For The AFC West Title
One featuring a playoff-bound team versus a team that had already been eliminated from the postseason.
A late collapse by the Broncos and a surge by the Chargers, however, has made Sunday's clash in San Diego a showdown for the AFC West title with the winner going to the playoffs and the loser beginning the offseason.
Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook Sportsbook.com have made the Chargers –9 point spread favorites for Sunday’s game against the Redskins. Current NFL Public Betting Information shows that 51% of more than 11,051 bets for this game have been placed on the Chargers -9.
The Broncos (8-7) have been in sole possession of first place in the West the entire season, and led the Chargers (7-8) by three games with three to go. But they now are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third straight season and becoming the first team since division play began in 1967 to fail to make the playoffs after holding a three-game lead with three weeks to go.
After defeating Kansas City 24-17 on Dec. 7 to move within one win of the division title, Denver lost to Carolina 30-10 on Dec. 14 and blew a 13-0 lead in last Sunday's 30-23 loss to Buffalo.
"Unfortunately we're not going to be able to go up there and take it easy,'' Broncos Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall said. "We're going to have to go up there in their back yard and prove to them that we're better than them. They're a good team, they're playing better now, and they've got all the momentum.''
The Chargers finished November with a 4-8 record, but have rallied to win all three games this month, and reeled off 13 consecutive December victories since a 23-7 loss to the Broncos on Dec. 31, 2005.
"We were 4-8. We could have shut it down,'' said San Diego Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates after last Sunday's 41-24 win at Tampa Bay. "Honestly, you know, we could have said, 'You know what, Denver ain't going to lose three in a row.' We could have taken that mind-set. But it was more about the San Diego Chargers and what we were trying to accomplish. Eventually that gave us a chance to sit here and play.''
The Chargers have won the last two West titles and outscored the Broncos 71-23 in winning the last two meetings in San Diego, and could have actually already won the division if not for a blown call in their game at Denver in Week 2.
In the final minute with the Chargers leading 38-31, the Broncos reached the San Diego 1 but, quarterback Jay Cutler fumbled the ball into linebacker Tim Dobbins' arms. Referee Ed Hochuli blew his whistle when the ball came out, ruling it an incomplete pass.
Two plays later, Denver scored on a 4-yard pass from Cutler to Eddie Royal and successfully converted a 2-point attempt to win 39-38.
Cutler passed for 350 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the Week 2 win over the Chargers, and threw for 359 yards last week against the Bills to break Jake Plummer's single-season franchise record with 4,210 yards.
In his third season, Cutler has been counted on to lead an offense that has been decimated by injury to the running back position.
P.J. Pope became the sixth tailback to start for the Broncos last Sunday, and he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in the first quarter. Pope joins fellow running backs Selvin Young (back), Ryan Torain (knee), Michael Pittman (spine), Anthony Alridge (leg), Peyton Hillis (hamstring) and Andre Hall (hand) on injured reserve.
Tatum Bell, who has 163 yards and no touchdowns on 36 carries, is expected to make his third start Sunday.
Cutler has been named to his first Pro Bowl, while his counterpart on San Diego was left off the roster despite an outstanding season.
Philip Rivers leads the NFL in touchdowns (32) and passer rating (104.0) and has been instrumental to the Chargers' turnaround this month. He threw for 287 yards and a career-high four TD passes last Sunday, and has passed for 847 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception during the team's three-game win streak.
Rivers completed 21 of 33 passes for 377 yards, three touchdowns and one pick in the loss to Denver in September, and has thrown eight TDs and one interception in his last four games against them.
Running back LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for a season-low 26 yards on 10 carries against the Broncos earlier this season, but Denver's rush defense has been susceptible away from Invesco Field.
The Broncos have allowed an average of 169.0 rushing yards in their seven road games compared to an average of 108.1 yards in their eight home contests.
Tomlinson, who rushed for 90 yards at home last Sunday to join Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin as the only players in NFL history to run for 1,000 in each of their first eight seasons, has run for 728 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last six home games versus Denver.
"Everybody was doubting (the Chargers), talking bad about them this year,'' Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams said. "Now they have a chance to throw everybody's words back in their face with a victory.''
San Diego, which was considered a Super Bowl contender before this season began, has not missed the postseason since 2005.
"I think we are playing like a playoff team. ... Hopefully it's not too late,'' Tomlinson said.
Top Betting Trends:
All games in this series since 1992
DENVER is 15-14 against the spread versus SAN DIEGO since 1992
DENVER is 20-13 straight up against SAN DIEGO since 1992
16 of 32 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games over the last 3 seasons
SAN DIEGO is 5-0 against the spread versus DENVER over the last 3 seasons
SAN DIEGO is 4-1 straight up against DENVER over the last 3 seasons
4 of 5 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
All games played at SAN DIEGO since 1992
SAN DIEGO is 7-6 against the spread versus DENVER since 1992
SAN DIEGO is 9-7 straight up against DENVER since 1992
9 of 16 games in this series have gone UNDER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games played at SAN DIEGO over the last 3 seasons.
SAN DIEGO is 2-0 against the spread versus DENVER over the last 3 seasons
SAN DIEGO is 2-0 straight up against DENVER over the last 3 seasons
1 of 2 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
Key Player Injuries
[C] Tom Nalen IR - Knee - 09/21/08
[CB] Champ Bailey missed last game, "?" - Groin - 12/14/08
[DT] Carlton Powell expected to miss at least six weeks. - Knee - 08/27/08
[DT] Josh Shaw IR - Elbow - 12/03/08
[LB] Boss Bailey IR - Knee - 10/22/08
[LB] Spencer Larsen missed last game, "?" - Groin - 12/14/08
[QB] Patrick Ramsey IR - Elbow - 10/22/08
[RB] Andre Hall IR - Hand - 11/03/08
[RB] Anthony Alridge IR - Hamstring - 08/29/08
[RB] Michael Pittman IR - Neck - 11/03/08
[RB] Peyton Hillis IR - Hamstring - 12/08/08
[RB] Ryan Torain IR - Knee - 11/07/08
[TE] Nate Jackson IR - Hamstring - 11/20/08
[WR] Brandon Stokley is "?" - Heel - 12/17/08
[WR] Clifford Russell IR - Neck - 10/01/08
[C] Nick Hardwick injured last game, "?" - Concussion - 12/14/08
[FB] Mike Tolbert missed last game, "?" - Shoulder - 12/12/08
[LB] Anthony Waters missed last game, "?" - Hamstring - 12/14/08
[LB] Shawne Merriman IR - Knee - 09/10/08
[SS] Clinton Hart missed last game, "?" - Shoulder - 12/14/08
[WR] Buster Davis IR - Groin - 11/20/08
[WR] Chris Chambers injured last game, "?" - Head - 12/15/08
Posted: 12/24/08 3:45PM ET