SAN DIEGO — It's a "must" game for the Denver Broncos, and in a way, for the Chargers as well.
One look at the standings makes it clear that the Broncos will have to beat the Chargers in today's 1 p.m. game at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium to have a shot at retaining the AFC West championship. They are in third place, 1 1/2 games behind the Chargers, and a defeat would reduce them to scrambling for a wild-card berth in the National Football League playoffs.
On the other hand, it would seem that the Chargers could afford to lose. They lead the West by one game over the Seattle Seahawks, who will meet the Raiders in Seattle Monday night.
But if you explore what lies ahead for the three teams in the running for the division title, you realize that if the Chargers don't win today, they may be in trouble.
Here are the remaining games for each contender:
Chargers: Today--Denver; Dec. 6--at Houston; Dec. 13--Pittsburgh; Dec. 20--Indianapolis; Dec. 27--at Denver.
Seattle: Monday--Raiders; Dec. 6--at Pittsburgh; Dec. 13--Denver; Dec. 20--at Chicago; Dec. 27--at Kansas City.
Denver: Today--at Chargers; Dec. 6--New England; Dec. 13--at Seattle; Dec. 19--Kansas City; Dec. 27--Chargers.
The Chargers will be favored in only two of their five games--those at home against Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. They are slight underdogs against the Broncos today, so they certainly should be underdogs in Denver, and presumably in Houston as well.
Assuming that all five games go as expected, the Chargers will finish with a 10-5 record. That probably won't be good enough to top the division. It may not even be good enough for second place.
The Seahawks figure to beat the Raiders and Chiefs, the Broncos because the game will be at home, and perhaps the Steelers on the road. The only game in which they are certain to be underdogs is the one in Chicago.
That projects to an 11-4 record for the Seahawks if they beat the Steelers and 10-5 if they don't. Either way, they would beat out a 10-5 Charger team because they won the teams' only meeting. The other was wiped out by the players' strike.
The Broncos will be favored in every game except the one in Seattle, so their record projects to 10-4-1. That would give them the division title if both the Chargers and Seahawks wind up at 10-5, and second place if the Chargers and Seahawks go 11-4 and 10-5.
A third-place finish may put a team in the playoffs, but not necessarily. The runner-up in the AFC Central could sneak in.
The Cleveland Browns lead the Central with a 7-3 record, followed by the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers at 6-4.
In that symbol of NFL parity, the AFC East, the whole division is tied at 5-5, and no team can be expected to finish higher than 8-7.
Because the champion of the East will go to the playoffs regardless of its record, five teams are battling for four playoff spots in the West and Central--the Chargers, Seahawks, Broncos, Browns and Oilers.
In this light, it becomes clear that the Chargers can't afford their second straight loss today. Just two Sundays after leading the division by two games, they could be faced with a struggle to make the playoffs.
Bronco quarterback John Elway said, "For us to defend our division title, it's more or less a do-or-die situation for us. We don't want to leave San Diego 2 1/2 games down with four to play. It's a game we have to win."
The Chargers prefer not to call this a must-win game. Still, they have no illusions about what might happen if they lose.
Tight end Kellen Winslow summed up the Chargers' situation when he said: "We need to win to re-establish our control in the AFC West. Actually, we need it more than Denver needs it. We're looking forward to the playoffs and getting the home-field advantage, so why make it close?"
Elway, a Stanford product, has three excellent receivers in Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson and rookie Ricky Nattiel. But the Broncos' running game is nonexistent, their offensive line is only average and their defense is mediocre at best. Without Elway, they wouldn't even be competitive.
The Broncos won't buy the idea, at least not publicly, that the Chargers were unmasked in the 34-3 rout in Seattle last week.
Bronco Coach Dan Reeves said of the Chargers: "You don't look at them as a bunch of stars, but they play with a lot of intensity, and that's the key. We don't always have that intensity. When we don't, we're an average football team."
Said Charger Coach Al Saunders: "We have a long way to go to be the team we want to be. We don't have the most talent in the AFC, but we're playing with emotion and we're playing with enthusiasm. That's why we're 8-2."
Today, the Chargers also will have Dan Fouts at quarterback, and that of itself will be a plus both physically and psychologically. He played only part of the second half last week because of a calf injury.
"Dan isn't 100%, but he's ready," Saunders said. "Once the season starts, he's never 100%"