As has become custom for the San Diego Chargers, it is a tale of two seasons. There is there the early, pre-November season, and the post November season. The Chargers again stumbled out of the gate in September and October, and look now to be getting their balance and hitting their end of season stride.
Looking as if they were auditioning for the sequel to the movie ‘Holes’ they dug a deep pit for themselves through the first two months accumulating only 4 wins in their first nine games. The reasons have been bantered back and forth and are well documented.
However through the harsh early season the Chargers maintained the top ranked NFL Offense and Defense. A feat you would not expect from a team that is only 6-5 and fighting for the divisional lead.
The Chargers should be angry this week as they host their hated divisional rivals the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders were one of the teams that laid an early season loss on the Chargers, ending the Chargers streak of wind over them at 13.
This game will feature two teams that look vastly different from their first meeting. The Raiders are banged up, having just lost Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski for the season, while the Chargers are on the mend, getting players like Antonio Gates, Legedu Naanee, and Malcom Floyd back recently.
The Chargers are favored by 13 points at home currently, and if you pay attention to the stats, the game looks to be a lopsided one. The Chargers statistically are the best team in the NFL. Take that with a pound of salt, as statistics are just numbers in search of an argument. They are Offensively #1, in passing #2, rushing #15 and scoring #3. Defensively they have improved greatly over last season, ranking #1 most of the season, #2 against the pass, #3 against the rush, and #1 in sacks. Oakland is #2 in sacks defensively, and #13 overall in defense, and #17 in overall offense.
What does that mean? Ask someone who plays fantasy football, because this game will be played with emotion, neither team caring about numbers anywhere but on the score board.
The Raiders will look to re-establish one of the best running games in the league that was stymied by the Dolphins defense last week. The Chargers will look to get All-pro Quarterback, Philip Rivers back on track with a passing touchdown or more. Rivers had his best passing completion percentage last week against the Colts, but did not pass for a touchdown.
This game is not a give away for either team You can never underestimate the effects a divisional rivalry have on a team. The Raiders suffered a humiliating defeat to the Dolphins and will be looking to bounce back. The Chargers soundly beat the Colts and are looking to continue the trend. My homervision goggles indicate that this is the Chargers game to lose, while my Raiders fan co-workers tells me the Raiders will win by 7 points. Raiders are playing to keep their slim play off hopes alive; Chargers are playing for the division. Both have plenty of incentives to play hard.
I have long loved a good defensive football team. I have to admit that I am fully impressed with the job that Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera has done with his charges this season. The improved pass defense, and pass rush has made all the difference. You would think that the change would be the other direction with losing big name players like Shawne Merriman and Antonio Cromartie, but the fact is neither of those players really lived up to their early success in the last few seasons. Be it injuries, lack of focus or what have you I will leave for you to decide.
You have to give credit where credit is due, the Chargers have been aggressive, and successful on Defense. The unfortunate side effect of all of this would be that Ron Rivera will be getting more calls to interview for head coaching vacancies in the off season. Lets hope that he enjoys leading the aggressive Lighting Bolt Defense, and sticks around a while longer.
Plugging the Holes:
A lot of fans out there make no bones about it. They don’t like Head Coach Norv Turner, or General Manager AJ Smith. The reasons are many, most involve the fans perception, right or wrong.
The duo faced the heat in the first half of the season as the Special Teams faltered game after game, being the biggest contributing factor to the Chargers slow start. But again, you must give credit where credit is due.
AJ Smith has been accused of being so prideful that he will not correct mistakes. However, I argue just the opposite. With some quiet, and skillful moves AJ and Norv has changed the face of the Special Teams, and the results were on display against the Colts last Sunday. The Chargers coverage units stopped the Colts around the 20 yards line regularly. The manner in which they did it, maintaining gaps, preventing return lanes, and avoiding the penalties that plagued the unit early on were key.
Not one punt has been blocked since Norv Turner promised there would be no more blocked punts. I am sure many of us worried that was an empty promise, but so far so good. If the Special Teams continue on this path, the Chargers could run the table and take the division.
If they do that, then they will have an opportunity to prove that they are not a one and done playoff team. Of course that is the cart before the horse scenario. While they have what looks to be an easy remaining schedule, you have to play the games. They have to travel to Cincinnati late in December, and that is one cold December venue to play in. There are games remaining that could jump up and bite them if they are not on top of their game. The Chargers cant look past anyone, the beginning of this season was proof enough of that.
Right now the AFC West is more competitive that I gave it credit for at the beginning of the Season. A vastly improved Kansas City team still holds the division lead at 7-4, The Chargers at 6-5 come in second and gaining momentum, the Raiders at 5-6 are still statistically alive and Denver at 3-8 are all but eliminated.
The Chargers can take the division by winning their remaining games, so they control their own destiny. The Chiefs also could be said to control their own destiny. A win over the Chargers in two weeks could seal the deal for the division. A lot will be weighing in on that game, and the playoff implications are vast.
The AFC West will most likely only send one team to the playoffs, so winning the division is on the top of both team’s priority lists. It is the only means of guaranteeing a trip to the playoffs.
How do you see things playing out?