Sunday, December 27, 2009

Championship Form

Another week and another huge performance for the San Diego Chargers. In dominating the Titans, the Chargers showed they are ready for the playoffs. The worst part about earning the first round bye and earning it early is that the team has to wait three weeks to play their next real game. Coaching decisions become crucial in drawing the fine line between resting players and keeping that edge for the first playoff game.

Who do you play against the Redskins? How hard do you practice?

As for Friday's game, Vince Young seemed to single-handedly give the game up for the Titans. His interception and fumble in the first half were the decisive factors in building the Chargers' lead. Chris Johnson was running on the Chargers as well as he has on everyone else. Young was asked to complete a few strategic passes and simply was not up to the task. He scramble and find the one open receiver. He can run for the first down. Ask him to stay in the pocket, survey the defense and make the right decision? He's not there yet.

Shaun Phillips made a huge play to strip the ball from Young in the second quarter. Young has always carried the ball a bit loosely, going back to his Texas days. Phillips is the best in the league at swiping that ball away. Crucial little talents like this usually end up making the difference in the playoffs. Let's hope so.

The Chargers were able to run the ball somewhat effectively. LT and the line, while not dominating, are getting into some kind of sync. There are holes opening up. Nick Hardwick looked like he hasn't missed a beat in his 12 game absence. The pass blocking--especially picking up the blitz--looks like some of the best in the league. Rivers has time.

He's using that time as well as any quarterback in the league. The national media has noticed how incredibly difficult it is to defend the Chargers. The receivers, the scheme and the play calling are all just too good for most defenses to handle.

On the defensive side of the ball, the defensive backs are turning out to be a strength of this team. This is huge because, as everyone knows, the road to the Super Bowl will go through Indianapolis. Eric Weddle is just a smart player who makes great reads and puts himself in the right spot on both run and pass plays. Kevin Ellison and Paul Oliver have improved each week sharing the other safety spot. Ellison may end up being San Diego's next Rodney Harrison in couple years. The corner play has been absolutely solid.

Watching today's scores, it looks like someone else may be "peaking at the right time": New England. They came out and just destroyed Jacksonville. While Indianapolis may not want to see the Chargers, does San Diego want to see New England come to town? That may just bring back some bad memories. However, what could be sweeter that beating the Patriots and the Colts on the way to the Super Bowl?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Another Huge Game: Chargers vs. Titans

The Chargers will battle to control their destiny in attaining a first round bye as they head to Memphis to face the infamous Titans tomorrow. As everyone knows, both teams are "red hot" and motivated to win this game. Many of the NFL experts are picking Tenessee to win and be the current 7-7 team to separate from the pack and make the playoffs. Vegas has the Titans favored by three.

So despite all the recent success, the Chargers are once again the underdog. Hopefully the lack of respect is motivating them on this short week of practice and game planning late in the season. This game will be close and may come down to who wants it more as both teams (all teams) are banged up at this point in the season.

The biggest injury of the game is linebacker Keith Bullock, who is out for the season after last week. He is the Titans' leading tackler and just an absolute beast in the middle of the field. Outside linebacker David Thorton is also out. Two rookies will make their first NFL starts in their stead.

Strangely, the Chargers' running game will actually be a big factor in this game. With these important defensive players out for the Titans, San Diego should try to control the game more than they have in the past, keeping the amazing Chris Johnson off the field. Eating clock time may be the only way to keep Johnson from having a huge game.

The passing game should work as well for San Diego. The Titans have been getting burned all year, but playing in the cold on their home turf should make them tougher to throw on than the Chargers might guess.

On defense, San Diego needs to focus (as every other team has tried) all its energies on stopping Chris Johnson. While San Diego's run defense has not been great this year, its athletic linebackers and DB's should have a better chance than most teams of cutting off the field and limiting big plays. The Chargers are more vulnerable to power running games than speedy ones.

Shawne Merriman, while not coming up with many tackles or any sacks lately, has actually become a more and more disruptive force each week, cutting off the outside on sweeps and pushing offensive linemen into the face of the quarterback. He is motivated by the dirty play of the Titans that blew out his knee two years ago and should have a big game.

Vince Young has shown steady improvement this year, but he's still no Dan Marino. The Chargers need to limit his scrambling and rushing ability, but Young is not good enough yet to beat them with a precision passing game. Even in last week's big win against Miami, Young only completed 50% of his passes.

If the Chargers have had enough time to prepare well and recover from last week's game they should win this one. If they do, they will REALLY get the attention of the national media going into the playoffs.

Chargers 31, Titans 24

Monday, December 21, 2009

Championship Performance

The Chargers met an emotional Bengals team yesterday that mirrored San Diego in many ways: its opportunism, refusal to give up and solid play from big-name and no-name players. San Diego displayed its supreme confidence and force of will that had commentators Jim Nance and Phil Sims talking about that "special energy" that propels a team to the Super Bowl. You couldn't help but notice it in the inspired play of the Steelers at the end of the season and in the playoffs last year. The Chargers have that magic.

While the Chargers were the superior team, the game was close for a few reasons. Carson Palmer played his best game, making some brilliant throws under pressure. His receivers backed him up with stellar catches in traffic and on the sidelines.

The crucial play that kept the game from getting away from the Bengals was the tipped pass by Antonia Gates that turned into an interception, leading to a Bengal score. At 24-13 in the third quarter before that interception. If the Chargers continue down the field and score, the game is out of reach. However, like the Chargers, the Bengals were determined at able to capitalize on that mistake.

In the Bengals final drive of the game that led to the field goal that tied the game, Ron Rivera became extra conservative, fearing a long pass to Ochocinco for a touchdown. The absolute lack of pressure on Palmer allowed the Bengals to easily move down the field for the go ahead score.

Malcolm Floyd deserves special recognition for getting smacked in the grill on the first drive of the game, then coming back to make the crucial catch that set up Kaeding for the game winning score.

Rivers, despite one big mistake, was again brilliant. The combination of Rivers' field sense, Norv's play calling scheme, and the athleticism of the Chargers' tall receivers is unbeatable right now.

I know the Union Tribune folks are worried about the Titans this Friday, as the they should be, however, I think perhaps the Titans should be more worried about the Chargers. It's official, the Chargers have the best shot at the Super Bowl they've had since '94 when they actually went.

Great game.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Chargers vs. Bengals

If the Chargers don't experience a let down this week, they should beat the Cincinatti Bengals at home. The Bengals pose some unique challenges for San Diego, with a strong running game and defense, but once again it's hard to see how the Cincinatti defense can contend with all the Chargers' weapons.

Cincinatti has two of the best cornerbacks in the league in Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph. They may be able to take away the outside passing game and the deep game. This will actually be an interesting challenge for the Chargers' huge wide receivers: How do they match-up against two fast, capable corners? Will they be able use their height advantage against these guys?

Even if the Bengals are able to shut down Jackson and Floyd, it's unclear how they're going to cover Antonio Gates. Against other opponents, Cincinatti attempted to cover the tight end or slot receiver with linebacker Ray Maualuga. While he's a strong run defender (I wish the Chargers would have drafted him) who is a big part of the Bengals' success this season, he's just not fast enough to keep up with Gates, Naanee, and Sproles. Look for one or all three of these guys to have big days catching passes across the middle and out of the backfield.

On the other side of the ball, the Bengals have shown a bruising running game with Cedric Benson and not much passing. They haven't scored a lot of points this season, but have played great defense and controlled the clock on offense. I don't think that formula will work today. With Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, some think the Bengals should be able to explode at any time, but it just hasn't happened this year and it's unlikely to change this late in the season. Some have theorized that Carson Palmer's arm isn't healthy, others that the offensive line, while strong in the running game, can't pass block well. Whatever the cause, the Bengals will have trouble keeping up with the Chargers in scoring today.

The X factor today will be the Bengals' emotional state with the loss of Chris Henry. Will they step up, playing the best game of their season, shutting down the Chargers? I think they will come out with furious emotion and make some plays. However, the Chargers' offense is so dynamic, teams can't beat them on emotion and aggression; they have to be smart as well. Rivers is playing at such a high level that he will capitalize on any mistake. Some Bengals may be trying to do too much today.

Chargers 24, Bengals 13

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Chargers Earn Elite Status

The Chargers played a great game yesterday that wasn't as close as the 20-17 score in beating the Dallas Cowboys. Amazingly, San Diego is still flying under the radar of the national media. Anyone who watched "Football Night in America" after the game saw a boat-load of analysis about "What's wrong with the Dallas Cowboys?" Anyone think to ask what's right with the San Diego Chargers?

I'll answer it since they didn't:

Phillip Rivers has attained near Jedi status in his ability to read the field and know where his receivers are, who is open and how much to put on the ball to deliver it to them perfectly.

Norv Turner has out-coached everyone the past eight weeks. The Cowboy defense looked completely lost out there when in counted.

Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson are dominant. Teams must choose to focus on one. When they do, the other one has a monster game. Pick your poison.

The offensive line can pass block anyone. On crucial third-and-longs, as Wade dialed up his most creative and serious blitzes; we saw wave after wave of silver and blue crash into a wall while Rivers easily found the open big man one-on-one with some poor, short DB tagging along behind.

The defense is stout in the red zone. Everyone saw the huge four-down goal line stand. The defense has done this many times this season. The defensive line has gelled just enough and the toughness and depth at linebacker becomes more and more evident. Don't mess with Siler and Dobbins up the middle.

LT has enough left to make a play when he needs to. One of the plays of the game came on the final drive, when LT was hit in the backfield as the ball was handed to him. He juked the tackler, then shot through the hole for an eleven yard gain and a first down. He also knows how to find the end zone better than any running back in the least better than Marion Barber.

Two shut down corners? Notice how teams never attack the Chargers in the middle of the field deep or down the sidelines? This is because both Cromartie and Jammer are too good and too dangerous to challenge directly. Teams have to run and play the dink and dunk game down the middle.

Lastly, the punting game. If a drive does fizzle? The Scifers to Osgood connection will put opponents inside their own five-yard lines again and again. Those two punts to the one yesterday had as much to do with the lack of Dallas scoring as the goal-line stand.

Overall, the lack of national media recognition may be frustrating for Charger fans, but it's probably good for the team. It keeps that chip squarely on the Chargers' shoulder while encouraging other teams to take the Chargers just a tad too lightly.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chargers vs. Cowboys

Once again, the Chargers are in a game with playoff atmosphere and implications. If San Diego can win today, they may be able to separate themselves from the Cincinnati Bengals in the hunt for the 2nd seed and playoff bye. The Cowboys are coming off a loss and trying to stay in first place in their division. Dallas fans are calling for the head of Wade Phillips as they think their team is underperforming.

The Cowboys' offense is the exact kind that gives the Chargers problems. They have a huge offensive line and a couple of big power running backs, plus the lightning fast Felix Jones. They also have a Pro Bowl tight end in Jason Witten with the hot and cold Tony Romo passing the ball. Wide receiver Miles Austin has matured into an elite "go to" receiver.

It looks like Luis Catillo and Shawne Merriman will be able to start today. If they are actually healthy and can play at a high level, the Chargers will have a better chance of stopping the run and putting a little pressure on Romo. Safety Eric Weddle is most likely going to be out. This is worrisome, as he has become a defensive leader and on-field coach of sorts.

The Cowboys will be able to move the ball up and down the field. Without Weddle deep to control things, the less experienced Charger safeties will most likely get eaten up. This game will come down to what happens in the red zone. If the Chargers can stiffen a bit inside the twenty and stop the run, then they can force the gambling Romo into making some crucial mistakes.

On offense, the Chargers will have to have one of their best games to stay in this one. They are going to have to match the Cowboys score for score and the environment will be loud and intense in the Cowboys huge new dome. The Charger running game most likely won't do much, but look for Darren Sproles to bust at least one big one on the Cowboys' field turf. Sproles has been slowed by some poor field conditions the past few weeks and is "due" to make some plays.

The passing game, of course, will be crucial. The Cowboys don't have the strongest defense backs and one of their starting safeties is out with an injury. The pass blocking has been stellar for San Diego, but they will receive their biggest test this week, as 3-4 guru Wade Phillips is desperate for a win to keep his playoff chances, and job, alive. The crucial match-up will be DeMarcus Ware against Marcus McNeill on the edge. If Rivers doesn't have time to throw, this game could get ugly in a hurry.

If the Chargers had Weddle, I would feel confident in predicting a victory. If Merriman was out, I would predict a loss, but with the overall state of the Chargers' health, I think this one is a toss up. It may come down to one big play from either team. I'm going to go with the "Sproles has a big day on field turf" theory and give San Diego the nod:

Chargers 34, Cowboys 31

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What the Browns Game Shows

Well, the Browns are terrible, and the Chargers let them look like a legitimate NFL team. I know San Diego had numerous injuries and rookies playing in key positions, but the lack of fire and key breakdowns to begin and end the game should be concerning to the team and fans.

The running game is absolutely broken. If the Chargers can't run the ball against the horrible and Shaun Rogers-less Browns, they can't run it against anyone. While LT may not be as quick as he once was, he's not the problem. The schemes, the coaching, the attitude, and the players are just not clicking. San Diego is last in the league in this category and the old excuses provided by the local media ("they faced a tough defense this week" and "they're stacking the box") just don't hold any water. The opposing team is consistently in San Diego's backfield.

This is important going into the playoffs and final three games of the season as better teams who will try to dominate time of possession. The Chargers will be unable to match up against a team in this way. Sometimes the passing game gets shut down. Teams that win in the playoffs can run and pass.

The other side of the coin is the run defense. The average yards per carry against the San Diego defense is simply too high. At some point an opposing coach realize this and stick with the run throughout the entire game. If the Dolphins, Broncos (in SD), Eagles, or Giants had realized this, they might have won their games against San Diego.

Going forward, the Chargers desperately need Shawne Merriman to get healthy and provide some stout run support. Larry English was fast and aggressive last week, but he seems to get pushed around by the offensive tackles he's going against. The platoon of rookies and journeyman defensive tackles have been playing above themselves, but we shouldn't be surprised if they get exposed by a strong offensive line.

All this shows why this week's game against Dallas will be such an important test. Dallas will try to run the ball and test this defense. I can't believe that Wade Phillips won't understand and the exploit these weaknesses better than any other coach. If the Chargers can't run the ball consistently, they will be forced to use the big play to stay in the game, giving DeMarcus Ware and company a chance to test the San Diego pass blocking.

Without Eric Weddle and Shawne Merriman, this game may be beyond the Chargers' reach...unless something changes and some other players step up.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chargers vs. Browns Pregame

I don't expect today's game to be competitive for long. The Browns are terrible to begin with, and now they're dealing with massive injuries, including their best defensive player, tackle Shaun Rogers.

The Chargers are also dealing with injuries to Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo and Eric Weddle, but the back-ups to these players have proven in the last few weeks that they are serviceable.

Even as the lead mounts today, there will be things to watch. I want to see what Larry English can do, starting and probably getting the most significant playing time he has all season. Also, it will be interesting to see if free agent aquisition John Runyan gets some playing time at right tackle and if he's got anything left. If he's able to shake the rust and age off, the Chargers may have something special going into the playoffs. Nick Hardwick will also get a chance to play, getting back in game shape for the end of the season and the playoffs.

Lastly, LaDanian Tomlinson will have the chance to pass up Marshall Faulk and legendary Jim Brown at #9 and #8 on the all-time rushing list. This could potentially be a huge stat day for LT with the state of the Browns' defense, however, I'm guessing that once the game is in hand and LT has his records, Norv will sit him (wisely) giving him and anyone else he can afford to rest for tough games ahead.

Chargers 38, Browns 6