Fans of the San Diego Chargers have been accustomed to slow starts and probably believe they're dreaming right now.
The Chargers are 3-1 and currently sit alone atop the AFC West standings, and look to continue their promising start with Sunday's showdown against the division-rival Denver Broncos from Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
San Diego is off to its best start since opening the 2006 season with four wins over its first five games. Fans of the organization have endured slow beginning in each of the past four years and watched the Chargers open last season with a 2-5 mark, which followed a 2-3 opening in 2009, a 3-5 start in 2008 and one win over the first four weeks the year before.
Is the impressive start after missing the playoffs a year ago just smoke and mirrors? Head coach Norv Turner doesn't believe so following the team's first 3-0 beginning at home since 2006.
"This is a week-to-week business and we got [win] number three," Turner said after last Sunday's 26-16 win over Miami. "The only thing on my mind is how we get the next one."
Turner has to feel pretty good where his team stands with a quarter of the season already in the books, but did have the luxury of playing three of the first games of the season in his own backyard. The combined win total of the teams San Diego has beaten this season is only 1-11, but victories in this league are never easy to come by.
More impressively, the Chargers are finding ways to win even without one of their top offensive weapons in tight end Antonio Gates.
Gates is dealing with a foot problem and has missed two straight games while being held without a catch since the Sept. 11 opener versus Minnesota. The All- Pro's status for this weekend is again doubtful, and counterpart Randy McMichael feels the team will be even better when Gates makes his return.
"We still haven't hit our stride without one of our best players on offense," McMichael said. "When he comes back, it's going to continue to get better and better."
Gates will likely rest again this Sunday before the Chargers enter their bye week. Even without him in the lineup and quarterback Philip Rivers having been inconsistent early on, the Chargers are still sixth in the NFL with an average of 313.8 passing yards per contest.
Denver wasn't familiar with slow starts until posting a 2-6 ledger after the first eight games of last season. It appears to be deja vu all over again in head coach John Fox's first season at the helm, as the Broncos chances of capturing regular-season victory No. 400 have been deemed a long shot this week.
The Broncos, who are 399-367-10 entering this matchup, have lost two straight since registering their only win of the season in Week 2 versus Cincinnati, and fell to 1-3 on the campaign following last Sunday's 49-23 loss at Green Bay in which Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers accounted for six touchdowns. Denver's defense was gashed for 507 yards and Rodgers fired four touchdown passes and ran two in.
Rodgers earned the praise of Fox afterwards.
"He's playing as well as any quarterback I've seen in the league and I've been in the league ...this is my 23rd season," Fox said. "He's got a pretty good supporting cast and I think [Packers head coach] Mike McCarthy and his staff do an outstanding job. They're pedal to the metal and they execute very, very well."
Fox's quarterback and fan-base whipping boy Kyle Orton did not have an MVP-type performance, finishing with 273 yards passing and three touchdowns but throwing three interceptions. Fans have been calling for Orton's head in favor of Tim Tebow, though it doesn't appear Fox will budge on that request. At least the fans can be excited about the team going back to its orange uniforms in 2012.
Fox defended Orton after the latest loss, saying it was a total team failure for not putting up enough points to shock the defending Super Bowl champions.
The Broncos may struggle to put points again this week against a Chargers defense that's been decent in keeping opposing teams out of the end zone. A lack of production from previously-injured running back Knowshon Moreno could have had an impact on the offense, but veteran back Willis McGahee has been handling the load.
McGahee has two 100-yard rushing games in his last three contests and topped the century mark rushing mark for the 25th time in his career in the Green Bay game, tying him for fifth-most among active players.
Though the Broncos lead the all-time series with San Diego by a 54-47-1 margin, the Chargers have prevailed in eight of 10 matchups between the longtime division rivals over the past five seasons. San Diego took both 2010 meetings with Denver, following up a 35-14 home triumph in Week 11 with a 33-28 verdict at Sports Authority Field in the regular-season finale. The Chargers also registered a 32-3 rout of the Broncos in Denver in 2009 and have won four of their last five games as the visitor in this series.
Turner is 7-7 against the Broncos for his career, including a 6-2 mark since taking over in San Diego in 2007. Fox owns a 1-1 record versus the Chargers as a head coach, with both of those games taking place during his tenure in Carolina from 2002-10.
Turner and Fox have split two previous head-to-head encounters, with Turner's Oakland Raiders besting Fox's Panthers in 2004 and Carolina topping the Chargers during the 2008 season.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivers (1286 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT) is off to a slow start, and his six interceptions and the loss of Gates are proof of that. Rivers was intercepted only 13 times a season ago and had four through the first five contests of 2010. He still leads the AFC with 5,996 passing yards since the start of last season and recorded a 110.6 quarterback rating against the Dolphins last week. The Chargers are 33-8 when Rivers posts a rating of 100 or better, but must improve inside the red zone after they scored one touchdown in four chances inside Miami's 20-yard line. They have the sixth-best pass attack in the league and are seventh in total yards, mustering 415.8 yards per contest. San Diego must also improve its 18th-rated ground game, though it appears Ryan Mathews is about to do just that. Mathews (288 rushing yards, 3 TD) is enjoying a productive second season and is on pace to break LaDainian Tomlinson's franchise mark of 2,000 total yards established back in 2006. The second-year back has accumulated 542 yards of offense in four games and is a threat out of the backfield as well, having made 19 receptions for 254 yards. Mathews had 120 rushing yards and three scores the last time he faced the Broncos, back in the 2010 season finale. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson (20 receptions, 374 yards, 3 TD) has been picking up the receiving slack with Gates sidelined, but is also dealing with a leg problem that could affect his production this week.
Denver was gashed for more than 500 yards of offense against the Packers and could fall into the same trap against Rivers, who has yet to truly break out this season. Rookie free safety Rahim Moore (13 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerback Jonathan Wilhite (14 tackles, 2 sacks, INT) each picked off Rodgers in last Sunday's loss, however, while rookie linebacker Von Miller (16 tackles, 4 sacks) posted a pair of sacks. Miller is the first Broncos rookie to record multiple sacks in one game since Tim Crowder in 2007, and has a quarterback takedown in three straight contests. He leads all rookies in that category as well and can give the Broncos a real edge if he can get plenty of pressure on Rivers. Linebacker D.J. Williams (8 tackles) led the team in stops with eight last week in his first game of the season. He led the Broncos in tackles a season ago as well. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who missed the 2010 season after suffering a torn pectoral during training camp, appeared in his second game of this year on Sunday and seems over a shoulder problem that had sidelined him for Weeks 2 and 3. The Broncos are 29th in points allowed, 23rd in pass defense and total defense and 13th against the run. They must keep San Diego one-dimensional and cool down Matthews.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Fox was impressed with how well the Broncos moved the ball against Green Bay in defeat. An interception return for a touchdown by Packers cornerback Charles Woodson changed the momentum of the game, however, and Denver never regained its confidence after that. Orton (945 passing yards, 8 TD, 6 INT) was picked off three times in all and said the offense played well, but there were plenty of things that the team did wrong. Orton, who needs one more touchdown pass for 50 with the Broncos, was sacked only once behind a line that gave him enough time to get wide receiver Brandon Lloyd back on the map. Lloyd (18 receptions, 263 yards) is still without a touchdown catch this season, but hauled in eight passes for 136 yards against Green Bay. He has reached the 100-yard receiving mark 11 times in his career and is aiming for his third consecutive game with a touchdown catch against the Chargers. Eric Decker (20 receptions, 270 yards, 4 TD) has taken some of the receiving spotlight away from Lloyd and is the first Bronco since Rod Smith in 2001 to catch four touchdown passes in the team's first four games. McGahee (259 rushing yards, 1 TD) leads the team with 69 carries and is helping fans forget about Moreno's early struggles. Moreno (26 rushing yards) has appeared in just two games this season, with 10 carries and three receptions to show for it, and seems to have fallen out of favor with the new staff. Behind Decker and Lloyd, McGahee is third among Broncos in catches with 11.
The Chargers can expect a lot of pass plays coming from the Denver offense on Sunday, even though Orton has yet to find his stride this season. Safety Eric Weddle (26 tackles, 2 INT) and cornerback Marcus Gilchrist (11 tackles, 1 INT) both had picks last week against the Dolphins, while Weddle has an interception in back-to-back weeks. Gilchrist was making his first career start in place of cornerback Quentin Jammer (8 tackles), who did not play last week because of a hamstring issue. He was back at practice this week, however, and the Chargers are hoping he will be ready to go for Sunday. Decker and Lloyd are two top targets, but the Chargers have a solid pass defense, allowing 196.2 yards per game through the air that ranks fifth in the league. Linebacker Takeo Spikes (32 tackles), who is nursing a injured neck and is listed as day-to-day, leads the team in tackles and outside rusher Shaun Phillips (15 tackles, 1 sack) owns three sacks in the Chargers' past three meetings with the Broncos. Linebacker Larry English (5 tackles) posted a career-high two sacks last week and has 3 1/2 sacks over his previous five games. Young linemen Vaughn Martin (12 tackles) and Corey Liuget (3 tackles) are improving on opposite ends of nose tackle Antonio Garay (18 tackles, sack) in San Diego's 3-4 look.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turner is 6-2 against the Broncos and Rivers has won eight of 10 games as a starter in this series, while throwing 18 touchdown passes. Those strong records will be put to the test Sunday in the Rocky Mountains, where the Broncos are 14-6 in their last 20 contests against the Chargers, however.
Denver is facing another pass-friendly quarterback in Rivers, one of the premier signal-callers in the league and who can pick apart a defense with his arm. Rodgers did it to the Broncos a week ago and Fox, a defensive-minded head coach, hopes his unit can tighten up some gaps on that side of the ball.
Who will win the war on the ground between Mathews and McGahee? Depending on how well their respective offensive lines play, it appears Mathews has the edge against a shaky Denver defense.
The Broncos will have to wait another week to get their 400th regular-season win after the Chargers cruise to their third straight victory. San Diego is in the middle of the pack in points scored, but would probably be higher in that category had Gates not suffered a foot injury. Rivers hasn't shredded defenses as expected this season, and it could be due to the absence of his Pro Bowl tight end, but he is getting by with good help from the likes of Jackson and Matthews. Orton has yet to thrive as well this season, and will need a near- perfect performance to pull out a win on Sunday. San Diego is too good to let that happen.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 20, Broncos 13