The loss of Shawne Merriman to a four-game steroid suspension in late October was supposed to be a knockout blow for the San Diego Chargers, who had won two consecutive games when the linebacker was sidelined by the NFL.
But at 10-2, the Chargers are looking just fine.
The Chargers had carved out a reputation as a young, talented team that didn’t know what to do when it smelled blood. But the teamhas been dismantling that reputation bit by bit, extending its winning streak to six games en route to becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender. With a win over the Denver Broncos (7-5), as well as a Baltimore Ravens win over the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chargers would claim the AFC West title.
“When it’s game time and you’re preparing for a team, you can never overlook them,” Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson said this week. “You have to be able to make sure you are focused on that particular team. We still have two division games left back-to-back, Denver and Kansas City, and that’s going to determine really what happens for us, if we win the division or not.”
The return of Merriman last weekend only makes the Chargers a stronger team. In his absence, Tomlinson carried the team and likely solidified himself as the leader for league MVP. During the six-game win streak, he has rushed for 851 yards and 16 touchdowns. On the season, he has 1,324 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns, in addition to his three receiving and two passing touchdowns.
A loss for the Broncos might end the playoff hopes of last year’s AFC Championship Game participant. The Broncos appear resigned to losing the division title.
“Obviously, common sense says that your chances for the division title aren’t very good,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “Common sense [says] if you win the rest of the games, you could win it, but the chances are [a playoff berth] will be a wild card.”
Shanahan went with the bold, late-season move of replacing starting quarterback Jake Plummer with rookie Jay Cutler, who debuted with two touchdown passes in Sunday’s 23-20 loss to Seattle.
Denver is bordering on coming undone late in the season and the Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals being in the hunt for the last playoff spot doesn’t make things any easier.
“With this team we’ve got, we can definitely go on a run like Pittsburgh did,” Denver cornerback Darrent Williams said, “but we’re having a hard time winning games in December and we’re making it real hard on ourselves to get to the playoffs.”