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Falling Broncos, rising Chargers to collide

Philip Rivers has San Diego playing well heading into a critical matchup against Denver. Donald Miralle/Getty Images

After the Denver Broncos outclassed the San Diego Chargers at home on Oct. 19, Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman remained calm.

“We’ll see those guys again,” Merriman said. “This thing isn’t over.”

The next week, when the Chargers began the first of their four-game rehabilitation tour, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers preached patience.

“We just have to start winning games and hopefully in a month we’ll look up and be in good shape,” Rivers said.

These Chargers are masters of knowing how a season can suddenly change for the better. And the Broncos apparently are masters of blowing commanding leads.

It sets the stage for a juicy showdown in Denver on Sunday between two 6-3 teams that will go a long way toward settling the AFC West. San Diego has an easier schedule down the stretch. The Broncos must sweep the Chargers to get the tiebreaker in the division.

A season after Mike Shanahan’s 14-year reign in Denver ended because of a historic three-game collapse that resulted in San Diego remarkably winning the division, Josh McDaniels’ Broncos have put together a three-game collapse of their own.

When Denver flew home after its 34-23 win over the Chargers 27 days ago, it had a 3.5 game lead in the AFC West. The Broncos were 6-0 and the Chargers were 2-3. No NFL team has ever had a 3.5-game division lead and not made the playoffs.

It seemed over in the West. Not anymore.

Denver, the feel-good story of the early season, has soiled its perfect start with three straight losses.

The Broncos hit rock bottom with a loss at Washington on Sunday. Losing to Baltimore and Pittsburgh was understandable. But losing to the Redskins is inexcusable for a team in a serious playoff hunt.

While Denver, which has fallen apart on both sides of the ball in the past three weeks, has crashed back to earth, the Chargers have ignited. They've won four straight games, including wins over the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles in consecutive weeks.

While Denver, which played in the second half without quarterback Kyle Orton because of an ankle injury, couldn’t avoid a trap in Washington before next week’s showdown with the Chargers, San Diego did what it took to defeat the Eagles. San Diego -- which was aware of Denver’s loss -- was in control all game Sunday in a 31-23 win over the Eagles.

The Chargers are starting to play their best football of the season. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson had his best game of the year Sunday, running for 96 yards. The passing game remained strong and the Chargers' rushing game, which entered the game ranked last in the NFL, came alive. Defensively, the Chargers have been solid during the four-game streak.

Denver is falling and San Diego is rising. We’ve seen this movie before.

The Chargers, who have won three straight AFC West titles, were 5-5 in 2007 before winning six straight games. Last season, San Diego started 4-8 and ended up becoming the only 4-8 team ever to make the playoffs. San Diego gained three games on Denver in the final three weeks.

We never thought we’d see it happen again. Or, at least, not so soon. But the Rocky Mountain meltdown watch is officially on again.