San Diego (3-1) at Denver (1-3)

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By NOEY KUPCHAN, STATS Writer Wednesday, Oct 5, 2011 Kickoff: 4:15 pm EDT Sun Oct 9, 2011

Despite their high-powered offense, the San Diego Chargers struggled out of the gate in each of their first four seasons under coach Norv Turner.

A strong defensive effort has helped prevent another slow start in his fifth year.

Off to their best start since 2006, the Chargers go for a third consecutive victory when they visit the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

Stumbling in the first four games of the season had become a common theme for San Diego (3-1), which opened 1-3 in Turner’s first season of 2007 before going 2-2 in each of the next three.

The Chargers have been one of the most productive offensive teams in the NFL during his tenure, finishing in the top five in scoring in his first four years, and they recovered to make the playoffs in the first three of those seasons.

San Diego is ranked 15th in the league with 22.8 points per game this season, but the team is atop the AFC West thanks to its defense. The Chargers are surrendering 297.8 yards per contest - sixth in the NFL - and have given up an average of 16.6 points in their three wins.

“(That) means a lot. I want it to be (that way) when it’s all said and done in December,” linebacker Takeo Spikes(notes) told the team’s official website.

“Everything we’re going through right now is a learning curve. We’ve had some dogfight games early, especially here at home. We’re learning how to win close games. We find a way to win. Now our next step is going on the road and winning.”

Moving the ball consistently hasn’t been an issue for a Chargers team averaging 423.5 yards a game. Getting into the end zone, however, hasn’t been easy.

That was on display last week in a 26-16 win over Miami, as San Diego got four field goals from Nick Novak(notes). Turner’s team is 16th in the NFL in red-zone efficiency, scoring eight touchdowns on 17 trips inside the 20.

“We’re finding ways to win,” said safety Eric Weddle(notes), who had another late-game interception. “If that’s all you can say about us, then that’s a good thing to say.”

Antonio Gates’(notes) absence surely has plenty to do with San Diego’s offensive struggles. The seven-time Pro Bowl tight end, dealing with lingering plantar fasciitis in his right foot, was held out for the second consecutive week against the Dolphins and is unlikely to be available Sunday.

“We still haven’t hit our stride without one of our best players on offense,” backup tight end Randy McMichael(notes) said.

“It’s amazing how big a part of this offense he is. It’s really a tight-end friendly offense. He’s one of the best who’s ever played this game. You can tell when he’s not out there. We really want him to be back out there. While he’s not there we have to go out and continue to try to win games.”

With Gates sidelined, running back Ryan Mathews(notes) has picked up the pace. The second-year player has 542 yards from scrimmage, fourth most in the league.

“As well as he’s playing, he’s (still) just getting a feel for what it’s like to play in this league,” Turner told the Chargers’ official website.

Mathews rushed for a career-high 120 yards and three touchdowns in a 33-28 win at Denver on Jan. 2. San Diego has averaged 36.0 points in taking eight of the last 10 meetings.

The Broncos’ Kyle Orton(notes) saw his struggles continue in a 49-23 loss to Green Bay on Sunday. He threw for 273 and three touchdowns but was picked off a season-high three times, bringing his turnover total to eight. Orton is tied with the Chargers’ Philip Rivers(notes) with a league-worst six interceptions.

Despite his poor play, Orton will remain under center despite calls from fans to start Tim Tebow(notes). Orton has gone 6-20 as a starter since winning his first six games with Denver (1-3).

“We need our STARTING quarterback to get experience, for us to improve,” coach John Fox said. “That’s the idea behind that. He needs to get better in our system. I know he gets judged on the past couple of years. But we are trying to get him better in our system and use that experience to get better.”

While Fox is hesitant to make a change at quarterback, Willis McGahee(notes) has supplanted Knowshon Moreno(notes) as Denver’s No. 1 running back. McGahee recorded his second 100-yard effort in three weeks with 103 yards on 15 carries against the Packers.

“We’re in a week-to-week, or a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ league, so right now, I think it’s fair to say that Willis is that guy,” Fox said. “I think his performance has kind of been the proof.”

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