Monday, November 29, 2010

Chargers Prove they are Elite

The Chargers embarrassed Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts last night in a game that should signal to fans and the NFL, that the team that has gone to the playoffs and dominated the AFC West for years is back on the scene. Will they prove they are even better than those groups who were summarily bumped from the playoffs too early? It depends on some key injuries, but I think so.

The difference of this year's team is the aggressiveness and confidence of the defense. These guys seem to have matured, and they now "get," and believe in Rivera's schemes. The defensive backs aren't giving up big plays, the defensive line is pushing people back, while the linebackers are playing smart, adjusting to the style of each team they face.

Even with the passing game limited with key receivers out or hobbling around in the secondary, the defense and the solid running game pushed through by Mike Tolbert are enough to give the Chargers multiple ways to win games. This is why they are on their way back to the playoffs and the Colts are sliding downward.

Right now, the Chargers are playing with the confidence of a team that is ready to make a run for, and in, the playoffs. The problem? There are still five games left to go and the suddenly stingy Chiefs refused to give any ground this week. Right now, both teams are 1-2 in the division, so if the Chargers beat the Chiefs and lose no other games, and the Chiefs win out aside from losing to San Diego, the teams will be tied in overall record but the Chargers would posses the superior division record, thus breaking the tie for the division title.

The Chargers have the look of a team ready to win out and take this thing, however, we know anything can happen in the NFL. The upcoming game worries me a bit in that the Chargers, even after having lost to the Raiders earlier this season, could come in a bit overconfident after seeing the horrible performance of the Oakland last week. They still don't appear to have a QB and their spirit looked broken after they fell behind just by three points against Miami. I'm sure they'd love to beat the Chargers though just out of spite. San Diego needs to bring their best for the rest of the season. Luckily, while Norv can't seem to start a season well, he's proven he's adept at keeping the guys focused at the end.

The Chargers now have a chance, and that's all that any team should ask for.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Why the Chargers Will Beat the Colts

The Chargers go to Indianapolis Sunday night to play to Colts in a game that has playoff implications for both teams. The Colts, at 6-4 are wondering for the first time in awhile if they will make the playoffs. The Chargers at 5-5, and having won their last three games, are feeling more confident after blowing out the Broncos on Monday Night Football. Both teams face significant injury issues and will be relying on their Hall of Fame bound quarterbacks to pull this one out.

The Colts have an advantage in playing at home as they've been perfect there and the Chargers have been generally horrible on the road this year, but the Chargers have a superior supporting cast that will be the difference in this game.

San Diego's defense, as in last week's match against the Broncos, will be the difference in this game. Corners, Jammer and Cason, are playing at a high level and will be up for this game. The Broncos tried to pick on Cason last week and he responded with several break-ups and an interception. Safeties, Weddle and Oliver, have shown they understand the scheme and are showing excellent teamwork and communication in not allowing big plays.

With Joseph Addai out and a suspect run blocking scheme and commitment to begin with, the Chargers front seven will stifle the Colts' running game, forcing Manning to try and win it with his arm. The Chargers' athletic linebackers and sure tackling corners will limit the short passing game's effectiveness, forcing Peyton to throw the ball deeper, exposing him to the mistakes, interceptions and general lack of efficiency we've seen in the last four weeks. Looking at Peyton's stats, his quarterback rating has fallen dramatically over the last four weeks. Some of this can be attributed to injuries, and some to playing better defenses like the Patriots (and Chargers).

On the other side of the ball, the Colts have one of the worst run defenses in the league. The Chargers will take advantage of this and Rivers' efficiency, and methodically move the ball, keeping Peyton off the field. This will further frustrate the Colts, causing Manning to take even more chances. I expect the Chargers to come up with two or three interceptions en route to this victory.

In the passing game, the Colts' defense is stronger, with a lot of the credit going to defensive ends Mathis and Freeney coming off the edge. Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeil has shown he can handle Freeney in the past. We'll see how right tackle Jeromey Clary does with Mathis. In general, the Chargers' pass protection has been extremely solid since the return of McNeil, and they should be able to handle this challenge. If the Chargers do lose this game, it will be because they put themselves in a hole on special teams or with fumbles...or both, forcing Rivers' to make a late comeback with Freeney and Mathis pinning their ears back causing sacks, fumbles and general mayhem. The Chargers showed us last week that they are now a confident and aggressive football team again and I think those major mistakes of the first half of the season are behind them.

A couple other factors will contribute to Sunday's victory for San Diego: Sproles loves the fake stuff. While the little guy may have trouble churning those little legs on the wet and muddy stuff, he thrives on the field turf. Look for him to have an extra spark in the return game, on screens, and sneaky short passes up the middle like last week. He'll have at least one huge play...On the Chargers defense, I noticed something I hadn't seen all year that just might be the harbinger of interesting things to come: the aggressiveness of the defensive line. This group has been in survival mode since the injury and departure of Jamal Williams last year. Last week though, second year player Vaughn Martin and rookie Cam Thomas both had sacks and looked like they were actually having fun out there. Luis Castillo even made a couple of tackles for negative yardage. This group may be realizing their athletic potential and how aggressive they can be. If so, the Chargers can really become a legitimate top defense in the NFL (in accordance with their previously suspect stats).

A victory this week should set San Diego up perfectly to catch the Chiefs, at the same time, put the Indiapolis Mannings'...I mean Colts', season in jeopardy. Both teams are at a crossroads as franchises. The Chargers have attempted to reload with some younger players with great potential that may just be starting to pay off. The Colts may have put too many of their eggs in Manning's basket, with this game being the tipping point to a long frustrating slide downward.

Chargers 27, Colts 17

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Track

As an NFL analyst for ESPN, you would think Keyshawn Johnson would do a little homework while "preparing" his opinions. Last night before the game, he told Charger fans they wouldn't make it this year because they had "several" games to make up to catch the Chiefs, and that was just unrealistic to think things could work out perfectly. Wrong. With a win last night, the Chargers put the Broncos out of their misery (season over) and stayed on track to catch the Chiefs. More importantly, the Chargers are playing at a level that qualifies them for, and makes them relevant in, the playoffs.

Shaun Phillips deserves the MVP award for last night's game. The guy has matured into a versatile and smart player who has emerged as a leader and play maker on this defense. Fans were right to wonder about his character with some of the things he's said and done in the first half of his career. He seems to have taken his past mistakes to heart though and decided he'd rather be great than be a disgruntled punk. His ability to read plays on the fly coupled with his rangy quickness makes him extremely dangerous in the backfield for quarterbacks and running backs on draws and screens. Great game Shaun.

The special teams didn't lose the game this week and I think we discovered one of the major reasons for the poor performance in previous weeks: the injury to Brandon Siler. Back this week, the guy seemed to make every tackle on kickoffs. His big hits provide a spark of aggressiveness that carry over when the defense takes the field.

As I mentioned in my last post, the defense did prove to be the difference in this game, dominating the Broncos after they looking like they hadn't had their coffee yet on the first series. Orton looks good only when everything goes to plan and when the first receiver who is supposed to open actually is. Anyone who thought Orton belonged in the same conversation with Rivers as elite NFL quarterbacks were disabused of that notion by the end of the night.

When I gamed out the season (two posts ago) I originally picked the Colts to win next week's game in Indianapolis, but given the Chargers' confidence and performance and Peyton Manning's horrible game Sunday, this next game looks very good for San Diego. A win at Indy might even get Keyshawn's attention.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Are You Ready for Some Football?

The Chargers will try to prove to a national audience and themselves tonight that they belong in the playoff discussion. Some folks and analysts around the league who haven't been paying much attention may have already written them off. A big win could change all that.

The Chargers are the superior team to the Denver Broncos. While both offenses have been moving the ball and scoring points with ease, the Chargers' defense is for real and should prove the difference in this game. Again, like every other week, San Diego could mess this one up with horrible special teams play and some untimely fumbles.

On defense, I'm looking for Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer, along with Eric Weddle and Paul Oliver, to show they are gelling as a unit and ready for prime time. Many have criticized AJ for some first-round draft picks that haven't panned out, like Buster Davis, Larry English (so far!) and Ryan Mathews (so far!), but Cason is not one of them. In his first year as a starter at corner, he's been extremely solid. If anyone remembers the painful growing pains of Quentin Jammer, Cason seems like a child prodigy by comparison. The Broncos will be able to move the ball and score some points, but also look for this unit to get a couple of key interceptions.

The return of Larry English and Brandon Siler should help the secondary as the linebacking corps will have more fresh legs rushing the passer. English has to be motivated to prove he's not a first-round bust and Siler is fantastic on the sneaky quick blitz up the middle.

On offense, it doesn't look like Ryan Mathews will go. That's fine. Tolbert is capable and should have a good game against a weak and depleted Broncos' defense. Norv would be wise to give Mathews another week or two off to let him get fully healthy as he seems to keep aggravating the same injury.

In the passing game, I will be surprised if Gates makes it on the field this week. He simply needs more time to heal the tear in his foot. On the upside, Malcolm Floyd appears ready to go and should have a big game against a suspect Broncos' secondary. Look for Patrick Crayton and Seyi Ajirotutu to continue getting more and more comfortable with Rivers.

Most analysts seem to be predicting an high flying shootout that comes down to the end. I think the Chargers will be the only ones flying high as their defense will stifle Orton and company.

Chargers 38, Broncos 17

Friday, November 12, 2010

How the Chargers Will Make the Playoffs

After winning the last two games against a couple of the tougher teams on their schedule, the Chargers, even after an atrocious start, have set themselves up to make the playoffs. At 4-5, with a bunch of injured players coming back after the bye week, one could even make the case for the Chargers to be the favorite (again) to win the division. Here's the breakdown of predictions:

Denver at SD: W

SD at Indianapolis: L (although the Chargers could very likely win this one)

Kansas City at SD: W

Oakland at SD: W

San Francisco at SD: W

SD at Cincinnati: W

SD at Denver: W

The last two on the road at Cincinnati and Denver are the scariest, but the Chargers are better, surging, and should win these games. This would put San Diego at 10-6 for the season. Now let's take a look at current division leader Kansas City:

KC at Denver: W (for KC)

Arizona at KC: W

KC at Seattle: L

Denver at KC: W

KC at SD: L

KC at St. Louis L

Tennessee at KC: L

Oakland at KC: W

This puts the Chiefs at 9-7 and one game behind the Chargers for the division. This is precarious for the Chargers because if the the Chiefs step up and win even one game they're not "supposed to," this leaves the division tied, and the playoff decision will fall to tiebreaker scenarios.

Let's take a look at the Raiders (5-4), who also lead the Chargers in the division:

Oakland at Pittsburgh: L (for Oakland)

Miami at Oakland: W

Oakland at SD: L

Oakland at Jacksonville: L

Denver at Oakland: W

Indianapolis at Oakland: L

Oakland at KC: L

This puts the Raiders at 7-9 and out of playoff contention. Although they just beat the Chiefs last week and seem to be a team on the upswing at this point in the season, their schedule is much tougher than KC's or the Chargers' going forward.

Although there are too many variables, and the Chargers should have never put themselves in this hole to begin with, most sober analysts would have to make them the favorite to return to the playoffs. However, it will be unlikely that they will earn a buy, making it more likely that the road forward in the playoffs. May mean a game against an AFC South team at home, then, if they can survive, the road to the Super Bowl would go on the road through Pittsburgh, Indy, New York or New England. If the rest of the season does work out as I've predicted, we'll no doubt hear proclamations of the Chargers being the team "nobody wants to face" after having won seven of their last eight. Deja vu?

Let's just hope they can get in.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chargers Get What they Need in Houston

Well, the Chargers did make huge special teams mistakes AND turnovers in crucial situations AND they couldn't stop Arian Foster on first and second down, but they still came out with a win.


Phillip Rivers did make a bunch of fill in receivers look like stars. The offensive line was great in pass blocking, giving Rivers time to find the open receiver. Norv called a great game with a trick play at an opportune time.

The Texans helped by seeming to forget they had an unstoppable Marcus Allen-Eric Dickerson-Larry Johnson-hybrid running back in the second half who effortlessly glided through holes, arm tackles and around Chargers the whole first half. This guy has the look of a legend. Arian Foster's touchdown reception-that-wasn't shows the Chargers' luck may be evening out as they go forward. Coach Kubiak's decision to go for it on 4th and 1 out of the hurry-up offense was another gift.

Some Charger receivers did step up, including Patrick Crayton, Seyi Ajirotutu, and Randy McMichael. Ajriotutu made a rookie mistake in the 4th quarter by lining up on the line of scrimmage when he should have been off. Norv went right back to him on a huge third down play and he made a great play in running through a DB to get the ball. He may have just secured himself a spot and a career in the NFL.

This win sets up the Chargers perfectly for strong run for the playoffs after the bye week where they should get back many of their regular starters on offense and defense. The Chiefs just lost to the Raiders, putting the Chargers two games back with seven to go. Charger fans who gave up after week seven need to dig back in their closets for their jerseys.

Oh, and for the love...Please fire Steve Crosby.

Turning Point in Texas

The seriously depleted Chargers go to Houston this week for a game that could determine the fate of their season. Will they build off last week's success, make fewer mistakes, play with passion and win? Or will they go back to their old pattern of making turnovers and younger players showing they aren't ready to compete in the NFL?

The scariest problem is the injury to Antionio Gates. Charger fans have grown used to him playing through severe injuries, but it may just be too much to ask this time. Gates couldn't walk on Monday. This may be the Sunday his consecutive starting streak ends.

Without Gates, someone else on the Chargers' receiving corps must have a big game. At the tight end position, Kris Wilson has only fumbled the ball and Randy McMichael has largely been a disappointment rather than a compliment to Gates. Patrick Crayton seems to be the best candidate at wide receiver, as he looked like he was gaining a rapport with the offense and with Rivers last week. It will also be interesting to see if rookie Seyi Ajirotutu can continue to make plays. The guy looks like someone who has the passion and desire to be a success in this league. Folks hint that he has deep threat speed, but I haven't seen it in a game yet. Look for Norv to give him at least one shot down the field.

If the Chargers win this game, it will be because Rivers plays his best and makes a bunch of back-ups look like regulars. For this to happen, the offensive line will have to have another strong week blocking. The offensive line, Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert will also have to make something happen in the running game. Last week was the O-line's best game. Hopefully they've rediscovered their aggressiveness. I still think Mathews is capable (and due) to have a monster game. This would be a great week for it.

The Texans also have one of the top offenses in the NFL. Andre Johnson may be the best receiver in football. Quarterback Matt Shaub has been accurate with his passes. The Texans hit the jackpot with Mission Bay High alum Arian Foster at running back. This team can move the ball and score points. However, I think the Charger defense has been gaining confidence all season and is underrated by Charger fans and the NFL. Andre Johnson is nursing a bad ankle and may be a bit limited. This should allow the Chargers to stuff the run a bit more. If they can hold Foster and the short passing game on first and second down, then look for some crucial sacks and interceptions to come on third and long in what could be the deciding plays in this one.

San Diego cannot afford any horrible turnovers in the red zone or special teams gaffs this week. This would be too much for this fragile team's confidence on the road. If they can avoid those pitfalls, they win this one by a nose:

Chargers 34, Texans 30

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chargers Show Heart

The biggest development from Sunday's game was that the Chargers showed a whole bunch of heart and aggressiveness in knocking down the Titans in the second half. Darren Sproles getting low and powering through a defender on a touchdown run showed some renewed energy. Mike

Tolbert ran and ran over people like a man possessed. This team just decided (despite some more of the same dumb plays in the first half) not to lose.

In reference to my last post, luck was on the side of the Chargers this week as well. With Kenny Britt going down in the first quarter, the Titans' dominant deep threat was taken away. When Vince Young went down with an ankle injury in the 4th quarter on a QB slide (any worse luck than that?) the Chargers could sit back and defend the less (non?) mobile Kerry Collins.

Phillip Rivers continues to show his mastery of the quarterback position. With Marcus McNeill shaking the rust off in his second week back, Rivers had time to dissect the Titans' secondary. Rivers is the reason this team can't be counted out for the playoffs.

Anyone looking ahead at the rest of the schedule will see a very believable path to 10-6. With the Chiefs playing some real football, will this be enough to catch them? Charger fans have to hope for a mini Broncos-style collapse from a team that hasn't yet faced the real pressure games that will surely come down the stretch.

Next week's game on the road against the Texans suddenly becomes very important. This is one of the tougher teams the Chargers will face in what has become an early playoff drive, but this is a very winnable contest. Right now Peyton Manning is showing the weakness of Houston's secondary.

On an unrelated note: Will the Chargers pick up Randy Moss? No. AJ would never deal with this guy. Should they? No. There's been enough drama this season. With a team nursing some fledgling confidence, the last thing they need is the cynical Moss. Let him go to some other desperate team.