DENVER (AP) — Even the San Diego Chargers are saying it: the Denver Broncos are playing solitaire in the AFC West now.
"We can't hang our hat on Denver doing anything from a collapsing standpoint," quarterback Philip Rivers said after the Chargers' 30-23 loss Sunday dropped them three games behind the Broncos, who essentially own a four-game cushion by virtue of their season sweep of San Diego.
"They're not losing four out of six, I can guarantee you that."
The Broncos (7-3) have long made a habit of blowing big division leads in November and December, but none of those teams had the dynamite duo of Von Miller and Peyton Manning.
"They've got a great team," Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. "Defense is playing great, you've got edge rushers, you don't have to blitz much, just play coverage. And you've got one of the best quarterbacks in the game playing at a high level. In fact, they're all playing well."
Miller dumped Rivers three times Sunday, forcing two fumbles and taking over the NFL sacks lead with 13, and Manning set a franchise single-season record with his sixth three-TD game.
Denver's fifth straight game with at least 30 points — 20 of which came off turnovers — also set a franchise mark. So, nobody in the Chargers locker room is counting on a repeat of 2008, when they caught the Broncos, who blew a three-game lead with three games to go.
"Of course not," Weddle said. "I'm not stupid."
There's always the wild card race, though.
"It's not like any teams are running away with it," Weddle said.
First, the Chargers, owners of just one win since September, will have to figure out how to fix a long list of problems on offense, defense and special teams — they had a punt blocked for the second straight week — and it doesn't get any easier with the Baltimore Ravens up next.
"At this point, I imagine we probably have to win out to even have an opportunity to get a playoff berth," tight end Antonio Gates said. "So, this week is critical. It's going to definitely show the character of our team. The guys in this locker room understand we basically backed ourselves against the wall again."
Rivers spent the day picking himself up off the grass. It didn't help matters that two of his offensive line starters were out with injuries in the first half.
"This definitely is as good of a defense as they've had since I've been here," Rivers said. "That may be too broad a statement because they've had some good defenses, but you remember most what you just dealt with."
And he'd just finishing dealing with Miller and Elvis Dumervil, who dumped him on the final play of the game, and even linebacker D.J. Williams, who had four tackles in his 2012 debut after serving two NFL suspensions totaling nine games.
Gates has spent a decade facing Denver's defense and this one ranks at the very top, he said. "Very disruptive," he said. "They're difficult to handle."
Especially Miller, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year last season and league leader in tackles for loss even though he's dropping into coverage and playing linebacker more than he's rushing the passer.
"The majority of the time, he was trying to get his hands on me and disrupt my timing in the passing game," said Gates, who was held to 17 yards on two catches.
Although the final score shows this was a close game, it wasn't. The Broncos built a 24-9 lead, held San Diego to 3 of 16 on third downs, allowed just two first downs before halftime and forced 10 punts, three fumbles and a pair of interceptions.
"You can't play one half of football on offense, you can't get a punt blocked, you can't have blown coverages for a touchdown," Weddle said. "That's just not good football. Like I said, until we play well in all three phases, we're not going to win."
A three-play sequence in the third quarter showed just what kind of day it was for both teams.
Miller sacked Rivers for a 14-yard loss on third down. Nate Irving blocked Mike Scifres' punt at the Chargers 31. Seven seconds later, Brandon Stokley caught Manning's touchdown toss and just like that, it was 17-7.
"That was rough," Rivers said. "Those are game-changing plays and they made the game-changing plays. There's no consolation. The only objective is to win. But the only thing you can never question from our group is we're not ever going to quit. There's no lack of effort and we fight like crazy to the end. We'll continue to do that for the rest of the year."
And if coach Norv Turner's job is in jeopardy, his players definitely have his back.
"Fortunately we still have the right guys in this locker room and we have the right coaching staff that can get it done," Gates said.
NOTES: Rex Hadnot replaced LG Tyronne Green (hamstring) in the second quarter and David Molk replaced RG Louis Vasquez, who was shaken up but returned after halftime. ... LB Larry English (leg), CB Quentin Jammer (calf) also got hurt.
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