Broncos, 'Bolts Ready For Showdown

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This one's for all the mediocrity.

More than three months after referee Ed Hochuli's blown call allowed Denver to beat San Diego, the increasingly bitter rivals will play for the title of the awful AFC West in prime time Sunday night in the last regular-season game.

Will it be Jay Cutler's bumbling Broncos (8-7) - who had a three-game lead with three to play - who hold on and win the division wire-to-wire?

Or will Philip Rivers' re-energized Chargers (7-8) win their third straight division title after being written off when they were 4-8?

It's quite the story line for the finale in the mild, mild West, whose winner gets to host a playoff game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

The loser is sure to be reviled.

Denver, which managed to lose to both Kansas City and Oakland, is trying to avoid a huge collapse. The Broncos could become the first team since division play began in 1967 to miss the playoffs after having a three-game lead with three weeks to go.

The Chargers, who've won three straight, don't want to be remembered for monumental underachieving when they're supposed to be one of the NFL's most talented teams. They could become the first team to go from 4-8 to the playoffs, although they certainly expected a season with double-digit wins.

Put these teams' records together and they've won just two more games than the Tennessee Titans, who have the NFL's best record. Together, they've lost as many as the Detroit Lions.

Chargers fans who booed early and often this season are back on the bandwagon. It's a hot ticket and the Chargers are expecting their biggest crowd of the season.

Still, there's something less than appetizing about teams that are 8-7 and 7-8 in a "showdown" for a division title. Yes, these teams have explosive offenses, but their defenses are prone to pratfalls.

"It says the two teams at the top have been inconsistent, really," said Rivers, who leads the NFL with a 104.0 passer rating and 32 TDs. "Denver has lost some tough games, as well as we have. We've won some big games. You hear about how not very good the AFC West is, but yet we've beat a lot of teams in some other conferences that are at the top of their divisions as well."

True, the Chargers routed New England and the New York Jets. On the flip side, they had to rally two weeks ago for their second one-point win over the lowly Chiefs.

"I know it's two teams that are capable, that's for sure," Rivers said. "It'll be exciting, two teams that obviously are good enough to win the division because we're in the position. Regardless of record I think it's clear that we are the two best teams in the division, right there at the top, and it's good that it's going to get to come down to being decided out there on the field."

Oh, and before there was the Hochuli blunder, there was Rivers and two Chargers linebackers jawing at Cutler from the sideline midway through the fourth quarter of the Chargers' 23-3 win over Denver last Christmas Eve.

Cutler, who has set franchise records with 351 completions for 4,120 yards, expects a rough welcome from everyone in San Diego.

"I don't think they like me, which is fine," said Cutler, voted to the Pro Bowl while Rivers was not. "It adds to the game, adds to the excitement, adds to the rivalry with us. It's going to be a good one."

And it's not just the fans.

"I think these teams probably dislike each other," Cutler said. "I know our offense doesn't like their defense, and it works both ways. It's becoming a good rivalry between us. We're both good teams. They're playing really well right now. Philip's playing really well. It's a good matchup."

It's clear the holiday spirit extends only so far.

"What happened has happened and I haven't forgotten it. I don't think a lot of guys on this team have forgotten it," Cutler said.

Rivers said there are no hard feelings.

"It got a lot of attention about a year ago actually, but there's really nothing there," he said.

Then there's Hochuli.

In the final minute of the first meeting in Denver on Sept. 14, Hochuli ruled a ball that slipped from Cutler's grasp and was recovered by inside linebacker Tim Dobbins was an incomplete pass instead of a fumble. Hochuli later acknowledged his decision was wrong. However, by rule, the call could not be changed and Denver kept the ball, going on to win 39-38.

What's often overlooked is that the Broncos scored on a fourth-down pass from Cutler to rookie Eddie Royal, and that they came right back with the same play for the winning 2-point conversion.

"I had a lot of thoughts on it, but they left me," San Diego coach Norv Turner said of Hochuli's call.

"It's bogus," Dobbins said. "He's not the ref, which is a plus. I mean, it was bad in the beginning but it's turning out OK. But we shouldn't be in the position we're in."

Hochuli has been assigned to the Detroit-Green Bay game, in which the Lions will be trying to avoid the first 0-16 season in NFL history.

Had Hochuli not blundered, the Chargers already would be division champs. They're coming off a 41-24 win at Tampa Bay, while the Broncos lost 30-23 to Buffalo despite outgaining the Bills 532-275.

Denver coach Mike Shanahan said there are calls that dictate the outcome of every game. "The interesting thing about Ed's call, I think everybody could see in the stadium that that decided the outcome of the game," he said.

"Once it happens it's gone and you can't ever get it back," Turner said.

Last year, the Chargers outscored the Broncos 64-6 in sweeping the series. In the first meeting this year, Brandon Marshall caught 18 passes from Cutler, a Broncos record and tied for second most in an NFL game.

"We're fortunate to be in the position that we're in," Turner added, "and it's going to be a heck of a game."