Down the stretch with Denver, San Diego

The Chargers and Broncos are set to face off Nov. 22 in Denver and the AFC West division lead could be on the line. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Things have suddenly tightened up in the AFC West. What appeared to be a foregone conclusion has become a legitimate race.

On Oct.19, Denver won at San Diego to improve to 6-0 and dropped the Chargers to 2-3. Denver entered its bye week with a commanding 3.5-game lead. Since then, though, the division has taken a dramatic turn. The Chargers have won three straight games while Denver stumbled out of its bye week with two straight losses. At the midseason point, Denver is 6-2 and San Diego is 5-3.

Denver's lead has shriveled to one game as we head to the second half and a showdown in Denver between the Broncos and Chargers looming on Nov. 22. The shift has inspired us to take a look at each team’s schedule as in the second half. We enlisted the help of Gary Horton of Scouts Inc.

Horton thinks the Broncos have the tougher remaining schedule of the two teams and he thinks San Diego is the better team right now.

Denver: The Broncos are still in control of this division. If they win favorable matchups with Washington, Kansas City (twice), and Oakland and if they beat San Diego, they will be in great shape. They could lose their three other remaining games and be 11-5 with the tiebreaker over San Diego. In that case, San Diego would have to win every other game besides the Denver game to finish 12-4.

‘Denver still has a real good chance here,” Horton said. “They have to win the winnable games.”

Horton said the next two games are paramount to Denver’s success. He calls Sunday’s trip to Washington as a potential “trap game” for Denver.

“I don’t think it is going to be that easy for Denver this weekend,” Horton said. “Washington plays good defense. Kyle Orton is struggling. If Denver loses this game, it will be in trouble .... But if Denver can avoid the trap and then beat San Diego, it should be fine.”

Four days after playing San Diego, Denver plays host to the New York Giants on Thanksgiving.

“You can beat the Giants if you can throw the deep ball,” Horton said. “But Orton hasn’t shown he can do that … So this is going to be a tough game for Denver.”

The Broncos then go to Kansas City on Dec. 6. That should be a very winnable game for the Broncos. Then, the schedule toughens again with a trip to Indianapolis. Horton is not hopeful for Denver in that game.

“I don’t see any way Denver can win that game at Indianapolis,” Horton said.

Then, Denver goes home to play host to Oakland on Dec. 20. That should be a winnable game. The Broncos’ last road tilt is Dec. 27 at Philadelphia.

“That is going to be very difficult for Denver,” Horton said. “The Eagles are probably going to be playing for a playoff spot and that will be a very difficult game for Denver to win.”

The Broncos end their season at home against the Chiefs.

“Denver just better win the games they should win,” Horton said. “If they stumble even once, I think they will be in trouble. They have games against Indianapolis, Philadelphia and the Giants that will probably be losses.”

San Diego: While Denver has to avoid a trap Sunday, the Chargers have to take care of business against the Eagles on Sunday before meeting Denver.

“That game in Denver won’t mean as much if the Chargers lose to the Eagles,” Horton said. “That can happen. Philadelphia is tough right now. The Chargers have to find a way to win that game and then they have to find a way to beat the Broncos. If the Chargers win the next two games, they really are in control of the division because their schedule is easier than Denver’s down the stretch.”

San Diego has two very winnable games after playing Denver. They play hostto Kansas City and then travel to Cleveland. However, the Chargers travel to Dallas on Dec. 13.

“I’m going to give San Diego a loss in that game,” Horton said. “That’s going to be tough.”

A pivotal game for San Diego is Dec. 20 when it plays host to Cincinnati. If the Chargers are still in the race in Week 15, they must win this game. The problem for San Diego is that the Bengals, currently 6-2, likely will be playing for something as well.

Making the game against the Bengals even more crucial is that Horton thinks the Chargers could be in trouble Christmas night at Tennessee.

“You can beat San Diego if you can run the ball,” Horton said. “Tennessee can run the ball and I think the Chargers could easily lose that game. That game worries me.”

The Chargers end the season at home against Washington. Thus, both teams end the season with a winnable home game. While this race has a chance to go to the wire, it will become more clear after the Nov. 22 showdown.

“That game has a chance to be nasty,” Horton said. “The winner should end up winning the division.”