Source: USA Today
The late-season push of the Chargers is going pretty well. They seek their fifth straight victory Sunday over the visiting Oakland Raiders.
But their chances of their late-season push being fueled by fresh and healthy players? That's not working out so well.
Quarterback Philip Rivers could be missing some critical targets Sunday as some vital pass-catchers continue to miss practice.
Tight end Antonio Gates' painful foot injury continues to keep him sidelined. He will test it in the hours before the game Sunday and determine what his pain threshold is that day.
Wide receiver Malcom Floyd was to supply a spark after getting back from a hamstring injury. Then he aggravated it early in Sunday's game at Indianapolis. He didn't work on Wednesday but was able to a portion of Thursday's practice.
Depending on how his hamstring reacts, Friday's practice will likely determine if he can go Sunday.
Then there's Vincent Jackson, the Pro Bowler finally back on the active roster. Except that he only lasted two plays before straining his calf.
That injury came after he suffered a groin injury in Friday's practice - something not reported on the team's injury list.
While compensating for the strained groin, Jackson tweaked his calf and now is out this week and maybe longer.
Wide receiver Patrick Crayton saw his breakthrough derailed by a dislocated wrist and there's no timetable for his return.
Rivers, in completing passes this season to 15 receivers, has proven he makes do with what he has.
On Sunday, he'll be asked to do it one more time.
—If it's late in the season, the Chargers are streaking.
Some might say all the way to Los Angeles, but we'll let others determine that.
What is clear is the Oakland Raiders are rolling into Qualcomm Stadium Sunday and smack into one of the NFL's hottest teams.
Their 2-5 start a distance memory, the Chargers are aiming for their fifth straight win as they try to keep pace with the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs.
Any game with the Raiders is important if you've got lightning bolts on your uniform. But what makes this showdown so critical is that the Chargers are trying to avenge an earlier loss to Oakland and to add another divisional win.
While the Chargers have stumbled in the past and roared to the finish line in winning four straight AFC West titles, they usually do so with more wiggle room.
But after dropping their two games against AFC West opponents, it's imperative the Chargers stay clean from here on out inside the division. After the Raiders call, the Chargers will entertain the Chiefs.
Stumble Sunday — or the Sunday after — and this grand comeback that saved the season could go quickly down the drain.
Say this — the Chargers didn't give up on themselves when others were doing just that back in October.
"The guys keep working," coach Norv Turner said. "I think the biggest thing for us was to make sure they understood why we weren't winning and keep working to fix it. And with us, this year, it was a little different than a couple of years.
"Last year we were 2-3 and then won 13 straight. We went deeper into it at 2-5; you're on the verge of losing the season. And then the other thing was it was very easy to identify what was keeping us from winning: we were turning the ball over. We were turning the ball over in the red zone, which is a double-whammy because you don't even have a chance to kick field goals.
"And then we were struggling in the kicking game with our punt protection and our coverage team. Really our kickoff coverage more than our punt — we weren't getting a chance to cover our punts; they were blocking them.
"And we identified those areas and we made moves to fix them and our backs have done a much better job taking care of the ball. We've had one fumble the last four games that we've lost and, obviously, we're covering both punts and kicks much better."
The special teams, for now, have been fixed. And the ball-carriers have done just that instead of leaving the football on the ground.
"If you look at our first seven games, we were No. 1 in offense and No. 1 in defense and we just couldn't figure out why we were 2-5," tight end Antonio Gates said. "The reality of it is that, we had so many mistakes that we were losing the field position battle and it's just hard to achieve a win in the league when you're not doing those things and giving yourself a chance."
So the Chargers cleaned house on their special teams — and some key players got healthy — and they are no longer so carefree with the football. The result is the Chargers steaming again going into the regular season's final full month, playing the type of football many expected back in September.
And everyone knows what type of game the Chargers are expecting from their most hated rival: physical, with a lot of emotion heaped on top.
"It's always exciting," said Turner, of facing his former team. "It's a combination: you're in your division and it's the Raiders and obviously we've played a lot of games against each other and we know each other awfully well."
Awful was what the Chargers were for nearly two months. Since, well, there's no other team playing at a higher level.
SERIES HISTORY: 102nd regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 55-44-2 in a rivalry which goes back to when the Chargers called Los Angeles home. The Chargers had dominated this series of late, winning 13 straight games. Then came the game in October when the Chargers' shoddy special teams play helped the Raiders to a 35-27 victory. Among the most painful playoff losses in Chargers' history is when they fell to Oakland in the 1980 AFC title game, preventing what was likely one of the best Chargers' team ever their first Super Bowl appearance.
—Will the Chargers' defensive scheme change much with Jason Campbell at quarterback instead of the injured Bruce Gradkowski? "We've been in this position and the plays, the style of offense and all that, the running game, the system stays the same but they are different and you have to prepare for the things they do differently," coach Norv Turner said. "Jason played awfully well against us last year and made the plays he had to make down the stretch. We have to be aware of that and we have to be aware of his mobility."
—The Chargers have a lot of key parts on their top-ranked offense but none is bigger than quarterback Philip Rivers. "He's been the most important piece of the whole thing," TE Antonio Gates said. "Philip and the offensive line has been the nucleus of the team. That's the only thing that hasn't changed. The running backs have been in and out, the tight ends, the receivers, but the line and Philip Rivers have been the nucleus of what we've been doing. He's playing at an MVP-type level at this point."
—Lost, somewhat in the win at Indianapolis, was that the Chargers went 0-for-8 on third downs."Third downs are tough and that's why obviously I don't like them," coach Norv Turner said. "That's why some of the times you throw on first down to stay out of third down. You know, we just missed. The first third down we had Malcom was wide open in the back of the end zone and (Dwight) Freeney got more pressure than he did in other plays in the game and Philip (Rivers) felt him on his back and threw it quicker. The corner squatted on an out route and Malcom (Floyd) was going to be wide open for a touchdown. I thought they did a good job on a couple of the third downs and then there were a couple third downs I think once the score got to where it was we were fairly conservative with the call."
—Among the reasons for RB Mike Tolbert being so productive lately is the blocking of FB Jacob Hester. Both came to the Chargers in 2007 and enjoy a friendship. "At fullback you always have to take pride in getting guys yards, but for me it's even more special because of the relationship me and Mike have," Hester said. "I never want to put him in a situation to fail. I always open the biggest holes I can for him."
—Thanks in part to the influx of Raiders fans, the Chargers have sold enough tickets to lift the local TV blackout.
—It's Alumni Weekend for the Chargers, with more than 75 former players being saluted before the game.
—The biggest news around Chargers Park was off the field this week. There was considerable chatter that Phil Anschutz would buy up to 36 percent of the team, likely in the hopes of moving the Chargers to Los Angeles. Anschutz is with the AEG firm that wants to build a stadium next to another one of its properties, the Staples Center, in downtown L.A. The Chargers have denied that particular rumor, but have admitted a portion of the team is up for sale with owner Alex Spanos in failing health. "The Spanos family is not going to give up control of the team; the goal is to sell a minority stake for estate purposes," team spokesman Mark Fabiani said. "We are not contemplating a transaction that would in any way, shape or form constitute a change of control."
BY THE NUMBERS: 13 — Number of December games — and wins — the Chargers have with Norv Turner as their head coach.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think over the last two weeks we've been able to get the running game going. We're still going to make big plays in the passing game." — Coach Norv Turner on the Chargers' offense being more run-oriented of late.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Chargers' running game could get another boost with the return of Ryan Mathews even though with Mathews out, Mike Tolbert is moving the pile and collecting the yards.
But the Chargers are anxious to get something — anything — out of a player they zoomed up the draft board to select.
The Chargers are fine, too, with sticking with Tolbert. But at some point they want some production out of their first-round pick.
—WR Malcom Floyd (hamstring) was a limited participant, but that could be encouraging news for the Chargers. The partial practice is more than he did Wednesday.
—TE Antonio Gates (foot) didn't practice but that has been the case on Thursdays. He could go Sunday but it will be a game-time decision.
—WR Patrick Crayton (wrist) didn't practice and is out this week.
—RG Louis Vasquez (neck) didn't practice and signs point to him being down Sunday. Tyronne Green would replace him again; Green did well last week.
—RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) was able to practice on consecutive days and he will go Sunday. Mathews has missed the past two games and three this season.
—RB Mike Tolbert (hand) didn't practice but he should be able to split carries with Mathews on Sunday.
—CB Donald Strickland (knee) worked the full practice after sitting out Wednesday and appears ready for the nickel role.
—ILB Stephen Cooper (knee) was limited after not working Wednesday. He will start Sunday.
—WR Vincent Jackson (calf) didn't practice and is out at least one more week - probably two.
—S Steve Gregory (shoulder) was limited practiced and should be available Sunday.
—DE Travis Johnson (shoulder) practiced and is fine for Sunday.
—TE Kris Wilson (back) has worked all the practices this week and will play and possibly start.
—QB Philip Rivers has thrown for 300 yards in five games this season. Although in the last two games — both wins — he has thrown for 418 yards total.
—TE Antonio Gates is closing in on quite a milestone. If he gets one more scoring catch, that would give him his 10th of the year; the third time he had done that in his career. Gates is the only NFL player with at least eight touchdown catches in each of last seven seasons.
—OLB Shaun Phillips needs 1.5 sacks to reach 11.5 which would match his career high set in 2006.
—RB Mike Tolbert had but one touchdown in his first two seasons. After taking over for Ryan Mathews as the lead back and being moved from fullback to halfback, he has scored nine touchdowns.
—K Nate Kaeding missed three games with a groin injury but has looked good in his last two games after returning. Kaeding has hit five of his six attempts, with a career-high five in Sunday's win. His only miss was from 52 yards.
GAME PLAN: Every time it's written it seems odd — the Chargers have one of the best quarterbacks in Philip Rivers. But the way to beat the Raiders — or one of them — is to stick close to the ground.
The Chargers' receivers are ailing (Gates, Floyd and Crayton) so why not turn to the resurgent running attack? And the Raiders are dreadful against the run, allowing an average of 133 yards per game.
Rivers is keen — there's no doubt about that. But the Chargers would be well-served to stay low — especially with their receivers hurting.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Chargers pass game, with TE Antonio Gates, vs. Raiders pass defense and how it will handle the Pro-Bowl receiver. It's no secret that Gates is ailing with a foot injury. That said, he's been able to contribute and just his presence in the offense makes defenses keep an eye on him which gives opportunities to other players. In the first game this season against the Raiders, Gates had five catches for 76 yards and a score, with a long of 34. But Gates has played but once in the last three games; he had four receptions for 46 yards Sunday in Indianapolis. If Gates goes, he will draw coverages from the safeties, either SS Michael Huff or FS Tyvon Branch. Huff has done a decent job of holding his own against Gates and that is the preference of the Raiders. But coverages will be rotating and if Gates draws Branch, look for a nod from Gates to Philip Rivers. Branch has struggled in pass coverage and that's not a good thing when trying to wrestle with Gates. If Huff gets Gates that means the other receivers can take advantage of Branch's coverage struggles.
Chargers defensive line, anchored by the improved play of NT Antonio Garay vs. Raiders offensive line, which features C Samson Satele. Garay surprised nearly everyone when he picked up a Colts offensive lineman and threw him into Peyton Manning. Garay didn't get credit for the sack; he should have, but more than anything, it showed his awesome strength. The Raiders' offensive line has undergone some changes and that includes bringing in Satele from Miami. But among the reasons the Dolphins peddled Satele is because he struggled when facing 3-4 alignments. Satele will get a heavy dose of just that Sunday, with Garay being the focal point.
Chargers improved pass rush vs. Raiders pass protection with Jason Campbell at quarterback. The Chargers were able to intercept Peyton Manning four times last Sunday because of the constant pressure they put on him. The Chargers have 33 sacks this season, just one fewer than they collected all of last year. Shaun Phillips leads the way with 10, but don't overlook ILB Kevin Burnett with five, which is just 1.5 off his career total coming into the season. Plus, OLB Larry English is coming back into shape after missing time with a foot injury; Antwan Applewhite and Antwan Barns have been active. Since 2007, the Chargers have 27 sacks against the Raiders, the most Oakland has allowed to any team during that stretch. With the Raiders struggling of late with their running game — especially Darren McFadden — they could be facing numerous third-and-longs. If so, they better have max pass protection or Campbell needs to get rid of the ball quickly.
INJURY IMPACT: WR Malcom Floyd (hamstring) didn't practice and he could be down this week. He aggravated his injury in the game last Sunday.
—TE Antonio Gates (foot) didn't practice but that has been the case the last couple of weeks on Wednesday. He could go Sunday but it might be a game-time decision.
—WR Patrick Crayton (wrist) didn't practice and is out this week.
—RG Louis Vasquez (neck) didn't practice and he could be down one more week. Tyronne Green would replace him again.
—RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) was able to practice and looks like he has a shot at returning Sunday. Mathews has missed the past two games and three this season.
—RB Mike Tolbert (hand) didn't practice but he should be a go for Sunday.
—CB Donald Strickland (knee) didn't practice and it appears he's out of the nickel role this week.
—ILB Stephen Cooper (knee) didn't work but he will play on Sunday. He could be compromised but should go.
—WR Vincent Jackson (calf) didn't practice and he will be out at least one more week — probably two.
—S Steve Gregory (shoulder) practiced and should go Sunday.
—DE Travis Johnson (shoulder) practiced and should go Sunday.