DENVER (AP) – The San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos have met 102 times. None was more monumental than a game five years ago that altered the fortunes of both franchises.
Both teams took a 7-2 record into that cool November night, and when the late Darrent Williams returned an interception for a touchdown, the Broncos were up 24-7 and looked poised to make another deep playoff run.
The Chargers stormed back behind four touchdowns by LaDainian Tomlinson to stun the Broncos 35-27, and neither team has been the same ever since.
While the Chargers changed coaches after that season, Norv Turner’s in his fifth year, Philip Rivers has developed into one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks and San Diego has celebrated four division crowns.
The Broncos have gone through three coaches, three quarterbacks and plenty of heartache.
The Chargers are 50-24 with four playoff appearances since that terrific turnaround and the Broncos are 30-44 without so much as a winning record over the past half decade.
“Those records speak for themselves,” Champ Bailey said as the Broncos, who are 1-3 and once again the division’s doormat, prepared for a visit Sunday from the AFC West-leading Chargers (3-1). “They took off in the right direction and we haven’t.
“The past is the past. We need to start making things better now and not worry about the past.”
Try as he might, Bailey can’t forget that game.
“I just remember how much energy we had in the first half,” he said. “Second half, it was almost like a new team came out of the locker room for them. They were all over us.”
Rivers also remembers it like it was yesterday.
“It was my first year starting, and it was a memorable game for the reasons you mentioned — you’re down 24-7 and you’ve thrown a pick for a touchdown and we found a way to come back and win,” Rivers said. “It was my first time playing in Denver. It was certainly a good memory from that game.”
Rivers said Denver “has always been one of my favorite places to play.”
And why not? He’s 4-2 in the Mile High City — and would be 5-1 if not for referee Ed Hochuli’s errant call in 2009 that helped the Broncos prevail 39-38 and led to a rule change the following season.
Neither team made the playoffs last season, but while the Chargers have reversed their trend of slow starts and once again look like the class of the division, the Broncos are in rebuilding mode with just four of former coach Josh McDaniels’ 19 draft picks starting.
The Broncos have allowed 1,001 yards passing over the past three weeks, coinciding with Bailey’s absence with a pulled hamstring. That’s the biggest total over a three-game stretch since way back in 1964.
Bailey is coming to the rescue, insisting he’ll play Sunday, when safety Brian Dawkins might be out.
“Him and B-Dawk are the backbones,” rookie safety Rahim Moore said. “It’s a great thing that he’s back. I’m just blessed to be able to play with him again, I missed him.”
But who will line up with Bailey to face Rivers and his repertoire of receivers?
On Thursday, the Broncos were missing both of their starting safeties as Dawkins sat out with an ankle injury and Moore was sick. So was nickel back Jonathan Wilhite, who missed his second straight practice.
Second-year pro Cassius Vaughn had a tough game at Green Bay last week and could be supplanted by undrafted rookie Chris Harris on Sunday. Rookie safety Quinton Carter is expected to at least replace Dawkins on some passing downs if not altogether.
“This is professional football. You’ve got to keep it moving as fast as possible and hopefully we can bring those guys along so that they’re seeing it just like those veteran guys are seeing it,” Broncos secondary coach Ron Milus said.
The hodgepodge of defensive backs at practice made preparing for Rivers doubly difficult, cornerback Andre’ Goodman said.
“At the end of the day, the game is about matchups and what kind of concepts you’re seeing. You have to see those concepts in live action before you can just throw yourself out there,” Goodman said.
“It makes it a little bit tougher, but again, this is the professional level. You have to get your job done by any means necessary no matter how tough it gets. And right now we’re in a tough spot.”
Goodman said the young DBs have studied him, Dawkins and Bailey to see how they need to prepare to face Rivers, who owns an 8-2 record, 18 touchdown passes and a 112.4 passer rating against Denver to go with just five interceptions.
“You can’t just show up and say, ‘Look, I’m pretty fast. I’m pretty quick. I can jump,”‘ Goodman said.
“Athleticism is the last thing in this league that you’re going to win with. Talent is the common denominator in the league. So, we have to learn how to anticipate stuff by studying more.”
Goodman at least took solace in Bailey’s impending return.
“It’s comfort and chemistry,” he said. “It’s not different than No. 20 (Dawkins). When you go on the field with those guys, you feel it, it’s electric. I mean, you know those guys are going to get their job done and you don’t have to worry about OK is he a 50-50 guy or is he an all-in guy? These guys are all in.”
– By AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton … AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)