Broncos flat after Chargers storm back

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Champ Bailey's reaction when the scoreboard here showed that the San Diego Chargers came back to beat the Kansas Chiefs on Sunday?

"For real?" a still bemused Bailey recalled several hours later.

For real, indeed. It was so real that the Denver Broncos will have to wait at least another week to clinch their first AFC West title in three years.

The Broncos all but had the title hats and shirts rocking in the locker room -- before they even hit the field to face the Panthers. And you couldn't blame them. Kansas City had a 21-3 lead in the third quarter and it led 21-10 at the two-minute warning. However, two San Diego touchdowns in the final 79 seconds delayed the party.

The Broncos did their part to extend the drama until at least Week 16 by falling flat and being drubbed by Carolina 30-10.

Bailey said the team knew what had happened in Kansas City early in the game. It was being updated on the scoreboard. The proceedings in Kansas City garnered Bailey's full attention, who missed his seventh straight game with a torn groin.

"I was watching it and I couldn't believe it," Bailey said. "We left the locker room and the score was 21-10 Kansas City. We were feeling good. Then it was 21-16, then right away it was 22-21 San Diego and then it was over."

"Now, we just have to go out and handle our own business," Bailey said. "We should have done it this week. It's on to next week."

Denver losing to Carolina and San Diego beating Kansas City was not a difficult combination to imagine. However, the way San Diego won the game could make the next two weeks interesting.

San Diego is still a long shot to win the division, but the Chargers will hit their facility Monday morning feeling quite good about themselves. They made a huge comeback to stay alive. Now, only three things need to happen to salvage this disastrous season. If they can beat Tampa Bay on the road and Denver loses at home to Buffalo, the Chargers will have the setup they desire.

San Diego plays host to Denver on Dec. 28 in the regular season finale. Denver beat the Chargers in controversial fashion by one point in Week 2. If San Diego wins that game under the above scenario, both teams will finish 8-8. The Chargers would win the division because of a better division record. San Diego is 4-1 in the AFC West and Denver is 3-2.

"It's a must-win for us next week," Denver cornerback Dre' Bly said. "We need to get it done. We could have done it [Sunday] but we didn't take advantage of it. We need to close it out next week."

Here are some other key elements from the game:

Bailey vows to be back: If the Broncos end up in the playoffs, Bailey said there is no way he will miss a game. Bailey has been trying to return from the injury he suffered at New England on Oct. 20 for more than a month. He has been practicing on a limited basis for four weeks but he hasn't been able to go full speed.

Bailey is not promising he will play next week at home against Buffalo. But he is promising he will be back for the playoffs if the Broncos advance.

"There is zero chance that I won't be back by then," he said. "That's do-or-die time. I have to be out there no matter what. Hopefully, I'll be back before then. I didn't think it would take this long."

Panthers shred Denver's pass defense: The Broncos entered the game focused on stopping Carolina's runaway run game. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 301 rushing yards last Monday night in a big win over Tampa Bay.

The Broncos, who entered the game with the No. 26-ranked run defense, focused all week on stopping Williams and Stewart. Denver, at times, used a 4-4-3 defensive alignment. On some plays, the Broncos used rookie linebacker Wesley Woodyard as a strong safety. With weakside linebacker D.J. Williams back, expect Woodyard to see some more time in that alignment because the undrafted rookie simply has been too good to keep off the field.

For the most part, the emphasis on stopping the run worked. The Panthers had 147 yards rushing on 30 carries. In the first half, Williams and Stewart combined for 26 rushing yards. Williams did break off a 56-yard run for a touchdown in the third quarter.

While Denver stopped the run, it was beaten badly by Carolina's pass offense. Steve Smith caught nine passes from Jake Delhomme for 165 yards and one touchdown.

"We tried to stop the run," Woodyard said. "But then they had success against the pass."

Turnovers kill Denver again: Denver lost the turnover battle 2-1 as quarterback Jay Cutler threw an interception and running back Selvin Young lost a fumble. Denver is 6-0 when it wins the turnover battle and 2-6 when it loses it.

"Whenever we lose the turnover battle, that's it for us," Bailey said. "It's always that way."

Denver runs by committee: In the end, Denver's rushing yardage total was respectable. It had 23 carries for 121 yards, good for a 5.3 per carry average. But it was a committee act.

Without rookie Peyton Hillis, the fifth Denver tailback to be put on the injured reserve this season, Denver used tailbacks P.J. Pope, Tatum Bell and Young. Cory Boyd, who worked extensively in practice Wednesday, was inactive.

Pope and Bell each had seven carries. Pope, who scored the first touchdown of the game, had 51 yards on the ground and Bell had
43 yards. Young had 19 yards on six carries. Expect Pope to get more carries as the season wears on. He ran hard and seems to fit Denver's running scheme.