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Preseason Power Rankings No. 10: Carolina Panthers

Dave Gettleman, Ron Rivera AP

There were points last season when it appeared time to start writing the obituary for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the team built by former General Manager Marty Hurney.

Then Rivera’s team did a funny thing — they forgot how to lose.

The Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games last year, and only a loss to the 49ers in the playoffs spoiled an unpredictable run built on defense and a singular talent at quarterback.

Of course, they spent the offseason subtracting more than they added, cutting past fat into meat and bone to try to keep a good roster intact.

But that’s what they’re going to have to do for another year or so (when it’s time to pay the next wave of young stars), and they’ve done it well.

Strengths.

In quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have perhaps the best bail-out-a-play guy in the NFL.

It seems no play is over for Newton, who has matured as a passer while remaining dangerous as a runner. His ability in short-yardage helped spark last year’s belief that they could win, and his growth as a passer helped him make plenty of big plays through the air as well.

Newton will need to be incredible, because they took away most of his help (more on that in a moment). But he is incredible, and looks comfortable running an offense which is far from cutting-edge.

It doesn’t need to be complex it if works, and he’s reached what appears to be a good relationship with play-caller Mike Shula.

They also have what might be the best defensive front seven in the NFL.

They have a pair (for a year anyway) of double-digit sack ends, which only required using more than 20 percent of their cap to keep them.

Greg Hardy got the franchise tag after an impressive salary drive (7.0 of his 15.0 sacks came in the final two games), while overpaid-but-productive veteran Charles Johnson has been a steady presence (44.0 sacks the last four season) against the run and pass.

Paired with a interior that included 2013 top picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and a group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers can match personnel with anyone in the league.

It’s a front designed to take the pressure off a suspect back, but it did just that a year ago, succeeding without much pedigreed talent in the secondary.

Weaknesses.

As long as you spend so much on defensive ends, you’ve got to scrimp somewhere. So the fact they’re using temps in the secondary is nearly a non-issue.

What they’re doing without on offense is alarming.

The Panthers lost two of the five or six best players in franchise history when Steve Smith was cut and Jordan Gross retired.

Smith was cut for reasons that exceeded age and production, as all the wideouts who caught a pass last year are gone. If he wasn’t so much of a grouch, they’d have possibly let him ride off into the sunset next year, but they wanted to let Newton take control of the locker room as well as the huddle.

Instead, they signed just-a-guys Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to play stable-pony for first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.

A good running game (everybody’s healthy for a change) and tight end Greg Olsen take some of the pressure off this odd lot of guys to perform. Which is good, because that seems unlikely.

But for all the consternation about the receivers, what happened to their offensive line is worse.

They needed an upgrade from right tackle Byron Bell, but instead they’re letting him compete for the left tackle job along with converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler. They made a run at former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins in free agency, but otherwise did nothing to improve the team’s most glaring weakness in a post-Gross environment. They’ll find out in a hurry how much they miss Gross, which might make management re-think squeezing veterans into dramatic pay cuts in the future.

The middle of the line could be OK, with center Ryan Kalil there to help along a young group. If former second-rounder Amini Silatolu plays to his pre-injury form, they have a chance. Third-rounder Trai Turner is going to have a chance to win the right guard job, and might have the quickest path to the starting lineup of any of their rookies.

Changes.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Panthers was in Rivera himself.

Once a guy with a 2-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, Rivera started rolling the dice and it kept working.

It wasn’t just going for fourth downs (but that’s easier when you have a giant quarterback and a big fat fullback such as Mike Tolbert), there was a different air about the Panthers last season.

They went from playing to unfulfilled potential and bloated salaries to playing like a team with something to prove.

In fact, they did have plenty to prove, as a losing record last season might have triggered a huge house-cleaning by new G.M. Dave Gettleman.

He’s talked for two years about the cap issues created by the previous administration (the cost of owner Jerry Richardson spending none of the money before his lockout, and then spending it all at once afterward). Gettleman’s done a good job of filling in the blanks with day laborers, and appears to have done so again.

Losing players such as Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn shouldn’t sting as much, considering they were a minimum-wage free agent and a seventh-round pick. He found spare parts before, and has again, with cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in line to be this year’s beneficiaries of a pass rush.

Camp Battles.

The Panthers need to find a pair of starting wideouts, and it would be swell if Benjamin would grow into the job in a hurry. Beyond that, they have a bunch of unproven receivers who will be angling for significant roles, from journeyman haircut Tiquan Underwood to kids including Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

There’s also some shuffling among the offensive line jobs and in the secondary, with plenty of roles to fill.

One guy who might need to win a job is former starting safety Charles Godfrey, who tore his Achilles last year and then was forced into a pay cut just to have a chance. Godfrey could end up playing as their nickel, and he has some corner skills from his college days. Whether he can run remains to be seen.

Prospects.

It’s hard to not expect regression, considering the way the Panthers exceeded every reasonable expectation last year.

Their defense and Newton gives them a solid base to build upon, but it will only get harder from here.

They’re built to beat the best teams in the conference, and might have played the Seahawks tougher than anyone in Week One (before anybody realized they were any good).

If they find two dependable tackles and can get something — anything — from their receiving corps, they have a chance to pull off the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.

But it’s hard to consider either of those feats a given, which makes this a team which could still play well, but win far fewer games.

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Darnell Dockett teases Raiders fans with sign

Darnell Dockett AP

Though the winless Raiders showed some spark in Sunday’s game vs. Arizona, they couldn’t quite keep up with the NFC West-leading Cardinals, who secured a 24-13 victory in Oakland.

And as the Cardinals took care of business against the Raiders, injured Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett wrote a message visible to Oakland fans facing the Cards’ sldeline.

Via a photo posted on Twitter by Darren Urban of the Cardinals’ website, Dockett wrote “WORST TEAM IN NFL 0-6” on a white dry-erase board.

In a devilish touch, the “0” had a smiley face in it.

After the game, Dockett, via his verified Twitter account, explained his message this way: “Raiders fans threw coins and ice at us, called us every name in the book. That’s what made me write the sign.”

In any event, the Cardinals got out with a win, improving their record to 5-1. The Raiders, on the other hand, are already approaching the doorstep of a 12th straight season without a postseason bid.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Oakland has picked up its play after an embarrassing Week Four defeat in London. Still, the Raiders opened seven-point underdogs for next Sunday’s game in Cleveland. They are assured of being underdogs in the bulk of their final 10 games of the season, with the Dec. 21 home matchup with Buffalo perhaps their best chance at being favored.

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Sunday night wrap-up: Broncos can play defense too

Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Peyton Manning got to have his moment in the first half.

But beyond the greatest touchdown-thrower in the history of the NFL, the Broncos are also building a defense that might give him a chance to add some more hardware to his trophy case as well.

While the night will be remembered for Manning breaking Brett Favre’s record for career touchdown passes, it was also a staunch defense that helped the Broncos to a 42-17 win over the 49ers.

A pass-rush that was augmented by the addition of DeMarcus Ware and the return of Von Miller has energized a group that pestered the 49ers throughout the night.

Both had sacks in the first half, extending their own personal streaks. The team combined to sack 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times on the night, with Ware getting three of them.

Ware’s second of the night moved him into 15th place on the all-time list, with Hall of Famers Derrick Thomas and Rickey Jackson easily within his grasp this year.

It also marked five straight games with at least one sack for Miller, the third time in his career he’s had such a hot streak.

But the Broncos did a solid job against the 49ers across the board. Frank Gore was limited to 20 yards on nine carries (only partially because the score was out of hand early), and the pass coverage was good throughout the night. Cornerback Aqib Talib gets the money and the attention, but fellow cornerback Chris Harris might be playing as well or better this year.

The night belonged to Manning, but having some balance on the other side of the ball might help him have a shot at another title.

Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:

1.The 49ers have problems, which go beyond the coach-front office drama which has threatened to obscure their season.

They’re simply running out of parts on defense, playing with a skeleton crew that was without a pair of Pro Bowl inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, pass-rushing threat Aldon Smith and several others.

Manning was going to get his record regardless, but the 49ers don’t have the personnel remaining to play the kind of defense they’ve become accustomed to.

Getting Smith back — perhaps sooner rather than later — will mean a great deal, but there’s more wrong with this defense than one man can fix.

2. Manning is the quarterback, but John Fox is still the coach, so you know all that dangerous throwing stuff makes him nervous.

So it must have pleased him to see running back Ronnie Hillman run for a pair of scores (thankfully after Manning broke the record).

Hillman has shown himself to be more than just a change-of-pace back, running with good power inside. With Montee Ball on the shelf with a groin injury, he’s going to get plenty of chances, and he made the most of them Sunday.

3. The 49ers have been able to withstand offensive line injuries, but this next-man-up thing is getting ridiculous.

Losing center Daniel Kilgore to an apparent broken leg/ankle (trainers don’t break out the air cast for no reason) in the third quarter was a blow. His replacement, rookie Dillon Farrell, limped off the game in the fourth quarter, but he was able to return.

They drafted Southern Cal center Marcus Martin in the third round this year, and clearly hope he could develop there for the long term. But they had just developed Kilgore to replace Jonathan Goodwin, and gave him a contract extension.

They were able to get through without right tackle Anthony Davis since they had Jonathan Martin on hand, but with Mike Iupati out with a concussion, they’re stretched thin. Martin had to go in at guard, when Looney shifted inside to be the third center of the night during Farrell’s absence.

4. The Broncos sent out a collection of quotes from many of the quarterbacks Manning passed tonight, one of whom has some unfinished business.

“Congratulations, Peyton on your touchdown record, a great achievement,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “We’ll see you in a few weeks.”

The Broncos go to New England on Nov. 2.

Brady has a meager 372 career passing touchdowns.

5. As impressive as Manning’s record-setting performance was, watching the reactions on the sidelines before and after the record tell you plenty about him as well.

When he finally broke the record in the second quarter, his teammates gleefully played monkey-in-the-middle with the ball, leaving Manning looking flustered for a moment before they let him have it back.

He’s the resident prankster, but the fact they were willing to mess with him a bit speaks to the respect they have for him.

But his reaction to the record-tying touchdown might have been the perfect Manning moment.

While others were celebrating, Manning was on the sideline studying photos of the 49ers defense, trying to find his next advantage.

It’s the kind of work he’s always put in, and much of the reason he was able to break the record.

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Daniel Kilgore carted off with leg injury, won’t return

Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

The 49ers weren’t deep on the offensive line to begin with.

Now they’re about to get even thinner.

Center Daniel Kilgore is being carted off after getting his leg rolled on, and trainers immediately brought out the air cast.

That’s usually a sign of a broken leg.

He was replaced by rookie Dillon Farrell.

The 49ers were already without guard Mike Iupati, and right tackle Anthony Davis just got back this week.

Kilgore’s a promising young player, who took over for veteran Jonathan Goodwin. But now it looks like the 49ers are going to be without him for a bit.

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Brandon Marshall called out everyone, not just Cutler

Marshall AP

After Sunday’s third home loss in three home games, the Bears came a little unglued.  The situation was particularly stressful for receiver Brandon Marshall, who saw the Bears soundly beaten by the Dolphins, the team that traded Marshall to Chicago in 2012.

After the game, Marshall told reporters — multiple times — that the team’s 3-4 record is unacceptable.  Before Marshall spoke to reporters, things got heated in the locker room, with Marshall yelling loudly during a rant that was heard in the hallway outside.

A report from ESPN.com indicates that Marshall called out quarterback Jay Cutler during the diatribe.  And that’s true, primarily because Marshall called out everyone for having a lack of heart.

The Bears currently have a troubling lack of wins, with only three in seven games.  Meanwhile, the Packers and Lions are running away with the division, leaving the Bears in the dust with the Vikings.

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Peyton Manning breaks NFL’s all-time touchdown record

San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos Getty Images

Demaryius Thomas got to do the honors.

But Peyton Manning brought the house down.

The Broncos quarterback just threw his third touchdown of the night, and the 509th of his career, as the Broncos took a 21-3 lead over the 49ers.

Thomas caught the third-and-goal pass and got his feet in, although it might have sparked a riot if they had replayed it.

Manning’s on the kind of roll tonight that extending the record seems entirely possible. He tried to keep everything at bay, but was clearly moved by the ovation and the moment of history he just created.

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Report: Kyle Fuller suffers broken hand, hip pointer in loss

Kyle Fuller AP

One of the NFL’s top defensive rookies is reportedly on the mend with two injuries suffered in defeat on Sunday.

Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller sustained a broken hand and a hip pointer in Chicago’s 27-14 loss to Miami, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported Sunday evening. Veteran Sherrick McManis filled in for Fuller on Sunday.

The 22-year-old Fuller stepped into a bigger role when long-time Bears standout Charles Tillman suffered a season-ending injury in Week Two, and the first-round pick from Virginia Tech quickly proved ready to play. Fuller has intercepted three passes this season, notching 33 tackles.

The Bears (3-4) play at New England next Sunday.

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Aldon Smith could be back a little early

Aldon AP

Before the start of the regular season, 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith received a nine-game suspension for multiple violations of league policies.  The seventh game comes tonight.

Per multiple league sources, there’s a chance that the suspension will be lifted a game or two early.

Of course, there’s a chance that plenty of things will happen, including but not limited to the emergence of winged primates from a place from which winged primates don’t normally emerge.  With Smith, a lifting of the suspension would be a major surprise, given that the possibility of the suspension being lifted early wasn’t mentioned when Smith’s nine-game suspension was announced.

Then again, other aspects of Smith’s suspension weren’t announced, or explained.  For example, Smith had appeal rights that apparently were waived by the player.  Likewise, the league twisted its policies regarding player banishment from the team facility to allow Smith to continue to show up during his suspension, even though players suspended under the personal conduct policy always are ordered to stay away until fully reinstated.

It’s possible that the league office dangled a different carrot for Smith, encouraging him to go above and beyond his expected behavior with the hope of possibly being allowed to return a little early.

After San Francisco’s Week Eight bye, they host the Rams and then visit the Saints in New Orleans.  Both of those teams would probably be unhappy with a reduced suspension.

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Peyton Manning ties TD record, as Broncos off to hot start

San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos Getty Images

Peyton Manning looks like he wants to hurry up and get this record thing over with.

After a review, Manning’s second touchdown of the night was upheld, allowing Wes Welker to be the trivia answer for scoring the touchdown which tied Brett Favre’s all-time record.

Manning’s playing sharper than normal — even for him — completing 7-of-7 for 111 yards and two touchdowns.

And it’s not even the second quarter, which means John Fox can’t possibly take his foot off the gas.

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Manning feared he couldn’t coexist with Harbaugh

Manning Getty Images

So why didn’t the 49ers’ evaluation of quarterback Peyton Manning become a full-blown pursuit and ultimate acquisition of Peyton Manning?

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Manning ultimately chose not to make the 49ers a finalist for his services.  Apart from Manning preferring to stay in the AFC, the wind and precipitation at Candlestick Park (where Manning would have played for two years) were factors.  Another factor was the potential for friction between Manning and coach Jim Harbaugh.  According to the source, Manning feared that it would be difficult for a pair of ultra-competitive men to coexist.

In Denver, Manning enjoys a high degree of autonomy on of the offensive side of the ball, especially since coach John Fox worked as a defensive coordinator.  In San Francisco, Manning and Harbaugh each would have wanted to run the offense.  And they each would have been willing to argue aggressively in support of their ideas and preferences.

Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine recently repeated a story that had made the rounds in 2012 regarding the interactions of Harbaugh and Manning.

“Harbaugh and Manning were throwing the ball, so it goes, when the coach couldn’t help but remark that his passes had more mustard on them than the still-rehabbing future Hall of Famer’s did,” Wickersham wrote. “You can guess how that went over.”

In the end, Manning decided not to go over to the 49ers.  Eventually, the finalists were the Broncos, Titans, and Cardinals.  Other teams that wanted a seat at the table didn’t get one, including the Seahawks and the Chiefs.

The official story from the 49ers is that they weren’t pursuing Manning at all.

“There’s a perception out there and it’s an erroneous perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning,” coach Jim Harbaugh said in May 2012, more than two months after Manning picked the Broncos.  “I keep hearing it over and over.  It’s silly and it’s untrue. It’s phony.  Even the perception that we were pursuing.  We were evaluating.  I’ve said all along that Alex Smith has been our quarterback.  There’s no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would consider him not as our quarterback.”

Of course, there was another scenario in which the 49ers would consider Alex Smith not their quarterback.  It unfolded during the 2012 season after Smith suffered a concussion and Colin Kaepernick emerged.  The 49ers then traded Smith to the Chiefs.

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Peyton Manning gets No. 507 as the Broncos take early lead

Peyton Manning AP

One to go.

Peyton Manning moved within one touchdown of tying Brett Favre’s all-time touchdown record, hitting Emmanuel Sanders for the score and a 7-0 lead over the 49ers on Sunday Night Football.

Fans in Denver seemed dismayed that they actually ran the ball once entering the red zone, delaying the inevitable record.

Now we have to see if Peyton rounds up or down on his 2.9 touchdown per game average.

It’s hard to tell what the 49ers are going to do, after going three-and-out on the opening drive and then yielding a long scoring drive.

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Judge Jones is expected to rule this week on Goodell testimony in Rice appeal

Goodell Getty Images

Commissioner Roger Goodell has said former U.S. Judge Barbara S. Jones will decide whether Goodell will be testifying at the Ray Rice appeal hearing.  Specifically, Judge Jones is expected to make that decision soon.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Judge Jones has informed the NFL and the NFL Players Association that she will be resolving the dispute on whether Goodell will testify this week.  The league and the union have submitted written arguments in support of their competing positions.

The NFL contends that Rice, who was suspended for two games in July, received an indefinite ban because his version of the events consisted starkly with the elevator video that was published on September 8.  Goodell appears to be a highly material witness regarding the story Rice told, especially since Rice told it directly to Goodell — and since Goodell made the decision that Rice had essentially lied.

The NFL has offered, we’re told, to make executive V.P. Adolpho Birch and general counsel Jeff Pash available to testify.  The union and Rice still want to question Goodell.

It seems obvious that Goodell should be required to testify.  Beyond the direct relevance of his testimony to the outcome of the appeal, Goodell’s reluctance to testify creates the impression that the NFL has something to hide.

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Cardinals hold Raiders at bay, move to 5-1

Arizona Cardinals v Oakland Raiders Getty Images

The Cardinals just keep stacking up victories.

Led by 160 combined rushing-receiving yards by tailback Andre Ellington and two TD passes from quarterback Carson Palmer, the Cardinals pulled away to a 24-13 win at Oakland on Sunday afternoon.

The victory moves the Cardinals to 5-1 and gives them a one-game edge on San Francisco (4-2), which plays tonight at Denver. Arizona is two games ahead of suddenly struggling Seattle (3-3) and three games up on St. Louis (2-4). The Cardinals host Philadelphia (5-1) in an important NFC game next Sunday.

With the loss, meanwhile, the Raiders are the NFL’s last winless team at 0-6.

Reserve running back Stepfan Taylor scored a pair of touchdowns for the Cardinals, who never trailed. Taylor’s two-yard TD catch gave the Cardinals a 7-0 first-quarter lead, and Arizona would extend the edge to 14-0 when Palmer (22-of-31, 253 yards, two TDs, one pick) connected with wideout Michael Floyd on a 33-yard second-quarter score.

The Raiders would put in a run, drawing to within 14-13 on Sebastian Janikowski’s 53-yard field goal with 7:17 left in the third quarter. But Arizona bounced right back with an eight-play, 80-yard drive ending in Taylor’s four-yard TD run. Ellington was the standout on the drive, racking up 56 combined yards. The second-year tailback finished with 88 yards rushing on 24 carries and led the Cards with six catches for 72 yards.

The Cardinals — 9-of-15 on third downs in victory — would clinch the game with a 12-play, 50-yard drive taking nearly seven minutes and ending in rookie kicker Chandler Catanzaro’s 41-yard field goal with 29 seconds left in the contest. Catanzaro has not missed in 15 field goal tries this season.

Quarterback Derek Carr completed 16-of-28 passes for 173 yards for Oakland, which was outgained 365-220. Tailback Darren McFadden (14 carries, 48 yards) tallied the Raiders’ lone TD on a one-yard score in the second quarter. Safety Charles Woodson’s 58th regular-season interception in his 17-year NFL career was another highlight for Oakland.

The Raiders play at 3-3 Cleveland next Sunday. Three of their next four contests are on the road, with the lone home game against Denver.

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Cowboys stick to plan for sixth straight victory

Devon Kennard, DeMarco Murray AP

The Cowboys have found their winning blueprint and they executed it nearly flawlessly again this Sunday.

DeMarco Murray ran the ball all day behind a quality offensive line, Dez Bryant used his athleticism to break play after play in the second half and their rising defense kept the Giants offense from consistently finding a rhythm. The result was a 31-21 Cowboys win that makes them winners of six straight and leaves the Giants well behind in the NFC East as they head to their bye week.

Murray’s up to 913 yards on the season after posting 128 on Sunday. It’s now seven straight games with 100 or more rushing yards for Murray, who added a touchdown in the fourth quarter that helped put things out of reach. That score came after the first Giants turnover of the game, a fumble by tight end Larry Donnell that the Cowboys recovered in Giants territory, and an acrobatic 25-yard catch by Bryant that was incorrectly ruled a touchdown before a look at replay.

Bryant had nine catches for 151 yards overall with seven of the grabs coming in the second half as Tony Romo completed all nine passes he attempted. It was pretty close to perfect balance on offense for a team that’s showing no signs of deviating from the successful course they’ve charted since early this season.

The Giants now find themselves at 3-4 and well behind the Cowboys and idle Eagles with the tiebreaker pointing in the other direction with both teams. There’s ample time to change things around, but the last two weeks have found the Giants lacking against their two NFC East rivals. They were better this week than they were against the Eagles, but the Cowboys were just a bit better when the big moments came up in the game and the Giants don’t have answers for players like Bryant and Murray right now.

They’ll try to come up with them before Dallas comes to Jersey in a month, not that it will matter if the Cowboys keep executing at this level between now and then.

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Patrick Willis inactive for the 49ers tonight against Broncos

Patrick Willis AP

The 49ers will be without several defensive regulars, as they try to keep Peyton Manning from breaking the all-time touchdown record tonight.

Among their inactives are linebacker Patrick Willis, cornerback Chris Culliver and safety Jimmy Ward, along with guard Mike Iupati, center Marcus Martin, wide receiver Quinton Patton and defensive end Tank Carradine.

Willis is expected to miss some time with a toe injury, though coach Jim Harbaugh said it wasn’t believed to be a long-term injury.

The Broncos will be without wide receiver Cody Latimer, running back Montee Ball, cornerback Tony Carter, linebacker Shaquil Barrett, guard Ben Garland, tackle Michael Schofield and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein.

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Chiefs upset Chargers in San Diego

jamaalcharles AP

Surprise, surprise: The Chiefs are alive in the AFC West, and the Chargers have taken a tumble.

Just when it looked like San Diego was establishing itself as one of the very best teams — maybe even the best team — in the NFL, Kansas City came to town and won a hard-fought game on a last-minute field goal, 23-20.

The Chiefs got one of the efficient if not extraordinary games that have become Alex Smith’s trademark: Smith completed 19 of 28 passes for 211 yards, with a touchdown and no interceptions. Kansas City also got a solid game from Jamaal Charles, who carried 22 times for 95 yards and a touchdown.

As he has all season, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers played well — but he didn’t play quite as well as he has for most of this year. Rivers had two touchdowns, but he had just 205 yards, and his interception at the end of the game sealed the Chargers’ loss.

It was a big win for the Chiefs, who improved to 3-3 and showed they still belong in the AFC playoff discussion. And it was a disappointing loss for the Chargers, who fell to 5-2 and will root against the Broncos tonight, as a Denver win takes San Diego that much further from the division lead.

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