This might be the biggest game the San Diego Chargers have played in October in a long time.
Under siege from everyone from their fans to the general manager, the Chargers host the surprising Denver Broncos on Monday night in a tussle that could go a long way toward deciding the AFC West title.
This is as close to must-win as it gets for the Chargers, and it's not even Halloween. Denver (5-0) comes in with a 2 1/2-game lead in the division. If the Broncos win, and don't collapse the way they did at the end of last season, it could be hard for the Chargers (2-2) to catch them.
The Broncos are coming off an overtime win over the New England Patriots, giving rookie coach Josh McDaniels a victory over his mentor, Bill Belichick.
The Broncos have an impressive offense led by wide receiver Brandon Marshall and rookie running back Knowshon Moreno, and their defense is greatly improved.
The Chargers thought they'd be the ones in control of the division, but have misfired enough, especially on defense, that they're looking up at the Broncos in the standings.
"Obviously you've got have to have great players, and they have a handful of them," San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said about the Broncos. "Also, they're just playing with an attitude and a fire, a relentlessness. When they get it going, you see them get it going. I think more than anything they have that attitude, that they're going to play well, they're going to keep you out of the end zone.
"It'll be a challenge. We've played a lot of great defenses these first few weeks and you get to add another one to the list."
The Chargers' record might not be that big of a surprise, considering that they had three straight games against playoff teams from 2008. But they were exposed physically once again by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who raced to a 28-0 lead and gained 497 yards en route to a 38-28 win two weeks ago.
The Chargers can't run the ball, and they can't stop the run. General manager A.J. Smith was quoted last week as saying the team's play at times this year has been "soft and bewildered."
The Chargers said their bye week came at the right time, giving them the chance to get right physically and mentally.
"I think we're going to be a real confident bunch out there on Monday night," Rivers said. "The bye week allowed us to kind of zero in on ourselves. It allowed us to get some guys healthy. We have no reason not to be confident. We didn't play well in our last outing, but sitting at 2-2 with 12 to play, obviously we know how big this one is. There's not a reason this can't be our best year yet."
The Broncos are probably thinking the same thing, especially with their fast start. They've been the beneficiary of the offseason acquisition of quarterback Kyle Orton in exchange for Jay Cutler.
Orton is coming off a big performance against New England, when he completed a career-high 35 of 48 passes for 330 yards and two touchdown throws to cap drives that covered 90 and 98 yards. He then drove the Broncos methodically downfield for the winning kick in overtime.
"This is a huge week for us, obviously," Orton said. "Any time you play a divisional opponent, it shouldn't be hard for you to get up for a game. Any divisional opponent is going to be a tough game. I don't think we will have any issue being emotionally ready to play this game."
The Broncos unveiled their version of the wildcat, called the wild horses, against the Patriots.
"New England is the type of team that they are just going to give you a different look every single time," Orton said. "We thought that we could kind of settle them down just a little bit and get them into some looks that we could tell what was going on. It worked for the most part. We were able to get some _ we liked to do it on first down and keep us in phase and get some completions and get the chains moving. It worked for the most part. They did a nice job of adjusting to it later on in the game, so we kind of got away from it."
Orton is looking forward to getting a pass thrown to him out of the formation.
"I will catch it. I don't know how far I could run. I will catch it for sure," he said.
The Chargers have had such a hard time on defense that starting strong safety Clinton Hart was released on Wednesday to make room for defensive tackle Ian Scott.