The San Diego Chargers have already outdone themselves. Or is it the Broncos who have?
Last year, the Chargers became the first NFL team to overcome a three-game deficit in their division with three weeks to go when they caught Denver on the final day of the season. That vaulted them into the playoffs and sent the bruised Broncos into an offseason makeover that started with a coaching change.
Josh McDaniels, hired after team owner Pat Bowlen revoked Mike Shanahan’s “Coach for Life” title, led the Broncos to a surprising 6-0 start this season, punctuated with a 34-23 win at San Diego last month that put Denver 3 1/2 games ahead of the Chargers in the AFC West.
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The Broncos may have been feeling good about themselves, but they didn’t celebrate prematurely.
“We’ve been here before,” tight end Daniel Graham cautioned then. “And we all know what happened to us last time.”
And it’s happened again.
The Broncos haven’t won since that Monday night in San Diego; the Chargers haven’t lost again.
After whittling away their deficit with a month’s worth of impressive wins, the Chargers bring an identical 6-3 record to Denver on Sunday for their showdown at Invesco Field.
“They’ve become a more improved team over the course of a month and obviously we’ve lost three straight, so we’ve got a lot of work to do to get back up to that level,” Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said.
This deja vu comes with a caveat, though.
“Last year everything was on the line,” Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said. “That was for the championship of the AFC West, for the playoffs. This is just for the lead. This is for who will be in first place at the halfway mark of the season.”
And this time, the loser will have a chance to recover.
The Broncos stunned the NFL by winning their first six games and looking like they, and not the Chargers – seemingly everybody’s preseason pick – would coast through the watered-down AFC West.
But after losses to Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington in the last three weeks, maybe it’s fair to say, with apologies to Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.”
Broncos safety Brian Dawkins suggested it was a good thing for people to start doubting Denver again.
“I love being put in a situation where people don’t expect you to do something, or they think you can’t do it. I love that. I relish that. I feed off of that,” Dawkins said. “These are the type of games that should just get your blood pumping and get your heart beating fast, get you breathing hard, like I’m doing right now in anticipation of the game.”
There’s no denying, however, the Chargers are playing their best ball right now while the Broncos are at their worst, a reversal of the season’s first month.
“They are playing with a different fire, with a different zest that you can see on film,” Dawkins said. “You just go into this game expecting their best, and then you put up your best and see whose best is the best.”
Oddsmakers won’t put a line on this one because of the Broncos‘ unsettled quarterback situation.
Kyle Orton has a sprained left ankle and might have to give way to backup Chris Simms, who hasn’t started a game since Sept. 24, 2006, when he played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Simms was battered so badly by the Carolina Panthers that he had to undergo emergency surgery to remove his spleen after that game.
“My life was definitely in danger. I lost nine pints of blood; you’ve only got 14 in your body. If the doctor didn’t say let’s go to the hospital and maybe I hung around the locker room and tried to go home, I don’t know if I would have made it. That’s what they told me,” Simms said.
Simms tried to gut it out after getting hurt on that fateful day three years ago.
“Definitely. You never think of internal injuries in football,” he said. “It was a really hot day there. I took a tough hit. I thought maybe I broke a rib. I could never really catch my breath. It was really uncomfortable. As the game went on I got worse and worse and, to make a long story short, at the end of the fourth quarter, it seriously went through my brain for the first time that I may have something seriously wrong with me.”
After five days in intensive care, Simms spent a long, arduous road to recovery. He finally feels like himself again, and McDaniels admires him for his perseverance in overcoming what many thought was a career-ending injury.
“I think you gain a great deal of respect from your coaches and your peers by how you work and how you handle yourself. I don’t know that anybody does that better than he does,” McDaniels said.
Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips and not Shawne Merriman, who’s starting to pile up sacks again, would have the blind side if the left-handed Simms gets the nod. Phillips will be facing right tackle Tyler Polumbus, who’s filling in for starter Ryan Harris (toes).
“I love having the blind side,” Phillips said. “I don’t get that too much. But it’s not about me, it’s about us. As long as we continue to focus on us and have that attitude we’ll be fine.”
Phillips said it matters – a little – who starts because Orton is right-handed and Simms a southpaw. The defensive game plan will have to be tweaked depending on who’s under center.
The Broncos, though, aren’t coming up with different game plans for each QB.
“Both quarterbacks are here because they can function in our system,” McDaniels said. “So, we’re not going to mess around and try to create some magical game plan for Chris and have one in the hole for Kyle or vice versa. The game plan is the game plan. I don’t think you can do that to your other players. They have to practice and they have to study one type of plan and you have to make it go with whomever is in there.”