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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Chargers join in to break Broncos

San Diego delivers another big blow to Denver with a lopsided victory.

November 23, 2009|Sam Farmer
  • Broncos quarterback Chris Simms is sacked by San Diego's Kevin Burnett (99) and Eric Weddle (32) in Sunday's game.
Broncos quarterback Chris Simms is sacked by San Diego's Kevin Burnett… (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images )

For all of Sunday's surprises -- Oakland stunning Cincinnati, Kansas City shocking Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cleveland in a 75-point shootout -- there was one development NFL fans could see coming a mile away:

The slow-motion collapse of the Denver Broncos.

Just like last season, the San Diego Chargers delivered the roundhouse that sent Denver to the canvas, this time claiming the outright lead in the AFC West with a 32-3 thumping at Invesco Field.

Denver might have looked virtually invincible last month when it got off to a 6-0 start and built a 3 1/2 -game division lead, capped with a win at San Diego. But that team has lost four in a row since then, and the Chargers have pulled into the front spot with five victories in a row.

Sunday, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers was never sacked -- that by a defense that brought him down five times in their first meeting.

"These last four weeks the guys up front have been unbelievable and [Denver] didn't blitz near as much this game," Rivers said. "It kind of surprised us they didn't bring some of the stuff they did in that early game. And our guys handled good pass rushers. I was touched one time that I remember."

Why wasn't the outcome a forehead-slapping shocker?

Because the Chargers have followed this pattern the last five seasons, stumbling out of the gate only to finish with a flurry. Those seasons have ended with bursts of 9-1, 6-3, 10-0, 7-1 and 4-0.

And now, the Chargers have added to that legacy with a 5-0 run.

Next up, a couple of games that once looked like layups but no longer have the feel of just-mail-it-in matchups: Kansas City at home, and at Cleveland. San Diego should win both of those, of course, but the Chiefs and Browns accounted for themselves well on one of the wildest Sundays of the season.

A quick spin around the rest of the league:

Still perfect: New Orleans and Indianapolis each improved to 10-0, although the Colts came a lot closer to losing than the Saints. Whereas New Orleans left no doubt with a 38-7 thrashing of Tampa Bay, Indianapolis needed a late interception deep in its territory to turn back Baltimore.

The 2007 Patriots don't need to start wringing their hands just yet about the Colts or Saints matching New England's 16-0 feat. With six games to go, Indianapolis and New Orleans each still has all three division opponents to play, which are seldom easy games.

The combined record of the Colts' remaining opponents is 27-31, and the Saints face teams that are 27-33, including home games against New England and Dallas, each 7-3.

North heading south: Cincinnati and Pittsburgh weren't the only AFC North teams to lose in Week 11. Baltimore and Cleveland did too. And each loss in that division sweep was by a wafer-thin margin: the Browns by one point, Ravens by two points, and Bengals and Steelers by three.

At 7-3, the Bengals still have a one-game lead over the Steelers, and the tiebreaker edge over Pittsburgh and Baltimore, having swept both.

Phenomenal finish I: Because the Browns-Lions game was blacked out, lots of people in the Detroit area missed one of the most exciting home team shootouts in memory, one in which rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford showed his toughness and determination.

Stafford was crushed into the turf after releasing a Hail Mary pass on the game's second-to-last play, and clearly his left shoulder was causing him excruciating pain. Still, after the Browns were flagged for interference in the end zone on that play -- and because the game cannot end on a defensive penalty -- the Lions, trailing by six points, had one last chance from the one.

Stafford opted to stay in the game, even though it initially looked as if he would be replaced by Daunte Culpepper, and threw the winning touchdown pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

"There was no one who was going to stop him from going back on the field," Lions Coach Jim Schwartz said of Stafford, whose X-rays were negative but who will have an MRI exam today. "He had come way too far in that game to not finish it."

According to STATS LLC, Stafford became the first rookie to throw five touchdowns in a game since Ray Buivid for the Chicago Bears in 1937.

Phenomenal finish II: Oakland's Bruce Gradkowski, having replaced the ineffective JaMarcus Russell as the starting quarterback, threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to rookie Louis Murphy with 41 seconds left to forge a 17-17 tie with the Bengals. On the ensuing kickoff, the Raiders recovered a fumble to set up the winning field goal.

That means that in the last 41 seconds, the Raiders scored more points than they've averaged (9.8) in a typical game this season.

For all the criticism Russell has been subjected to this season, it was good to see who was first off the sidelines to congratulate Gradkowski after the tying touchdown pass: Russell.

"As a team, we're not really known for fighting back," Murphy said. "And we came back."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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