Monday, November 17, 2014

Chargers Beat The Raiders... But Can They Make The Playoffs?

San Diego Charger outside linebacker Dwight Freeney harasses Raiders' QB David Carr  -

The San Diego Chargers eked out a 13-6 win over the hapless Oakland Raiders on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium in what some are calling a gritty defensive battle. But let's get real, folks. This game was not so much a defensive battle as it was an offensive debacle. 

The Charger defenders made some plays, give them credit. Especially the defensive backs. But the offense was mostly awful. Quarterback Philip Rivers made one spectacular throw early to wide receiver Malcolm Floyd, who made a brilliant catch in the end zone for a touchdown. And running back Ryan Mathews ran hard and well after being out for two months. 

But beyond that, the Chargers' offense stunk up the Q. Why? Because the big uglies have evidently forgotten how to block. Shades of the Chargers in 2012. Yeesh. This increasingly leaky offensive line needs help fast, because the Chargers' schedule doesn't get any easier.

Charger RB Ryan Mathews impresses in return -
Despite the feeble showing by the beleaguered O line, the win raised the team's record to 6-4, which means the Bolts still have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. 

But for that to happen, the O line needs to quickly improve its run blocking and pass blocking, and the D line needs to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks whose teams are not based in Oakland. 

Chargers coaches and players better know that Sunday's home game against St. Louis is another must-win against a vastly underrated Rams team that has beaten the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos and still has eyes on the playoffs. 

A loss would drop the Chargers to 6-5 and throw them into a pile of mediocre AFC climbers trying desperately to reach the Wild Card summit.

The good news? San Diego is just one game behind Denver and Kansas City in the AFC West race. Yep, the division title is within reach. But San Diego's remaining schedule is probably the toughest in the league:

San Diego's remaining schedule: St. Louis, at Baltimore, New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City.

Denver's remaining schedule: Miami, at Kansas City, Buffalo, at San Diego, at Bengals, Raiders.

Kansas City's remaining schedule: at Raiders, Denver, at Arizona, Raiders, at Pittsburgh, San Diego.

As you can see, all three AFC West playoff contenders have three remaining home games, and three remaining away games. But San Diego has the toughest slog. It's brutal. Kansas City still gets to play the lowly Raiders twice. 

Charger WR Malcolm Floyd's touchdown vs. Raiders -
The Chargers must beat Denver at home and Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium to have any chance. That won't be easy. But it can happen. San Diego went into Denver last year during the regular season and beat the Broncos. 

Up until a few weeks ago, Denver had looked better than it was last year when it made it to the Super Bowl. But that's now up for debate after Denver's two losses in the last three games. 

San Diego, however, is clearly a better team than it was last year, despite its O line troubles and all its well-publicized injuries to key players.

One good sign for the Bolts as they reach the stretch run is that their defense enjoyed a minor resurgence Sunday, albeit against the Raiders, who dropped to 0-10. The DBs did their job, namely Shareece Wright. 

It certainly helped to have outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu back on the field after injuries sidelined both for most of the season. Their presence demonstrably improved the pass rush, which has been sorely lacking the last several games, and allowed veteran backer Dwight Freeney to get some in-game rest between spurts.

If Ingram and Attaochu can both stay healthy for the last six games, and that's a man-sized if, their presence will complement Freeney and backer Jarrett Johnson and make it much tougher on opponents' passing games. 

Chargers gang tackle Raiders -
But will it be enough to give the Chargers' gritty but inconsistent defensive unit the playmakers they need as the team heads into rougher December waters? Rookie cornerback Jason Verrett, who's had a hugely positive impact already on this defense, is out for the season.

Meanwhile, San Diego's offense, which is typically the team's pillar of strength, is inexplicably wobbly. The once-potent group of red zone hogs was out of sync and stalled Sunday after coming off a bye week. 

Rivers was burdened again by a consistently collapsing pocket and by receivers, tight ends and running backs who made a few great catches but could not create enough separation from Oakland's defensive backs and linebackers. No one was open.

The return of Mathews from injury made a difference. He made the best of what few holes he was given, and the running game was better than in the previous week. But overall the offense couldn't get out of its own way.

San Diego must somehow fix its broken offensive line this week in practice and get the receivers back in unison with Rivers. It'll take a much better offensive effort to beat the Rams than it took to beat the Raiders. 

Make no mistake: The St. Louis game will determine whether the Chargers' season is still on track, or off the rails. 

But as we speak, Kansas City is the team to beat in the AFC West. Denver is still good, but Charger fans all know -- and now Rams rushers know, too -- that Peyton Manning is vulnerable when he's properly pressured and doesn't have multiple Pro Bowlers to throw to. KC is on a roll. 

But don't count out San Diego just yet. You can never dismiss a team led by Rivers, an elite warrior who's reportedly been playing with severe rib pain for weeks and now has knee pain to go with it. Where there's a will, there's a Rivers, who does more with less than any other NFL quarterback I've seen.

If the offensive linemen can figure it out, if they can hold back a stout Rams' D line on Sunday and give Rivers just a little more time to throw the ball -- even an extra second -- the Chargers will win and move to 7-4. 

And that'll get people talking about the Chargers again as contenders, and give this team the confidence it needs to make a legitimate playoff run in these final six games.

A win Sunday and San Diego will pretty much control its own destiny, because so many AFC teams vying for a playoff spot will be playing each other, and beating each other.

While San Diego hosts the Rams this Sunday, the Lions play the Patriots, the Jets play the Bills, Miami plays Denver, and the Ravens play at New Orleans.

Next week, while San Diego plays at Baltimore, the Browns play at Buffalo, the Saints play the Steelers, the Patriots play at Green Bay, the Broncos play at Kansas City, and the Dolphins play at the Jets.

Then in week 14, while San Diego hosts the Patriots, the Steelers play the Bengals in Cincy, the Ravens play at Miami, the Bills play at Denver, and the Chiefs play at Arizona, which could be a Super Bowl preview. 

Then in week 15, while San Diego hosts the Broncos, the Dolphins play at New England, the Packers play at Buffalo, and the Bengals play at Cleveland.

If San Diego beats the Rams on Sunday and heads to Baltimore next week with a 7-4 record, and wins that game, which granted will be tough, the Chargers will be 8-4 and right in the mix for a Wild Card berth and perhaps even a share of the AFC West division title. 


  1. Jamie:

    Great post. I can understand your bias in favor of the Bolts and I respect that. However, the Patriots are the dominant team in the AFC. And the Patriots just get better as the season goes along. Rivers is a great QB, no doubt, but is he in a class with Brady? Seriously? Right now, it looks like any hope for the playoffs in the AFC goes through New England. Can the Patriots be taken out? Absolutely. This is the NFL and anything is possible. But can the Chargers beat the Patriots? That's the question. And that's why we follow this insane sport. All the best, my friend.
    John Cook

    1. John, this is an argument I have had before. Brady is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. But Rivers is an elite QB who has simply not been on as many good teams as Brady. It is a team sport. And I agree, I don't know if the Chargers can beat the Patriots. We'll see. A lot of people have no clue how good a football player Philip Rivers is. People who think the Chargers would have a bunch of Super Bowl rings if not for Rivers need to soak their heads. It isn't true. Rivers is an elite QB, and with all respect to the great Dan Fouts, Rivers is the best quarterback ever to wear a Chargers uniform. Football is a team game. All things being equal, Rivers would have as many rings as anyone. Trust me. There are few QBs who've ever played the game that have more competitive fire and a higher football IQ. You can not point to a single Chargers playoff loss in which Rivers has started and say Rivers was the reason the Chargers lost. If Philip, LT and Gates weren't all hurt in the AFC Championship game after the 2007 season, for example, the Chargers would have likely beaten the Patriots. That Charger team was second to none. It also wasn't Rivers fault that the Bolts lost to the Patriots in the playoffs after the 2006 season. Blame that on Marlon Macree for fumbling after his pic and blame the Chargers D for not being able to stop the Pats late. Tom Brady had three interceptions in that game, Philip only one! Rivers has never thrown more than two pics in a playoff game. In 9 playoff games Rivers has 11 TD passes and 9 pics. By comparison, in 7 playoff games, Fouts had 12 TDs and 16 pics. Rivers also had a great game against the Steelers in the Chargers' playoff game after the 2008 season, with three TD passes and more than 300 yards passing. But LT didn't play in that game, and the Charger defense couldn't stop the Steelers' running game. Rivers showed his stuff again in the playoff game against Denver back in January, rallying the team from a 17-0 deficit. But the charger D once again could not not stop Denver on a crucial third down late. Rivers threw two TD passes and ZERO pics in that game, Peyton Manning threw one pic, but San Diego's defense let the team down late, again. It has never been Rivers who's kept San Diego from getting to the Super Bowl. These are facts. Facts are stubborn things. Rivers is an elite QB who is as good as any of the other QBs who have more Super Bowl rings. Don;t get me started.... :)

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