Philip Rivers and a dominant defense led the Chargers into sole possession of first place in the AFC West with a 32-3 drubbing of the Denver Broncos, who couldn't move the ball effectively behind either QB Sunday.
"We were ready for Simms and Orton," Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman said.
The Chargers (7-3) have won five straight and the Broncos (6-4) have dropped four in a row, turning the division race upside-down. Just five weeks ago, the Chargers trailed the Broncos by 3½ games.
The balance of power in the AFC West couldn't have shifted in a more dramatic fashion.
Rivers was a crisp 17 for 22 and he led San Diego to scores on seven of 10 drives. Nate Kaeding kicked four field goals and the Chargers also recovered an onside kick, recorded three sacks and forced three turnovers.
The Broncos? They were flagged nine times to San Diego's one. And Marcus Thomas blocked an extra point in the final minute.
This was nothing like the Broncos' 34-23 win in San Diego last month.
"These last four weeks the guys up front have been unbelievable and [Denver] didn't blitz near as much this game," Rivers said. "It kind of surprised us they didn't bring some of the stuff they did in that early game. And our guys handled good pass rushers. I was touched one time that I remember."
Simms' first start since nearly being killed in a game three years ago didn't last long. After getting sacked twice and losing a fumble as the Broncos fell behind early, he was replaced by Orton, who didn't take a single snap in practice last week because of a sprained ankle.
Simms was just 2 for 4 for 10 yards. He handed the ball off the first half dozen times he took the snap but when he dropped back for his first pass at the Chargers 17, he was sacked by linebacker Shaun Phillips, who raked the ball out of his left hand.
Safety Steve Gregory recovered and the Chargers drove downfield for a touchdown.
"That set the tone for the game," Merriman said. "We got pressure on him the first time he went back to pass and got a turnover out of it. They didn't score and we did."
After three fruitless drives led to a 13-0 deficit, Denver coach Josh McDaniels summoned Orton, who hadn't practiced all week but threw well enough in warm-ups to give it a go.
"I thought it was a bit of a desperation tactic," Merriman said. "Or they brought him in to move the ball."
Orton quickly drove the Broncos 60 yards on three completions. But on first-and-goal at the 4, rookie running back Knowshon Moreno fumbled away the ball and the game when left guard Russ Hochstein slipped and jarred the ball loose with his knee.
While the Chargers celebrated Gregory's recovery in the end zone, the Broncos let their frustrations get the better of them. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall got in Moreno's face and Moreno responded with a two-handed shove -- the most fight the Broncos showed all afternoon.
"Those are plays that, um, kind of kill drives. We've just got to punch it in next time," said Marshall, who called this "the most frustrating game I've ever played in."
Although Moreno, who took the blame for trying to reach the ball over the goal line on first down, brushed off the sideline spat as a heat-of-the-moment thing, Marshall said he wasn't sorry.
"I don't regret anything. This is a playoff game. There were guys on the sideline that weren't angry, who didn't have a lot of emotion, then they need to look themselves in the mirror. This is a game where you've got to have it. None of us can make any terrible plays," he said.
Marshall grew agitated when a reporter pointed out that his own teammate appeared to cause the fumble and asked if he would have berated Moreno had he known that.
"I'm not sure, I didn't see the play. That single play didn't beat us. I don't know what you're trying to accomplish here, but it's not Knowshon's fault, not one guy's fault," Marshall said. "We lost as a team. If I drop a ball, if I make a huge mistake, I expect guys to get on me. But you've got to know how to approach every guy. It's different for every guy. Maybe I handled it wrong, but we'll see."
Orton, who finished 15 of 29 for 171 yards and an interception, while playing almost exclusively out of the shotgun, was called upon when the Broncos decided to ditch their game plan down 13-0 and go to the air. Orton said he had no setbacks despite a scary hit on his injured leg from Merriman, and would be able to practice this week and start Thursday night against the New York Giants.
This one was painful in its own way. The biggest blind-side hit came not from the Chargers but his own coach. Simms never saw the quick hook coming.
"I wasn't expecting it," Simms said. "Yeah, I guess I was a little surprised."
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