Source: USA Today
A game that didn't need any more hype got some any way.
The Chargers re-start their engines after their bye, squaring off against the Jets in one of the most anticipated games of the season.
The Jets have been a thorn in the Chargers' side, eliminating them from two recent playoff appearances and then being a landing spot for two talented ex-Chargers: running back LaDainian Tomlinson and cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
Plus, there's the Chargers going against a name — Schottenheimer — which still causes many to cringe in the organization. Former Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer's son, Brian, is the Jets offensive coordinator.
More fuel was thrown on this fire when Jets coach Rex Ryan said Wednesday that if the Chargers would have named him as Marty Schottenheimer's replacement, instead of Norv Turner, Ryan would have won a couple of Super Bowls.
"I didn't have the chance to ask him this, but I was wondering if he had those rings with the ones he's guaranteed the last couple of years," Turner replied.
Ouch. And here we go on an 11-game stretch run as the Chargers try to prove to the doubters that they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
A win in MetLife Stadium would go a long way in proving that. While the Chargers don't apologize for their 4-1 record, they've yet to secure a signature win over an elite team.
And while the Jets are one win removed from a three-game losing streak, to travel three time zones and prevail against New York would be a feather in the Chargers' cap.
"We know what a challenge it is going to be to go up there and win," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "I'm looking forward to it."
Peeking ahead, the Chargers' road to the playoffs is about to get tougher. After loading up on the likes of the Vikings, Chiefs, Dolphins and Broncos, they are about to sit at the NFL's big-boy table: at Jets, at Chiefs, Packers, Raiders and at Bears.
"We're going to be geared up and ready to go," Rivers said. "It's hard not to get excited for this game, not for any reasons of years past, but anytime you go to New York and play a team that has been in back-to-back (AFC) championship games, it is exciting."
The Chargers have excitement down, as they haven't blown out a team yet. Instead they have made the key stop or picked up the key first down at the most critical times, to prevail.
Sunday's game should be more of the same as the Jets are desperate to stay alive in the playoff race and the Chargers are keen on not letting their successful start slip away.
But they have to prove they not only can beat a decent team, but they can do so on the road. Much has been made of the Chargers not making the playoffs last year, and it was the Chargers' road woes (3-5), which helped keep them from the post-season.
The Chargers are 1-1 away from Qualcomm Stadium this year; getting thumped in New England and holding on for a victory at Denver.
Where are the Chargers at? Good question as this team has yet to form a concrete identity. They are ranked in the top 10 for overall offense and defense, but considering the second-tier teams the Chargers have played, it's difficult to get a read on them.
After Sunday, the Chargers as a team and what they can accomplish should come into more focus.
SERIES HISTORY: 32nd regular-season meeting. Chargers lead series, 19-11-1, with the Chargers winning two of the past three. That includes a 31-26 Chargers win in their last game against the Jets in the old Meadowlands. But it is in the playoffs where these two have their most memorable games, with the Jets winning both times. In a 2004 wild-card game, the Jets squeezed by in overtime. Then in the 2009 Divisional Game, the No. 2-seeded Chargers were bounced by the visiting Jets, 17-14, when Nate Kaeding missed three field goals. It was a shocking loss, considering the Jets had a rookie head coach (Rex Ryan), rookie quarterback (Mark Sanchez) and rookie running back (Shonn Green).
—For the first time the face of the current Chargers franchise — Philip Rivers — will square off against the former face of the Chargers franchise — LaDainian Tomlinson.
"It will be different seeing him; it's weird every time you see him in a different uniform," Rivers said. "It will be good to see him. It will be different going against him."
—RB Ryan Mathews' idol growing up was Tomlinson. He wore his No. 21 at Fresno State and still runs with a visor, like Tomlinson. But the two have never met. "No, no, he was long gone when I got here," Mathews said. "But it is going to fun though, really fun." Mathews said the bye came at a perfect time to rest his strained calf. "I'm 100 percent," he said.
—Coach Norv Turner said former Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson is a big part of the Jets' third-down package as a receiver. Tomlinson is averaging 13 yards on 17 receptions, with a touchdown. "They have a specific package they're using when he's in the game," Turner said. "They're spreading you out. He's still playing awfully well as a receiver and he's hit some big runs. We're just trying to zero in on the things they've done when he's in the game."
—I love New York? Well that is what the cheap T-shirts say in Manhattan, but it's really New Jersey that the Chargers love. Including their work against the Jets, and with wins over the Giants in 1995 and 2009, the Chargers have won four straight in the Garden State.
—Wide receiver Vincent Jackson, despite missing most of last year in a contract dispute, is slowly moving up the franchise's all-time list for receiving yards. Jackson comes into Sunday's game with 4,056 career yards and needs 129 more to pass Tony Martin for eighth place all-time.
—Veteran inside linebacker Takeo Spikes didn't put much credence in what Jets coach Rex Ryan said about the team underachieving in the past, despite its loaded roster. "I never see a coach come in between the white lines," Spikes said. What he has seen is Tomlinson and Mathews up close.
"Both are slashers and speed-to-power guys," Spikes said. "They are guys that will set you up with a lot of speed and then turn to a power guy."
—The Chargers, who have given up one touchdown off a kick return, face maybe the NFL's best returner Sunday in the Jets' Joe McKnight. He is averaging 44 yards per return, with a touchdown off his 107-yard effort. "The thing we do have going for us right now is the way Nick (Novak) is kicking the ball," Turner said. "If he's not kicking it out of the end zone he's kicking it awfully deep and he's helping our coverage. We gave up the one early, but I think it's gotten better as we've gone through these five games."
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 - Number of teams, out of six, winning their first game after coming off their bye, as the Chargers will try to do on Sunday.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everybody is watching. It's the perception. Perception really takes over. Perception is halfway around the world before reality takes one step out of bed." — ILB Takeo Spikes on what a win against the Jets at MetLife Stadium would mean to how others view the Chargers.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Chargers need to figure out a way to get to the quarterback more and the answer just might be in a former first-round pick.
Outside linebacker Larry English could be seeing the field more as the Chargers look for different ways to get to the pocket.
Travis LaBoy has been starting over English, and likely will again on Sunday. But English, who had two sacks against the Dolphins two games back, has seemingly put his foot injury behind him.
Somewhere, somehow, the Chargers need to turn up the heat on rival quarterbacks and English, if getting increased snaps, could be the answer.
—DE Jacques Cesaire (knee) is expected to play Sunday after a knee injury kept him out of two games. Cesaire doesn't start, but he is a key backup and will be a heavy part of the rotation.
—WR Patrick Crayton could be targeted more if Vincent Jackson's hamstring becomes fatigued during the game. Crayton has proved to be a reliable option and his work on punt returns has given that part of the special teams a boost.
—K Nick Novak has been money since replacing the injured Nate Kaeding, hitting on all 11 of his field-goal attempts. But it will be worth watching how he does on the road and in the swirling, infamous winds out in the Meadowlands area. Novak, though, hit a career-high five field goals in his first road game with the Chargers, which came recently in Denver.
—SS Steve Gregory will be on the hot seat to supply some run-support help. It figures the Chargers' defense will be attacked by the Jets' running game, and Gregory needs to be more productive. Despite the Broncos rushing for 162 yards in the last game, Gregory didn't have a single tackle.
—OLB Shaun Phillips has been missing in action and that is a big reason the Chargers haven't had much success getting to quarterbacks. Only three other teams have fewer sacks than the Chargers and a big reason is Phillips has yet to get untracked. Phillips had a team-high 11 sacks — for the second time in his career — last season, but has but one through five games. It's imperative Phillips re-discovers that burst which makes him such a pass-rushing threat.
—TE Antonio Gates (foot) was able to go through limited work Wednesday, the second time this week he has worked; he hadn't practiced or played since Sept. 18. A decision on Gates will likely be a game-time one, and even if he does goes, he won't be at 100 percent.
—WR Vincent Jackson (hamstring) was running well in his limited workout and looks like a go for Sunday. There is a concern, though, how his hamstring will hold up during the entire game.
—CB Marcus Gilchrist (knee) was limited in his work on Wednesday but could be a full participant on Thursday. He is expected to play in a backup role on Sunday.
—RB Ryan Mathews (calf) was moving well in practice and will start on Sunday.
—RB Mike Tolbert (concussion) worked again and is a go for Sunday.
—DE Luis Castillo (knee) is out for at another month.
GAME PLAN: The Jets like to talk about being tough and physical but among the areas they are lacking in this season is stopping the run, ranked No. 28 in the NFL in allowing 132 yards a game. It's clear the Chargers need to get Pro-Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers to shake his slump, but the offense could be more ground-oriented.
The Chargers are riding Ryan Mathews, who has at least 81 rushing yards in his last three games. With him and Mike Tolbert returning to health, the Chargers might give the Jets a taste of their ground-and-pound approach.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Chargers WRs, in particular Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd vs. Jets pass defense, which includes CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. This is among the more intriguing matchups of the season as quarterback Philip Rivers makes no bones about liking to work the downfield routes with his two lanky wideouts, often throwing them the equivalent of jump balls to come down with. Jackson should be near 100 percent after a bye week and Floyd has come on of late as well. But Jackson will have to wrestle with Revis, possibly the best shutdown corner in the game, and Floyd will draw Cromartie, someone he knows well from his time in San Diego. This game could be decided on the edges, with the winner of this matchup going a long way to determine it.
Chargers run defense, which is coming off a poor game, vs. Jets running game, something their coach promises to get untracked. The Chargers got steam-rolled for a season-high 162 yards in their win over Denver and some think the underbelly of their defense has been exposed. Inside linebackers Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler will be in the spotlight, but really it's how well the inexperienced front line does against the Jets' front that will tip the scales here. The Chargers' defensive front should be deeper and savvier with veteran end Jacques Cesaire possibly returning this week after missing two games. Jets coach Rex Ryan said the team had gotten away from its pound-and-ground approach early, leaning too much on the passing game. With him looking to establish the running game, the Chargers need to meet this challenge and it won't be easy — especially against a motivated LaDainian Tomlinson.
Chargers ability to convert on third down and Jets knack for getting off the field. The Chargers, thanks in part to Vincent Jackson's 23 receptions all accounting for first downs, are No. 1 in the league in converting on third downs at 56 percent (39 of 69). But on the other side is the Jets, which is No. 1 defensively on third down at 28 percent conversion rate (22 of 77). If the Chargers can stay on the field, it will help the defense, which figures to take some punishment if the Jets stay low to the ground. If the Jets prevail, it lessens the opportunities for the Chargers to unleash their versatile offense, and that could tire the Jets' defenders as the game matures.