Broncos-Chargers: The Playoffs Start Sunday

Ryan HoganCorrespondent IDecember 22, 2008

The final game of the 2008 NFL regular season will feature the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers playing for the AFC West title on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

While I’m neither a Broncos fan nor a Chargers fan, I’m highly anticipating this contest.

In a way, it’s not the last regular-season game but the first game of the postseason.  Sunday night’s winner will host a Wild Card playoff game, while the loser goes home.

Cynics might say this game isn’t a playoff game but a game to see who gets to lose to the Indianapolis Colts (who will face the winner in the opening round of the real postseason).
Critics will point out that if the Chargers win, an 8-8 team will be hosting a playoff game.

However, if the last few Super Bowl winners have taught us anything, it’s that a team’s regular-season performance is not indicative of a team’s postseason performance.

With the Broncos, you wonder how a team so bad on defense is just a win away from the playoffs. With the Chargers, you wonder how a team with so much talent didn’t wrap up the sorry AFC West in mid-November.

The Broncos surrender more than 26 points a game and allow 366 yards of total offense. The “orange crush defense” is ranked 27th in passing yards allowed and 26th in rushing yards allowed.

The Chargers, who lost all-world linebacker Shawn Merriman after Week One, are 17th in points allowed and a respectable 11th in rushing yards allowed. However, the Bolts are 31st in pass defense.

These awful defenses play to each team’s strength. Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler is third in the NFL in passing yards (4,210) and Chargers signal caller Philip Rivers is the league’s highest-rated passer. Rivers is also leading the NFL in touchdown passes with 32.

From watching these two teams play this year, the Broncos defense is far worse than their stats indicate, while the Chargers defense isn’t as bad as the numbers might suggest.

Still, look for the scoreboard to light up like a Christmas tree. In the teams’ infamous first meeting, way back in Week Two, the Broncos defeated the Chargers 39-38.

Since then, the Broncos’ season has been marred by an unusual loss of home-field advantage. After starting 3-0 at Invesco Field at Mile High, the Broncos lost four of their final five games on home turf. 

Mile High suddenly turning into “Mild High” is part of the reason why the Broncos didn’t wrap this division up weeks ago. Fortunately for Denver, Sunday’s game is in San Diego.

The Chargers, on the other hand, wish NFL games were only 59-and-a-half minutes long.  The Chargers have lost four games when leading or tied with less than 30 seconds left, and two of those games were decided on the final play.

Of course, one of the Chargers’ late-game collapses was against the Broncos and it involved the infamous Ed Hochuli call.

Late in the game, the usually competent referee mistakenly ruled that a Cutler fumble was an incomplete pass. The blunder eventually robbed the Chargers of a win.

“The happiest guy on the planet is Ed Hochuli because his call will not decide this division,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth.

Collinsworth is partially right. Had the Chargers won that game at Mile High back on Sept. 14, Sunday’s game would still be for the AFC West. Collinsworth is wrong, though, in thinking Hochuli’s call won’t be a factor in Sunday’s game.

If the Chargers have any heart at all—which at times is hard to tell—the loss in the Hochuli Bowl is a demon that must be exercised Sunday Night.

So with the Houchuli chip on their shoulders, home-field advantage, and momentum after winning three straight, the Chargers are poised for a Sunday night victory and a return to the postseason for the third year in a row.

The Broncos will try to forget they are -47 in net points on the year (fifth-worst in the AFC) and play like the team that started the season 6-4—not the team that has lost three out of their last five.

The Broncos-Chargers Week 17 finale is a matchup of two very interesting teams. It’s a nationally televised contest of an always-heated rivalry. It’s the last 60 minutes of regular-season football, and it will decide who goes to the playoffs and who stays home.

What a way to finish the NFL season.