Instead, it’s the undefeated Broncos who seem to be running away with the division.
Coming off an emotional win over an AFC power, surging Denver looks to create further separation atop the division when it visits the Chargers on Monday night.
San Diego (2-2) won the mediocre West with an 8-8 record last season, thanks in large part to the Broncos’ historic collapse. Denver (5-0) lost its final three games while the Chargers won their last four, including a 52-21 victory over the Broncos in the regular-season finale.
Denver’s late-season meltdown kept the team out of the playoffs for a third straight season, and expectations weren’t high heading into 2009 following an offseason filled with distractions.
The trade of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) to Chicago in April and the suspension of top receiver Brandon Marshall(notes) in the preseason didn’t make things easy for first-year coach Josh McDaniels, but the team has managed to flourish.
The Broncos beat New England 20-17 in overtime last Sunday to improve to 5-0 for the first time since opening with 13 straight wins in 1998, their last Super Bowl season. This is the fifth time Denver has opened with five consecutive wins and each of the previous times the team ended up in the Super Bowl.
Last Sunday’s victory was especially sweet for McDaniels, who beat his old boss, Bill Belichick. After the game, McDaniels ran to the corner of the stadium near where his family sits and pumped his fist repeatedly before sharing bear hugs with his players.
“This doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you can share it with somebody,” McDaniels said. “Sometimes, you’re allowed to have fun. That’s what I was doing.”
Denver is having plenty of fun as one of four 5-0 teams in the league.
Kyle Orton(notes), doing an exceptional job of stepping in for the departed Cutler, was named the AFC offensive player of the week for his performance against the Patriots. He completed 35 of 48 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns and marched the Broncos 98 yards for the tying score in the waning minutes of regulation.
On the season, Orton has passed for 1,236 yards with seven touchdowns and just one interception, which was picked off by Randy Moss(notes) on a desperation heave to end the first half against New England.
“He tries to get better,” McDaniels said of Orton, who improved to 26-12 as an NFL starter. “He knows he’s not where he could be if he continues to improve and he sees there are plenty of things he can fix and get better at.”
While Orton leads the offense, the defense is the stingiest in the league.
The Broncos have given up 43 total points, nine fewer then they allowed in the 2008 season finale against the Chargers, and rank second in total defense (268.8 yards per game). They’ve also given up only seven points in the second half - none since a season-opening 12-7 victory over Cincinnati.
“We have got a confident group here from top to bottom,” McDaniels said. “I think they trust our game plans, and I think we trust them to execute our game plan.”
While everything seems to be clicking for Denver, the Chargers are off to another slow start.
San Diego limped into last week’s bye following a discouraging 38-28 loss at Pittsburgh on Oct. 4. The Chargers fell behind 28-0 and surrendered 497 total yards to the defending Super Bowl champions.
With the defense getting run over, the Chargers, who rank last in the league in rushing offense (53.8 yards per game), never got a chance to get their running game going. LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) ran for 15 yards on seven carries in his return from a two-game absence because of a sprained ankle.
Rivers, who has passed for 1,245 yards with six touchdowns and three picks in 2009, has thrown 12 touchdowns and three interceptions in six career starts against the Broncos with the Chargers winning five times.