Chargers-Broncos AFC West clash highlights Week 11

Things are heating up in the AFC West and the battle between the Broncos and the red-hot Chargers highlights Week 11, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: November 16, 2006
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton's "First and 10" column takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 11.

First … San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Unless you believe the Jets will pressure the Patriots for the AFC East title, which is still a little unlikely, the best and only race left in the AFC is in the AFC West.

As expected, the Chargers and Broncos are in a dogfight that should last until the end of the season. The Chargers won the division in 2004 but fell short of the playoffs last year because of one of the league's toughest schedules. This season, the schedule is significantly easier and the Chargers are in a dead heat with the Broncos at 7-2.

The first battle between the two is Sunday night in Denver, with a rematch scheduled Dec. 10 in San Diego. There is some predictability to this series (the home team usually wins) and the way the games are played. The Broncos have won the past six games in Denver while the Chargers have won four of the last five in San Diego.

In Denver's most recent wins at home, Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer usually escapes the pocket and works his magic. In their recent home wins, the Chargers have contained Plummer in the pocket with their 3-4 defense. Restricted to the pocket, Plummer is pretty much a 50 percent passer, not tall enough to see completely over the line and not the most accurate when he's not throwing out of the three-step drop in the pocket.

The Chargers will have a hard time restricting Plummer in the pocket because they'll be without one -- possibly two -- of their best defensive players. Linebacker Shawne Merriman is just halfway through his four-game suspension for the use of a supplement and defensive end Luis Castillo is nursing a high ankle sprain and is questionable. Without both players, the Chargers gave up 41 points Sunday in a victory over the Bengals.

Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAveraging 33 points a game, LT and Philip Rivers have had plenty to celebrate.
But Mike Shanahan doesn't come into this game with a confident offense. The Broncos are averaging only 17.6 points a game and have just 17 touchdown drives in 107 possessions. Shanahan is getting impatient. He's juggled running backs. Last week, he benched right tackle George Foster and running back Mike Bell.

Though Plummer has played a little better in recent weeks, his numbers pale in comparison to the Chargers' Philip Rivers. Plummer has completed only 55.2 percent of his passes and has a 71.6 quarterback rating. In nine games, Plummer has put only 28 points on the board in the first quarter.

The Chargers, thanks to Rivers and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, lead the league with a 33-point scoring average. Rivers has a 66.4 completion percentage and a 100.4 quarterback rating. LaDainian Tomlinson has 16 rushing touchdowns and 18 total.

Will this be a defensive game or an offensive shootout? It's hard to tell. Shanahan and Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer have been dominating the AFC West for two decades. Schottenheimer had the winning formula in Kansas City that usually put the Chiefs in the playoffs. He did it with great defense and solid running.

Though he started the regular season with a conservative form of MartyBall, Schottenheimer has opened it up for Rivers now that the first-year starter has shown he can handle the complexities of the passing offense. This game should be a classic.

And 10. Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys

Quarterback
Indianapolis Colts

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2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
320 210 2453 18 3 104.5
This is the best of the eight interconference games. The AFC leads the NFC 22-18, and this week will determine where the series is heading with the top teams in the AFC playing top teams in the NFC. The Colts come to Dallas with a 9-0 record. For weeks, Peyton Manning has faced varied defenses. The Patriots tried to pressure him. The Broncos and Bills stayed in safe zone defenses, trying to limit Manning's ability to make big plays. The problem with playing it safe against Manning is that it makes life a little easier for the Colts. Manning can work his magic against soft zones, as evidenced by the Colts' five drives of eight plays or more against the Bills and his nearly flawless performance at Denver, when he was 32 of 39 for 345 yards and three TDs. More importantly, this keeps the Colts' defense off the field. Considering the problems the Colts have stopping the run, that's a big plus. Though the Broncos and Bills stayed in the game until the end, they still had to face the reality Manning could get the ball last and either get the game-winning points or run out the clock. Bill Parcells will have to pick his poison, and you figure he's probably going to go with more pressure packages. Manning won't have wide receiver Brandon Stokley (knee injury) on the field to create matchup problems against a linebacker in the 3-4. Plus, Parcells will want to pound the ball on the ground to wear down the Colts' defense. The Colts have back-to-back games against NFC East foes, with the Eagles to follow Nov. 26. If they win, they could be within a few weeks of wrapping up the AFC South.

9. Cincinnati Bengals at New Orleans Saints
Marvin Lewis is trying his best to circle the wagons on a disappointing season, but something goes wrong each week. In Week 10, the Bengals fixed some of their problems when offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski did more of the play calling out of the no-huddle offense, and Carson Palmer put 41 points on the Chargers. But then another problem emerged: the defense gave up 49. For a while, the Bengals couldn't stop the run. Now, they are having difficulties stopping the pass. At 4-5 and three games behind the Ravens, Lewis better figure out some solutions quickly or any hopes of the playoffs will be gone. It's a must-win game for the Bengals in the Bayou. The Saints had their own problems on defense, giving up 38 points to the Steelers. Defensive backs were crashing into each other, letting Steelers receivers run free for big gains. They couldn't stop the run. With the Saints' defense playing with some banged-up bodies, this figures to be a high-scoring game. Drew Brees has been remarkable with his ability to move the Saints' offense. For a quarterback coming off rotator cuff surgery, he's been amazing. In fact, he seems tireless, moving and throwing with more confidence and more velocity. Palmer may be getting his second wind coming off his knee reconstruction. He moved better last week and didn't seem to be as concerned about defenders being around his knees.

8. New York Giants at Jacksonville Jaguars
Tom Coughlin built the Jaguars from an expansion team and took them to the AFC title game. Now, he comes back with the Giants, a team he coached to an NFC East title last season. He comes at an interesting time for the Jaguars. They are 5-4 and reeling from a home loss to the Texans last week. The switch to David Garrard failed after two starts, but he had no help from a receiving crew that let too many balls slip away and into the hands of Texans defenders. Any quarterback controversy may be quieted once news comes out about Byron Leftwich's ankle. Now a backup, Leftwich got a second opinion on the ankle, which needs a scope to clean up debris. Will he take the surgery now or after the season? That has yet to be determined, but it seems unlikely he will resurface in the next few weeks as the Jaguars' starter. The Giants come limping into Jacksonville with plenty of problems themselves. They lost left tackle Luke Petitgout indefinitely with a broken leg. The defense has been going without Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Sam Madison, LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short. Plus, Eli Manning's numbers have started to fall in recent weeks.

7. Atlanta Falcons at Baltimore Ravens

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Baltimore Ravens

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2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
270 162 1619 10 9 76.7
Brian Billick cured an ailing offense during the team's Week 7 bye. He fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and seemed to find the right balance to get his offense going. Steve McNair obviously helped. His calm leadership has won over the Ravens' locker room, and Billick has been calling plays that has McNair feeling like he did in 1999, when he took the Titans to the Super Bowl. Each week, McNair improves his throwing relationship with Mark Clayton. He already has a great relationship with former Titans teammate Derrick Mason. At 7-2, the Ravens lead the Bengals by three games. The Falcons aren't as fortunate. All the praise for Michael Vick and his seven touchdowns against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh has dried up. The mistakes have crept back into the offense, and now he's being criticized again. Worse, the defense is falling apart because of injuries. They've lost two starting defensive ends (John Abraham and Patrick Kerney) and two cornerbacks (Kevin Mathis and Jason Webster). Middle linebacker Ed Hartwell's knee injury isn't getting any better and he's back on the sidelines. Jim Mora calls this a fun challenge. Don't know if fun is the right word here.

6. Minnesota Vikings at Miami Dolphins
Sunday was a date Daunte Culpepper circled. He was out to prove to the Vikings that they made a mistake in trading him. Whoops. Culpepper's knee is still sore and he's only a No. 3 quarterback for the Dolphins now. In the next few weeks, the team will probably shut him down for the season. But it's not as though the Vikings are thriving without him. Brad Childress' offense has been one of the most disappointing in the NFC. it is averaging only 16.3 points a game, and the Vikings simply can't score touchdowns. Brad Johnson has only five touchdown passes in nine games. The offense looks lifeless, and it isn't picking the right time to play the Dolphins. Nick Saban has the Dolphins' defense playing tough. They've shut down the Bears and Chiefs in the past two weeks. Like last year, the Dolphins are getting a second-half rally going. At 4-5, the Vikings are in a must-win situation. The pressure is on.

5. Chicago Bears at New York Jets
Give Eric Mangini credit. He's brought that Bill Belichick creativity with him to his new assignment. Most people who watched the Jets-Patriots game Sunday believe Mangini outcoached Belichick. That rarely happens. At 5-4, the Jets, believe it or not, are in the playoff race. That's the weird part of the Bears' second visit to the Meadowlands in a week. They whipped the Giants Sunday night and are heavy favorites to do the same to the Jets. Mangini did a marvelous job of mixing blitzes to put pressure on Tom Brady in Week 10, and he will no doubt bring a similar game plan out for Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. Since the Bears' win over the Cardinals, Grossman has faced a steady diet of blitzes and confusing coverages. Because he has a gunslinger's mentality, Grossman will draw those defenses because he has a tendency to throw interceptions. Having a four-game lead in the NFC North and the NFC's best record, the Bears are in cruise control. They are on pace to get the top seed in the NFC and should get home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Jets are just having fun. No one expected them to win five games all season. All of a sudden, they are talking playoffs.

4. New England Patriots at Green Bay Packers

Quarterback
Green Bay Packers

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2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
352 203 2228 13 7 81.3
It's definitely too early to say "The Pack is back" but it can be said they are heading in that direction. Mike McCarthy has done a nice of job getting Brett Favre to cut down on interceptions. As a result, the Packers are 4-5, and Favre sounds like a quarterback happy enough with the progress that he might return next year. McCarthy definitely wants him back. With right tackle Mark Tauscher out, the Packers will go into the game with three rookie offensive linemen. The Patriots aren't the most confident team coming into this one. They've lost back-to-back games to the Colts and Jets. For whatever reason, Belichick has abandoned the running game in second halves of those games. The team that seemed to be heading to a potential top seed in the AFC suddenly looks very average.

3. Washington Redskins at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Jason Campbell era has begun. Long overdue, Campbell finally gets the starting QB job for Joe Gibbs. For weeks, Gibbs has debated the right time to give Campbell the chance to be the starter. With the playoffs almost out of consideration, this seemed to be the right time. Many coaches like to start a young quarterback on the road because it gives him an extra chance to focus. There are no home distractions. Even though the Bucs have some age issues on their Cover 2 defense, they still can frustrate quarterbacks, both veteran and young, in passing situations. The defense, despite injuries, did a nice job against the Panthers on Monday night. Campbell has to make sure he gets the ball more to Redskins receivers than Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber. The Bucs are struggling to score points with rookie Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback. From the Redskins' point of view, that should allow Campbell the chance to be in the game until the final minutes.

2. Seattle Seahawks at Francisco 49ers
Mike Nolan is finally getting some life back into the 49ers. At 4-5, the team is making progress. His best move was hiring Norv Turner on offense. Turner has done a nice job of slowly maturing quarterback Alex Smith. He made the right choice in trading Kevan Barlow to open playing time for Frank Gore. Even the defense shows some signs of life. The Seahawks enter this game with caution. Mike Holmgren remembers last year's crazy 27-25 victory in San Francisco in which he needed to stop a two-point conversion toward the end. Despite a lengthy injury list, the Seahawks have re-established themselves atop the NFC West. They are 6-3 with a two-game lead over the Rams. The surprise is the 49ers are also two games back. If they win, they suddenly can start thinking about the playoffs. The Seahawks, however, have done well with Seneca Wallace filling in for Matt Hasselbeck, who may be available for backup duty.

1. Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs
The only thing interesting in this one is the return of Trent Green. Herman Edwards stayed loyal to his veteran starter by giving him back his starting job. Damon Huard was 5-3 replacing Green, but Edwards is old school. He believes starters shouldn't lose their jobs because of injuries. All along, he planned to give Green the job back once he was healthy. It won't be easy for Green. He won't have tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has a shoulder injury. The Raiders' defense is young and actually doing a decent job. Rob Ryan has them flying to the football and giving up less than 300 yards of offense a week. But that's the only thing going good for the Raiders. The offense is terrible. Players are so frustrated they are criticizing the scheme even at the risk of losing their jobs. Andrew Walter may be benched for his postgame comments in Week 10. That means he'd have to watch the offense from the sidelines. Now that's punishment.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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