Will They Finish First or Dead Last?

Rivers can hit any receiver given the opportunity

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    HOUSTON - NOVEMBER 07: Head coach Norv Turner of the San Diego Chargers looks on during game action against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on November 7, 2010 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

    There's never a shortage of drama when the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers renew a rivalry that dates to the birth of the AFL.

    In recent seasons alone there's been Ed Hochuli's blown call, Eddie Royal's punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns, collapses by the Broncos, and jaw-jacking between star players and even between a head coach and a player.

    Monday night's game at Qualcomm Stadium, sure to be a shootout between San Diego's Philip Rivers and Denver's Kyle Orton, will either help shake out the weak AFC West or muddle it further. The four-time defending champion Chargers have won two straight to climb to 4-5. Denver (3-6) is coming off a 49-29 rout of Kansas City, which is tied for the division lead with Oakland.

    "It's a great rivalry," Rivers said. "It's always highly competitive and intense when you play these guys. With what we've been able to do the last couple of weeks, and what they did last week, just the way everything looks in our division, this is a huge game for both teams.

    "We're a win away from a potential tie atop the division and a loss away from being dead last," Rivers said.

    The way the Chargers have played this season, either is possible.

    Rivers has been airing it out so much -- in part because the Chargers have been behind so many times -- that he's on pace to shatter Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 yards passing set in 1984. Rivers leads the NFL with 2,944 yards and Orton is second with 2,806 yards.

    "It wouldn't surprise me if there were a bunch of balls put up on either side," Rivers said. "A bunch of balls in the air."

    Rivers will get some of his targets back Monday night, although tight end Antonio Gates might not be one of them. Gates missed a comeback win at Houston on Nov. 7 with a painful plantar fascia tear in his right foot and could miss the Broncos game. However, wide receivers Legedu Naanee and Malcom Floyd are expected to return after being sidelined by hamstring injuries.

    Unlike others in the organization, Rivers hasn't used injuries as an excuse. He simply throws to whichever players are available in any given game. He threw two touchdown passes apiece to backup tight end Randy McMichael and rookie wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu in the victory at Houston.

    "He's good," Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. "That pretty much sums it up. Peyton Manning is doing the same thing in Indy. You put some new guys in there and he still keeps it going. He drives that offense. It's similar to what Peyton's doing in Indy.

    "I'll tell you what, every year he gets better," Bailey said. "He's had some spectacular seasons. I don't know how he gets better every year. He's one of those guys you've got to keep grinding because he's going to make some plays."

    In a rarity in this rivalry, Rivers and Orton spoke complimentary of each other.

    "I like the way he plays," Orton said. "He's tough, he stays in the pocket with a lot of guys around him and he and Norv (Turner), just shot after shot after shot. They've got a good, explosive offense that does a lot of good things."

    Rivers isn't surprised that Orton's right behind him on the yardage list.

    "Kyle, all the way back to the Purdue days, he's always been a very accurate and precise passer and obviously playing against him a couple times, it's not surprising at all. He's playing at a high level and playing as well as anybody."

    Despite beating Tennessee and Houston before having their bye, the burden of proof is still on the Chargers. They've lost three of five overall, and spent a good deal of their bye-week practices trying to fix their sad-sack special teams. After the Chargers gave up their fifth blocked punt of the season in the Houston game, a peeved Turner guaranteed that it wouldn't happen again this season.

    Royal's returns last year helped the Broncos to a 34-23 victory that lifted Denver to 6-0 and dropped San Diego to 2-3. The Chargers won their next 11 to finish 13-3 while the Broncos finished 8-8.

    "It was a good game for us on special teams. But it was still a close game when you think about it," Royal said. "The defense stepped up for us. We really had to play a full four-quarter game. Even with those two returns it still was a close game."

    Two years ago, San Diego rallied from 4-8 to win the AFC West at 8-8, taking advantage of Denver's historic collapse. San Diego's clinching victory came at home against Denver in the final game.

     Although Jay Cutler is gone, there's still been some smack-talking in this series. Last year, Broncos coach Josh McDaniels hollered, "We own you!" at Shaun Phillips and other Chargers linebackers during pregame warmups at Denver. McDaniels wasn't a very good prognosticator. San Diego won 32-3.

    "I'm not proud of it, that we got into a little conversation before the game," McDaniels said. "You know, I don't want to do that. I have a lot of respect for him as a player, for them as an organization. You know, certainly something that we can do without. We don't need those kinds of hassles. So, I don't think there will be any pregame fireworks this year."

    Denver defensive tackle Jamal Williams will face his former team. Williams was San Diego's run-stuffing anchor on the line for more than a decade before being released in the off-season.