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Slumping Broncos still in disbelief after failing to clinch AFC West

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tatum Bell didn't talk to anyone the rest of the night. Brandon Stokley lost sleep thinking of the catches he couldn't quite snare.

Even Monday, the bewildered Denver Broncos were still agitated over letting a chance to capture the mediocre AFC West slip away with a 30-23 loss to Buffalo.

Now, they're trying to salve their psyche in time for their all-or-nothing game at San Diego on Sunday night. The winner goes to the playoffs, the loser begins a long offseason.

 Broncos WR Brandon Stokley 

The Broncos (8-7) had what seemed to be a tight grip on the division, three games ahead of San Diego (7-8) with three to go. But they haven't been able to secure their first playoff berth since 2005, tumbling in two straight games.

Meanwhile, the energized Chargers have won three in a row, including a rout at Tampa Bay on Sunday that followed their stunning 22-21 rally at Kansas City two weeks ago.

No wonder San Diego is considered a big favorite.

"They should be," defensive lineman Ebenezer Ekuban said after the game Sunday. "We're going to go into a hard environment and hopefully we can have a better showing than we did this week. We still just have to win one game to get to the playoffs. It's just magnified by 100 right now."

The mood in the locker room following the loss Sunday was somber.

The players were still sullen the next day.

"Frustrating. Disappointing. Mad. Angry. All of those words," Stokley said of his emotions as he watched film of the game Monday. "We have no choice but to move on ... We can't let this affect us anymore."

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan is hopeful his team can bounce back after failing to clinch a playoff spot the last two weeks.

"Everybody is disgusted," he said. "I hope everybody feels that way or they're not made of the right stuff."

Denver's already battered backfield took two more hits as P.J. Pope (hamstring) and Selvin Young (neck) added their names to a lengthy list of injured tailbacks. Both were placed on injured reserve Monday.

The team has now lost seven running backs this season.

"This is crazy. I've never been a part of anything like this," Bell said.

Denver is expected to bolster its depth at tailback by activating Cory Boyd off the practice squad and signing Alex Haynes, who was waived by the Broncos on Nov. 22.

Pope went to the sideline in the first quarter with a torn left hamstring. He's expected to be out six to eight weeks.

An MRI on Monday revealed Young had a ruptured disk, which he said happened in the first quarter. He attempted to play through the pain given the Broncos' scarcity at tailback.

"I just said I'm going to try to finish this," Young said.

That's what the Broncos are attempting to do now. Set the Bills loss aside and concentrate on the Chargers.

"You can't survive in this league if you can't put that behind you and move on," linebacker Jamie Winborn said. "It's not like we lost the game and are going home next week. We've got an opportunity. All it takes is a win this week and it doesn't matter what we've done all season. We'll be back in the hunt, 0-0 with everyone."

The Broncos blacked out news of the San Diego game on Sunday, preferring to earn their way into the postseason.

They've got their wish.

"We are where we are and we've got one game left and that's the one we have to go get," Stokley said. "We did a lot of good things yesterday."

Such as gobbling up 532 yards of offense, nearly double that of the Bills.

However, receiver Brandon Marshall had a costly fumble, Jay Cutler threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted at the goal line late in the game, and the team had to settle for short field goals twice in the first half after driving inside the Buffalo 15.

"The only people who can stop us are ourselves," Marshall said after the game. "Our offense is dangerous, it's explosive, but we've got to prove it on Sunday. We know what we've got in the locker room."

So it's time to forget their late slide.

"Everybody is pretty down still," Bell said. "We felt like we should've had that game. We didn't finish them ... Everybody has got a bad taste in their mouth. We know what we have to do."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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