Breaking Down Sunday's San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos game (4:15 p.m., CBS)
1. Kyle Orton: Will he or won't he? Redskins end Brian Orakpo rolled up on Orton's left ankle last Sunday, tearing some of Orton's ligaments in the process, and the former Bear sat out Wednesday and Thursday's practices while recovering. Orton has expressed hope that he'll be OK to face the Chargers -- and if he can put one foot in front of the other he'll be on the field given his expiring contract and debatable status as a starter. But coach Josh McDaniels hasn't offered any indication of who'll start, except to express disappointment in last week's fill-in, Chris Simms, who produced just 13 yards of offense in the second half of a loss to the lowly 'Skins.
Say what you will about Simms (whose last start, in 2006, ended with a splenectomy followed by a year of recovery) but he may be the right play against the Chargers, even if a loss means giving up first place in the AFC West. I'll give you two reasons, starting with Orton's bum ankle.
Just short of 12 months ago, Orton was in the exact same situation with the Bears: After getting chased down from behind by the Lions' Corey Redding and Dewayne White, Orton pulled up with a sprained right ankle. He missed an important game against Tennessee but rushed back onto the field for a division matchup against Green Bay, which proved to be his worst outing of the year. Without the foot speed to effectively navigate the pocket, Orton was harassed into a 13-of-26 day with 133 yards, zero touchdowns, a pick and a lost fumble.
The rest of the season was a near wash. Orton lacked confidence in his still-healing ankle, and in Weeks 11 through 17 his touchdown-interception ratio flatlined to an even 8:8. He failed to top 250 yards passing in a single game (after doing so four times early on), and his passer rating plummeted by over 10 points.
Orton made the point earlier this week that nobody on his or any other team is 100 percent healthy by Week 10, everyone has some nicks and bruises, but I'd argue that Orton's case is different. The guy needs a solid three weeks off of his feet. He'll be more harm than help playing at half-strength.
Reason Two: Kyle Orton very well may not be the quarterback of the future in Denver. Yes, the guy has performed admirably in McDaniels' system (he had nine interceptions against one pick through six games), but so did Matt Cassel, in 2008 -- and only now are we starting to see how much of last year was attributable to Cassel and how much to McDaniels.
If Orton's not at full strength, and if your team is in the midst of an 0-3 swoon, and if you're not 100% sold on paying Orton the big bucks at year's end, McDaniels, why not find out what else you have on your bench? If Orton has even a hitch in his step on Sunday morning, Simms should get the nod. Short term, it tips the scale in San Diego's favor. But in every sense it's the smart long-term play.
2. Denver's dwindling run defense versus a re-charged L.T. In Weeks 1 through 6, Denver coordinator Mike Nolan's defense stuffed running backs to the tune of fewer than 80 yards per game. No opponent had topped the century mark. In the week leading into their bye the Broncos held LaDainian Tomlinson to 70 yards without a touchdown. Opposing runners shuddered.
After 12 days of rest, however, Denver returned against Baltimore in Week 8 and something was different. Since then teams have averaged nearly 160 ground yards per game against a defensive front that has no injury scapegoat to offer. None of those three latest opponents boasted even a Top 10 running game; and Washington played with a backup, Ladell Betts.
Re-enter San Diego, which picked itself up off the very bottom of the NFL's rushing offense list with a 96-yard, two-touchdown effort by Tomlinson last week against Philadelphia, whose run-stoppers rank ninth in the league. L.T.'s 4.0 yards per carry were his highest since Week 1. So maybe the guy's not done yet. And that's good news for the entire offense, including quarterback Philip Rivers, who uses the play action fake to L.T. to set up his potent passing assault.
If Denver lets up big ground gains early on it could be cause for some re-jiggering on Nolan's part, and that can only take away from Denver's vaunted pass rush, which has accounted for 29 sacks to date. Rivers has been sacked 20 times, eight-most in the league, and his best games naturally come when he stays on his feet (i.e. 268 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 sacks against K.C.). If Tomlinson can establish the run early, Denver's in for a long afternoon.
3. It's that time of year -- time for a Denver collapse.SNL Weekend Update's Seth Meyers would put it thusly: "Denver's on a three-game skid in mid-November with a rookie coach, an iffy quarterback and a defense that finished 2008 ranked No. 29, and you're surprised? Really? You know they started this season 3-0 with a miracle win against Cincy and gimmes against Oakland and Cleveland -- yet the 0-3 skid shocks you? Reallly?
You do realize that in games played after Nov. 20, Denver has gone 2-4 each of the past three years. (Repeat: Two and four. Past. Three. Years.) And that San Diego is 17-2 cumulatively in the same games. Seventeen and two! And that Kyle Orton is just 9-6 in that timeframe despite having played on playoff-caliber Bears teams. Last year alone the guy threw 10 picks in his last five games. And yet you still like Denver to bounce back? Realllly?!?"
Every week, I lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 11 matchup:
Knowshon Moreno -- The rookie's best game to date (97 yards on 18 carries last week against Washington) comes at just the right time. Whether it's the gimpy Orton or the out-of-practice Simms at the helm, McDaniels will be looking for someone to take the load off his quarterback.
San Diego Defense -- Watch the injury report right up 'til game time, and if Simms goes then consider the Bolts' D, which is available in most leagues. Simms' numbers from one half of play last week --13 passing yards, one interception and three sacks --should have San Diego salivating.
Tony Scheffler -- Consider the Chargers' history: They've allowed tight ends to score six touchdowns in '09; and five tight ends, including Scheffler (6 grabs for 101 yards and a TD on Oct. 19), have managed at least five catches apiece versus San Diego.
Legedu Naanee -- In the two games since the Chargers jettisoned Chris Chambers, this third-year receiver has already inched his way into consideration in deeper leagues with six grabs (on six targets; gotta love the hands) and one score.
Denver Defense -- One of the league's most surprising defenses early on has been veering back towards its miserable '09 form lately. Against San Diego it gets a team that has committed just 11 turnovers (tied for seventh-best) while putting up an impressive 26.3 points per game.
Brandon Marshall -- Go back to the tape. On the first of two long bombs to Marshall last week, Kyle Orton stepped up fluidly into the pocket to avoid a Rocky McIntosh edge rush. A step slower on a bum ankle and that's probably a sack with no TD for Marshall. And if it's Simms at the helm, well, the guy's thrown 121 passes with just 62 completions and one touchdown in the past four seasons combined.
Mark this AFC West race down as one to watch, with each of these teams facing, in my opinion, three pushover opponents and three toughies in Weeks 12-17. I can' imagine more than one game separating the pair by the time San Diego hosts Washington and Denver hosts K.C. in Week 17. And that makes this one all the more crucial for Norv Turner and Co. The Chargers can't concede the whole series and the eventual tiebreaker.
In San Diego this would be a runaway home team win, but Mile High levels the playing field some. Orton could keep it close, but Denver's going down with -- my guess -- Simms behind the wheel. Maybe Simms surprises us all, but I don't see it. San Diego 27, Denver 13.
Overall record: 5-4
(Week 1 prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20. Result: Packers 21, Bears 15).(Week 2 prediction: Cowboys 23, Giants 10. Result: Giants 33, Cowboys 31).(Week 3 prediction: Vikings 23, Niners 20. Result: Vikings 27, Niners 24).(Week 4 prediction: Saints 31, Jets 24. Result: Saints 24, Jets 10).(Week 5 prediction: Ravens 38, Bengals 20. Result: Bengals 17, Ravens 14).(Week 6 prediction: Ravens 31, Vikings 17. Result: Vikings 33, Ravens 31.)(Week 7 prediction: Bengals 24, Bears 17. Result: Bengals 45, Bears 10.)(Week 8 prediction: Ravens 24, Broncos 20. Result: Ravens 30, Broncos 7.)Week 9 prediction: Eagles 30, Cowboys 17. Result: Cowboys 20, Eagles 16.)