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Denver can't afford to sleep on San Diego

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Amidst a heated battle for the top spot in the AFC West, the Denver Broncos can't afford to lose this Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It's always great to be a member of Broncos Country, but that has been especially true as of late.

The Denver Broncos have been the kings of the AFC West for five straight years.  The franchise has recorded an impressive five straight division titles since 2011, but their streak of dominance in the AFC West may become jeopardized if they were to lose at home against the San Diego Chargers this Sunday afternoon.

It has been a while since the AFC West has been this competitive, but it is refreshing to see the division's rise back to one of the strongest in the NFL after wallowing in the waters of mediocrity for the past half decade.

Here is how the division looks right now: the Broncos and Oakland Raiders are at the top of the division sporting 5-2 records, with the Kansas City Chiefs close behind with a 4-2 record. Despite numerous season-ending injuries to key players and a handful of heartbreaking losses to start the season, the Chargers are finally starting to hit their stride and have improved to 3-4 on the year.

After losing two of their last three games, Denver can't afford to drop a second game to the Chargers in such a short span. A loss tomorrow would put them in serious divisional head-to-head loss hole that could be tough to get out of, especially with four of their last eight remaining games against divisional foes Oakland and Kansas City.

It has been a hard and rocky road for the Broncos to date, and trust me when I say it doesn't get any easier the rest of the way.  Five of their remaining eight games on the road.  In the months of November and December, the Broncos will only host one home game — with a key match-up against the New England Patriots on December 18.

Sure, it's only one game, but the Broncos have the ability to make a serious statement and go into their bye week with much needed momentum with a victory over the Chargers tomorrow afternoon.  A win would mean everything for the Broncos and give them great odds at retaining the division for a sixth straight season.  There is absolutely no sugar coating it — Denver has to defeat San Diego tomorrow.

Most certainly,  the Broncos are hoping for a much better outcome than what happened at Qualcomm Stadium two weeks ago.  The offense struggled to demonstrate any sort of efficacy and the defense had its own share of problems they will need to overcome to notch a mark in the win column Sunday.

Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips knows that offensively, the Chargers are a forced to be reckoned with and pose a big challenge for them on defense.

"They have a tremendous offense, we know [who] the quarterback is—they’re scoring the second most in the league. Their quarterback is a great, great player and has been for a long time. It’s a big challenge for us," stated Phillips in regard to Philip Rivers. "They’re running back is tied for the league in scoring touchdowns. He was the number one pick last year so offensively they’re a power house," added Phillips in reference to Melvin Gordon, who has really turned up his game in his second season in the NFL.

Most of all, Phillips is looking forward to and knows that cutting down on the mistakes that plagued the team in their last meeting is critical in order to come away with a victory on Sunday.

"We’re going to hopefully play some things differently so we can cut down. They scored 20 points on us. That’s the chess part of it. They’re going to run some of the things last game that was successful," Phillips remarked.  "We have to stop those things, but they’re going to run some new things or some things differently that we have to be ready for. It’s a match-up battle," he went on to add.

If the Broncos are going to stop the Chargers' potent offense, they might have to rely on a reserve player to take a larger role than usual. One of the big wild card's in tomorrow's gridiron affair is the status of inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, who has been absent from practice this week while nursing a hamstring injury suffered against the Houston Texans.

In the event that Marshall can't go on Sunday, Oklahoma Sooner product Corey Nelson will see a larger role in the defense and take a majority of his snaps, a task that Phillips is confident that Nelson can stand up to.

"We have a lot of confidence in Corey being able to play," stated Phillips. "In fact, he went in and played really well. He played a lot of the game last game and we played well."

Coach Phillips wasn't the only one to speak highly of Nelson, outside linebacker Von Miller also sang him praises and demonstrated faith in his ability to come in and perform at a high level.

"I have 100-percent confidence in Corey. He’s been here for a while now. He played some snaps this year, played for us last year and played for us the year before, so I’m totally comfortable with Corey going in there," lauded Miller.  "Oklahoma guy, a BIG XII guy, whenever you get those guys in a game, they tend to do pretty well."

It is going to take the Broncos everything they have in order to defeat the Chargers tomorrow.  The offense will have to play much better than they did last time, and the defense will have to tighten up and improve on third downs and giving up the occasional big play that has been their bane all season long.

Here is to hoping that the myriad of young players posed to have bigger roles tomorrow will be able to execute and perform at a high level to propel the Broncos to their sixth win of the season and enter the bye week on a high note.  Denver can't afford to sleep on San Diego.  If they do, they very well could be laying their chances at an AFC West title in 2016 to rest.