, leaves the Broncos with a chance to go up two games on the Chargers only two games in.

I’m sure most of the Bronco faithful are still giddy after watching Jay Cutler provide a superb imitation of — dare we say it? — the departed savior, and Eddie Royal making a rookie splash that brings back memories of — dare we say it? — any of the Three Amigos.

Yes, the Broncos looked unstoppable against the Raiders, a team that supposedly had two of the best corners in the game and a couple of more-than-adequate safeties. Cutler, whose uniform was still sparkling clean at the end of the game, threw for 299 yards, almost half of that to Royal, and the Broncos rolled up more than 400 yards despite locking it down and running the clock through the fourth quarter.

Word of warning, however: The Chargers are not the Raiders.

This is the same team that has beaten Denver by a combined score of 147-53 over the past two seasons. This is the same team that has outgained Denver 1,579-1,175 in that same time frame.

The Chargers have pounded Denver mercilessly by running LaDainian Tomlinson behind a huge offensive line, mostly to the left. That’s what concerns me about this one.

It has been well-documented that the Broncos have had a rough time stopping the run of late. And even though their feel-good win over Oakland was virtually fault-free, something concerned me as I was watching: The Raiders ran the ball very well to their left.

With rookie Darren McFadden and veteran Justin Fargas alternating at tailback, the Raiders ran the ball to the left tackle or outside to the left 15 times, gaining 77 yards on the night. That’s more than 5 yards per carry. And although the stats are skewed by Fargas’ 42-yard scamper up the middle late, they also managed 59 yards up the middle on only four carries.

Those two put up 136 yards running left and inside.

And those two are not Tomlinson.

Because they lost star linebacker Shawne Merriman for the season to a knee injury and also have lost inside linebacker and leading tackler Stephen Cooper to a four-game suspension, Carolina gained nearly 400 yards last week.

The Chargers — especially after watching Denver on Monday night — will certainly feel the need to control the ball and keep Cutler and Co. off the field. It’ll be Tomlinson left, Tomlinson left, and more Tomlinson … left.

Denver obviously will have to counter in the air with Cutler getting back Brandon Marshall to go along with new sensation Royal.

I don’t look for Denver to shut down the Chargers. I expect at least 24 points, more likely 27 to 30 out of San Diego.

That will be the Bronco task today: Score in the 30s and it’s a win. Score in the low 20s and it’s a fifth straight loss to the Chargers.

Because the Chargers are, after all, still the Chargers, until I see Denver slow them down, I can’t foresee a Bronco win. Denver’s gaining ground, but not there yet.

I’ll take my 1-0 (also 1-0 vs. the spread) record picking with or against Denver and say San Diego, a two-point pick, wins this one, 28-24.


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