The San Diego Chargers don't want to call their showdown with the Denver Broncos a must-win game. They certainly know it's a can't-lose game.
The Chargers were built up in preseason as a Super Bowl favorite, capable of wrapping up their fourth straight AFC West title by Thanksgiving. Denver certainly hasn't been cooperating with that scenario, jumping to the division lead at 5-0 while watching the Chargers stumble to a 2-2 start.
An intense rivalry is renewed Monday night at Qualcomm Stadium.
If the Broncos win, and don't collapse the way they did at the end of last season, it could be hard for the Chargers to catch them.
So, no matter what the Chargers say, it's a must-win game.
"I don't know that you can ever approach a game any other way," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Certainly the implications of this game are always big. Throw in the fact that we're already two down, sure, I mean, it's as big as a regular-season game gets."
This is the first of three straight division game for the Bolts, who are coming off a bye that helped soothe the physical and mental pain of once again getting exposed physically by the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. San Diego fell behind 28-0 and allowed 497 yards in a 38-28 loss at Pittsburgh.
The Chargers haven't been able to run the ball or stop the run.
"I think mentally we understand what effect a win's going to have and at the same time what effect a loss is going to have," Rivers said.
The Broncos are coming off a 20-17 overtime win over the New England Patriots, giving rookie coach Josh McDaniels a victory over his mentor, Bill Belichick.
The Broncos have an impressive offense, run by Kyle Orton and featuring wide receiver Brandon Marshall and rookie running back Knowshon Moreno, and their defense is greatly improved.
The Broncos have lost five of their last six games against San Diego. The only win was in Week 2 last season, when Denver benefited from referee Ed Hochuli's blown call and won 39-38 at home.
"We haven't beaten the Chargers in a long time," Broncos tight end Daniel Graham said. "It's going to be a tough one for us. It's been a little heated rivalry. No love lost between the two teams."
In the 2008 finale in San Diego, the Chargers routed the Broncos to complete a four-game winning streak that gave them the AFC West title. It was the Broncos' third straight loss, completing a historic collapse that cost coach Mike Shanahan his job.
Not only have the Broncos not won in San Diego since 2005, their five losses to the Chargers during the last three seasons have been lopsided.
"It was mentioned," Graham said. "We know what they've done to us. We don't want that outcome this week."
The Broncos would love to improve to 6-0 and drop the Chargers 3 1/2 games back.
"We all know that," Graham said. "It's a must win for them, it's a must win for us as well. We want to go into the bye week with a great record."
Rivers said the Chargers need to keep things in perspective. Last year they were 4-8 and spent all of December playing must-win games.
He also noted that the Chargers have gotten on a roll each of the last three seasons.
In 2006, they won their final 10 to finish a franchise-best 14-2 before being stunned at home in the playoffs by New England. In 2007, they won their last six regular-season games, then made it all the way to the AFC championship game in Norv Turner's first year as coach. Last season, their four-game December winning streak saved them.
"It's been different every year," Rivers said. "Obviously it's early, but hopefully we can start that little run this week."
While Chargers fans always get riled up about the rivalry with the Oakland Raiders, the series with the Broncos has been more important in recent seasons.
"Every year we go in and see them, it's always going to be a big matchup," Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman said. "For the last few years, we've probably been the two dominant teams in the division."
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