Source: USA Today
Hello Chargers, as they settle into their new digs: somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
The Chargers swing open the Qualcomm Stadium gates Sunday, welcoming the Kansas City Chiefs in a critical AFC West showdown.
Critical, that is, for the Chiefs.
Life-or-death, that is, for the Chargers.
"It starts by winning this week against Kansas City," quarterback Philip Rivers said.
The start, a 2-5 start, is what helped get the Chargers into this mess.
In years past they would begin slow then put together a season-ending winning streak to win the AFC West title and head for the playoffs.
And it seemed the Chargers were following that script when Oakland came last week and the Chargers were two-touchdown favorites to win No. 5 in a row and just maybe run the table.
Instead they got bloodied by the Raiders in a 28-13 spanking and now their season is close to not only circling the drain, but taking the plunge.
A loss Sunday and general manager A. J. Smith's nickname, "The Lord of No Rings" is good for at least one more year.
A win Sunday and this roster Smith built retains a pulse. But even with a win, the Chargers would need some help.
"We've needed a lot more help in previous years and it's worked out," Rivers said. "We'll worry about what we can control, and if we look up on Jan. 2 and it's not enough, then it's not enough. But we have to make sure that on that day, we've done all we can to put ourselves in position."
Two years ago the Chargers were 4-8 and trailed the Denver Broncos by four games with four to play. But the Chargers got hot, the Broncos melted down and yet again the Chargers were the AFC West champs.
But counting on a similar convergence of events may be too much this year. What's clear is that the Chargers' carefree start has come back to bite them in the backside.
Rivers is among the most optimistic Chargers and he continues to believe. But his body language, and those of many of his teammates, tells a different story. The Chargers are finally urgent about a season that could be over before mid-December.
"The important thing moving forward is that we're still in it," Rivers stressed. "We have to win this week. We had (worse odds) a couple years ago and we still got in. We have to go win this game, and we have to win the rest of them, but we still have a chance."
That chance would look brighter if it was the pre-2010 Chiefs rolling into town. For years playing Kansas City equated to an easy win, and boy weren't those the good old days.
Instead the Chiefs have led the division since opening day and offer the same approach that the Raiders used in embarrassing the Chargers on both sides of the line. The Chiefs like to run the ball and there's little doubt they will do just that against a defense that is still trying to jot down the license plate number of the last team leaving tire tracks across its back.
Now here comes the Chiefs with impressive running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.
"We're playing a team that is very much by style like the Raiders," coach Norv Turner said. "They're going to run the ball. They've got two outstanding running backs. They're very patient with the run. They're a very good defensive front and they've got two outstanding corners.
"I'm sure they're going to use a game plan that's very similar. They're an outstanding running team. They have a receiver that's playing at an outstanding level and defensively I think they're a very stout group."
That was once said about the Chargers. But something is amiss in America's Finest City and we're not talking about the chatter of the Chargers someday moving to Los Angeles.
The running game remains inconsistent; the receiving group remains banged-up. The run defense is a shell, with its insides ripped out from the middle and the Raiders continually pounded it right up the gut. The pass rush is tepid, save Shaun Phillips' 10 sacks.
The special teams have improved from disaster status to just not-very-good - neither will help you win games.
And the coaching staff that can't ever get the Chargers right out of the game is close to seeing their team bounced right out of any playoff contention.
That's quite a turnaround for a team that is the four-time defending AFC West champions and has quickly became FDA - flat, dead average.
But it hasn't had the toe tag slapped on it just yet. And it won't if they win on Sunday.
And if the Chargers don't answer the challenge, the questions will only grow on what's happened to a team that was often mentioned among the NFL's elite squads.
SERIES HISTORY: 101st regular-season meeting. Chiefs lead series, 51-48-1. The Chiefs, thanks in part to the Chargers' shoddy special teams play, defeated San Diego in the regular-season opener; the Chiefs returned a punt 94 yards for a touchdown. The Chargers are hoping being at home can get them a least a split in the season series. The home team has won on 20 of the last 29 occasions dating to 1996. The Chiefs added to that figure when they beat the Chargers, 21-14, in the opener. Those 51 victories by the Chiefs over the Chargers are the most wins they have over any team in their history. In the series, 12 games have been decided by one point, including both games in 2008. The teams have met but once in the playoffs, a 1992 wild-card game won by the Chargers, 17-0.
—Coach Norv Turner isn't buying into the theory the Chargers were ambushed in the season opener by the Chiefs. "They weren't unknown to us," he said. "They have two outstanding backs. They did have a great draft but I thought they were a talented team a year ago that was finding their way. Obviously a big-time receiver who's having a great year. Two outstanding corners. A very veteran and smart defensive front. It's going to be a full challenge. Obviously they have outstanding returners. They had big returns against us in that game."
—It's a mind-boggling number and speaks to a degree of why the Chargers have struggled so much this season. Since the final cuts in September, the Chargers have been forced to make 93 roster moves.
—ILB Stephen Cooper, the defensive captain, said the Chargers' coaches aren't to blame for the Raiders rushing for 251 yards. "Coach (Ron) Rivera (the defensive coordinator) and the rest of the coaches do a great job of preparing us for these kind of things," Cooper said. "As a defense as a whole, we didn't do a great job with discipline or a great job as tacklers. Whenever you're not doing a great job of tackling, getting downhill, getting off blocks, it's going to be a long day." Cooper knows the Chiefs will be trying to do the same thing - run the ball - until the Chargers prove they can stop it.
—Is rookie RB Ryan Mathews such a liability in pass protection that he can't get on the field? That seemed to be the case last week as a healthy Mathews never saw the field. "He has not had the repetitions," Turner said. "He's missed a lot of practice and the Raiders along with everyone else in this league when you spread them out and start getting into third-down protections, they make it very difficult and I thought (Mike) Tolbert handled it well. It wasn't the best situation for Ryan to re-enter. That being said, the week of practice he had last week will help him. The fact that he didn't play will help the ankle and I would expect him to be ready to go on Sunday."
—While some key injured players are able to go on Sundays, their missing of practice time is starting to show."I'm hoping that we can get more of our guys practicing throughout the week," Turner said. "It's obvious to me that it's taken its toll. You can go out and do it one week and maybe two, but it catches up to you, and it caught up to us (against Oakland)."
—Team president Dean Spanos notified San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders that the team will play its 2011 season - if there is one - in Qualcomm Stadium. "I very much appreciate the commitment that Dean, his family, and the Chargers have shown throughout the team's eight-year search for a new stadium," Sanders said. Although the Chargers made no guarantee they will be in Qualcomm after next season.
—Defensive linemen Luis Castillo and Antonio Garay were arguing with each other late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, but Castillo said that will not be an issue on Sunday. "This is the closest line I've ever been a part of playing at any level," Castillo said. "We're like brothers, and sometimes brothers fight. It was an emotional point in the game, and we got into it a little bit. We're fine. There's nothing more to it than that."
—The Chargers have yet to sell enough tickets to lift the local TV blackout of Sunday's game.
4 - Number of consecutive AFC West titles won by the Chargers, a streak that could end with a loss on Sunday.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've done it at a high level for seven years a lot of the time. We've won a lot of football games because we've been able to mentally and physically go out and play at a high level. We've done it half the time this year, and that is not going to be good enough. We gotta make sure that we gear in and go get this one on Sunday." — Quarterback Philip Rivers about the corner the Chargers mindset heading into Sunday's game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This could be another big week for Seyi Ajirotutu and Kelley Washington. Don't be alarmed if you don't recognize them.
Ajirotutu and Washington are way down the depth chart but they could see the field after viewing Wednesday practice. Three pass-catchers weren't working - two of them wide receivers - which could translate into Ajirotutu and Washington being among Rivers' targets.
Ajirotutu has 12 catches for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Washington got his first game action last week and caught a pass for 14 yards. Neither is anywhere close to a household name - even in San Diego. But both could be asked to contribute on Sunday.
—QB Philip Rivers is coming off a shaky performance but if he throws one more touchdown pass he becomes the first player in franchise history to toss 25 scoring passes in three consecutive seasons.
—TE Antonio Gates continues to be productive although his foot injury has basically limited him to spot play. Gates leads all tight ends with 782 receiving yards and 10 scoring catches.
—ILB Brandon Siler will likely see more action with starter Stephen Cooper still nursing a strained knee. Siler also contributes on special teams.
—RB Mike Tolbert is playing with a hand injury, but it didn't hamper him last Sunday. Still, there are ball-security concerns if Tolbert's right hand is hit in a tender spot.
—OLB Shaun Phillips leads the Chargers with 10 sacks and needs but 1.5 more to match his career high which came in 2006.
GAME PLAN: The Chargers should seize the chance to prove they aren't a bunch of pushovers. With numerous inexperienced pass-catchers, the Chargers might be well served to go low and stay on the ground with a mixture of Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews. It figures that the Chargers' defense - which was gashed on so many levels in the Raiders loss - is going to see a heavy dosage of the Chiefs' running game. That means it will likely be on the field for long stretches of time. If so, and the Chargers turn pass-happy, especially early, that is going lead to one tired defense in the fourth quarter. The Chargers need to run the ball with some conviction, which will not only open the passing game but keep their defense fresher.
Chargers run defense, which was gutted up the middle vs. a Chiefs running game which leads the NFL in averaging 175 yards per game. The Chargers' weak spot in the middle was exposed in the last game as the Raiders continued to run straight ahead in picking up significant yardage. Tackle Antonio Garay and inside linebackers Kevin Burnett, Brandon Siler and Stephen Cooper are going to have to show more strength or look for a repeat performance. It's a double-whammy of Chiefs running backs which concern the Chargers: Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. Jones might be more effective as he is more than a bruiser than the shifty Charles. The Raiders had success in between the tackles and look for the Chiefs to try and repeat that.
Chargers secondary led by CB Quentin Jammer, vs. a resurgent Chiefs passing game with the dangerous Dwayne Bowe. While the run defense took most of the haymakers last week, the secondary had its blemishes as well. Now here comes Bowe, who led the NFL with 528 receiving yards and eight reception touchdowns in November. Look for Jammer to jam Bowe at the line, much like Denver's Champ Bailey did last week in holding Bowe without a catch. If Jammer, and occasionally Antoine Cason, can cause disruption at the line, just maybe Bowe can get knocked off track. But he will be motivated for a big game after getting shut out in the close win over Denver.
The Chargers' pass protection, which allowed four sacks in the Raiders' loss vs. the Chiefs pass rush, led by LB Tamba Hali. Not only did Rivers get sacked but he was under pressure nearly the entire game. Some of that had to do with the offense being so one-dimensional and much of it had to do with the Raiders physically beating the offensive line. LT Marcus McNeill, in particular, must be on his game in trying to keep Rivers clean and Hali out of the backfield. Hali is hot, coming off a game in which he had two sacks and forced and recovered a fumble. And it always seems his motor finds another gear against the Chargers, as he's collected 4.5 sacks in nine starts against the Chargers. McNeill has played well since his return and it's imperative he does just that on Sunday.
INJURY IMPACT: WR Legedu Naanee (hamstring) didn't practice after aggravating his injury in the last game. It appears he will be down this week, and if not, compromised if he does play.
—TE Antonio Gates (foot) didn't practice which really doesn't mean much. This is the routine he has been following; he works out Sunday morning and then determines if the pain level will allow him to play.
—WR Patrick Crayton (wrist) didn't practice and will not play this week.
—ILB Stephen Cooper (knee) missed practice and that's not a good sign. He's having trouble shaking what has become nearly a season-long ailment.
—RG Louis Vasquez (neck) returned to practice in a limited capacity after missing the past two games. Unless he suffers a setback, he should start Sunday.
—RB Darren Sproles (head) didn't practice, but he might able to try and go Thursday. His availability for Sunday is 50-50 at best.
—ILB Brandon Siler (rib) was limited but he will play on Sunday.
—DT Antonio Garay (ankle) was limited but he should be a go for Sunday.