The AFC West always makes for an interesting battle, as two or three teams compete for the divisional crown and playoff spots. Those teams are usually the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, with the Oakland Raiders as more of an afterthought. But things are a bit different this year with the resurgent Raiders and the struggling Chiefs and Chargers.
And that's what makes this week's Broncos-Chargers matchup on Thursday Night Football so important. The Broncos can move to 5-1 with a win and keep at least a share of the divisional lead. Then the Raiders would have to win Sunday to keep up. A Chargers loss Thursday will push them to 1-5 and effectively end their season.
Last week, the Broncos lost their first game of the season to the Atlanta Falcons, 23-16. And it was obvious that rookie Paxton Lynch is not ready to lead an NFL team. The first-round draft pick struggled to run the Broncos offense, which looks to run the ball and doesn't ask that much of its quarterback.
The good news for Denver is that starter Trevor Siemian, who injured his shoulder the previous week against the Buccaneers, should be back in the lineup. The Broncos will be without head coach, Gary Kubiak, however. John Elway and the organization gave Kubiak a week off after he was hospitalized for a complex migraine condition. Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis will serve as interim head coach for the game against the Chargers.
Denver's coaching situation, if it ends up a distraction, may be good news for the Chargers. They need a win, and anything helps. "The San Diego Chargers are the team losing by the skin of their teeth, and it's been kind of sad to watch," said Tony Gonzalez of CBS Sports. "But they are a very good football team, and they're going against the Super Bowl champs. It's going to be a great game to watch."
While Gary Kubiak won't be on the sidelines and Trevor Siemian will still be dealing with a lingering injury, it is the Broncos defense that the Chargers need to worry about. The Chargers have put up a lot of points in the past couple weeks, but couldn't hold off the Raiders or New Orleans Saints late to win.
Now, Philip Rivers has to hope that his injury-riddled team can help him put up enough points to keep the Broncos on their heals. It won't be an easy task. Rivers simply doesn't have the necessary talent around him, and he can't do it alone. Still the biggest problem is that San Diego hasn't played well during crunch time. They seem to disappear in the final minutes of the game, a mistake the Chargers can't afford to make again. Rivers will need his team running on all cylinders to overcome the stout defense of the Broncos.
"One of the things I love about this is when you have a great Hall of Fame-type quarterback like Philip Rivers going up against one of the top defenses in football, and it's a divisional matchup," said Boomer Esiason. "These games are always intense, there's always a lot riding on the line. And because these teams know each other so well... it usually tends to be a close game."
The Broncos, coming off their first loss of the season, will try to turn things around. It won't be easy with a banged-up Siemian and without Kubiak. The rival Chargers are better than their record indicates and essentially playing for their season. But they also tend to beat themselves when it matters most. Look for the Broncos to get the win in a close battle.
Prediction: Denver Broncos 31 - San Diego Chargers 27
Danny Cox has been covering the NFL for the past decade and has been watching it for two more. From injury reports to playoff races, he follows every single team and longs for the months of July to February.
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