Down the stretch with Denver and San Diego

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

With five games to go, the AFC West appears to be a two-team race between Denver and San Diego. The only reason why the 4-7 Chargers are still in the race is because Denver refuses to run away with it. The Broncos would be 7-4 and making January plans had it not been blown out at home against Oakland.

The Broncos are 6-5 and don't have the look of a team ready to go for the kill. Thus, the Chargers are still in the race. Theoretically, Oakland, at 3-8, could get back in the mix if a few things fall the Raiders' way in the next few weeks.

Here are five things both Denver and San Diego need to do to win the West, which is in danger of forever being remembered as the first division ever to have a winner with a losing record in a non-strike season.


1. Get healthy: The Broncos have put 12 players on injured reserve this season, which is the second-highest total in the NFL. In addition to losing several players for the season, Denver's defense has been ravaged by injuries. There is a chance it will get four key starters back for the stretch run. Denver's defense isn't very good anyway. It can't survive for the long haul with backups. That was illustrated when Oakland, which had gone 44 consecutive drives without an offensive touchdown, scored three offensive touchdowns in the second half in Week 12. Star cornerback Champ Bailey may be back for Sunday's game at the Jets, and linebackers D.J. Williams and Nate Webster could be back soon. Safety Marlon McCree could also return in a couple weeks. The Broncos also need to stay healthy at running back. They are on their fifth tailback, rookie Peyton Hillis.

2. No turnovers: Denver is a perfect case study for the NFL. When its offense doesn't commit turnovers, the team plays well and often wins. When Denver is sloppy with the ball, it often doesn't have a chance to win. Because the Denver defense is porous, Denver has to score as many points as it can. It can't leave points on the field. That happened against Oakland, and it hurt Denver in the end. Quarterback Jay Cutler has to be careful with the ball. Three times this season he has thrown at least two interceptions in the game. Denver is 0-3 in those games. Three times this season Cutler has not thrown an interception. Denver is 3-0 in those games.

3. Rush the passer: The Broncos' pass rush has disappeared. Denver has not gotten a sack in the last three games. Its top pass-rusher, third-year player Elvis Dumervil, has just three sacks this season. He had a combined 21 sacks in his first two NFL seasons. Denver's defense needs help. It needs a pass rush. If the Broncos can't create pressure on the opposing quarterback in the final five games, starting Sunday against the Jets, it won't go very far.

4. Pull off an upset: If the Broncos win a game they are not expected to, it could propel them to their first division championship in three years. It starts Sunday against the Jets. Other tough days on Denver's schedule include Dec. 14 at Carolina and the season finale (Dec. 28) at San Diego. If the Broncos win one of these games, they should be in good shape. Denver's two home games are Dec. 7 against Kansas City and Dec. 21 against Buffalo. If Denver wins four games it will be division champions. If it wins three, San Diego will have to win out and go to the tiebreaker.

5. Kick well: Denver kicker Matt Prater is in a slump. He has missed five of his last 10 field-goal attempts, including two in the first half against Oakland. Prater replaced Denver legend Jason Elam and did well in the first half of the season. Denver likely won't win a lot of blowouts and it will need some big field goals from Prater. He will have to come through like Elam always did.


1. Good quarterback play: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is having a fine season. He's near the top of the league leaders in nearly every category. However, he has gotten sloppy in the last few games and committed turnovers that led to San Diego losses. Rivers has to take care of the ball. He is a great leader and he is very productive player. Rivers can put a team on his back and it's time for him to do that.

2. Run the ball: The San Diego running game has not been producing like it used to. LaDainian Tomlinson is just getting healthy after dealing with a turf toe injury the first half of the season. Tomlinson will likely get his 1,000 rushing yards this year, but he hasn't been as special as he has in past years. A reason for it is that the offensive line has struggled in run blocking. That has to improve. The Chargers need to use Tomlinson, along with capable backups Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester. This is the time to pull out all the stops.

3. Pull off an upset or two: Even though Denver is struggling, the Chargers can't afford to stumble. It has to win probably four games to have a chance to win the division. It starts Sunday against visiting Atlanta. The Falcons are a tough team and they won't be an easy out. But the Chargers must find a way to win this game. Then there is a home game against Oakland on Thursday night, followed by a road trip to Kansas City, a road trip to Tampa Bay and the season finale against the Broncos at home. The Chargers have to win as many games as possible. There's just no more room for stumbling for this team that lost seven games in the past two regular seasons combined.

4. Finish games: San Diego has lost four games in the final minute. The Chargers lost those games by a total of seven points. As I was roaming the locker room following the Chargers' loss to the Colts in Week 12, I got the sense that the Chargers were feeling somewhat sorry for themselves. Sure, it's tough to lose four games in the final minute, but they could have won a couple of those games. The Chargers need to learn to make a play when it counts.

5. Stop the pass: The Chargers have to finally figure out a way to stop the pass. They are ranked dead last in the NFL against the pass. San Diego is allowing 265.5 yards a game in the air. That has to stop if this team is going to move on. New defensive coordinator Ron
Rivera has improved the defense, but he has to get his pass defense ironed out or the Chargers will have no chance of catching the Broncos.