AFC West: San Diego Chargers
Few teams in the NFL are as hot as the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers, who will meet Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Bills are off to a surprising 2-0 start and sit alone atop the AFC East. They've turned the ball over just once and have limited opposing offenses to less than 16 points per game. Add in strong special-teams contributions -- Buffalo players won AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors after both games this season -- and the Bills have found a recipe for winning.
Meanwhile, the Chargers (1-1) are hanging tough in the AFC West. With their 30-21 victory last week, they became one of just four teams to take down the Seattle Seahawks since the start of last season. Quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates are still the centerpiece of a dangerous offensive attack.
ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams preview the game:
Rodak: The Chargers seem to be riding high after knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions. What was the key to their victory and how do you see their performance carrying forward?
Williams:Ccoach Mike McCoy devised an excellent game plan for defeating Seattle. Rivers used the short passing game to control the tempo, and in the red zone, the Chargers got one-on-one matchups with Gates against linebackers or strong safety Kam Chancellor. And for the most part, Gates won. Defensively, the Chargers did a nice job of swarm-tackling Marshawn Lynch and Percy Harvin in the run game, and they forced Russell Wilson to make plays from inside the pocket. Lastly, San Diego won the turnover battle. It’s a good recipe for winning games on a weekly basis in the NFL, but in order to win on the road, the Chargers will need to run the ball more consistently.
The Bills are 2-0 at the start of the season for the first time since 2011. Can this team break the NFL’s longest playoff drought by making the postseason for the first time since 1999?
Rodak: They have the potential to do it. The Bills might have the AFC East's most talented roster. There are 12 first-round picks and five second-round picks, part of an overall mixture of homegrown talent and pieces added from the outside. The Bills have arguably the NFL's best defensive line -- three players went to the Pro Bowl last season -- and a strong group of offensive weapons surrounding EJ Manuel.
The question has always been about the quarterback, and through two weeks, I'm not sure the concerns about Manuel have been alleviated. The Bills have limited Manuel's pass attempts; he has 48 through two games, the second-fewest in the NFL. They're also 29th in red zone touchdown efficiency, a problem that has been masked by strong defense and special-teams play. The Bills have proven they can win games with that approach, but I still think we'll need to see more out of Manuel before the Bills are considered a strong playoff contender.
The Chargers have no shortage of weapons on offense, yet they often don't get the same attention as some of the NFL's better offenses. Where would you place Rivers among his peers at quarterback and how would you rate his receivers?
Williams: Rivers is a top-five quarterback in the NFL, in my opinion. He is accurate, smart and still possesses plenty of zip in his arm to make every throw on the field. And at 32 years old, he's in his prime. Last season, Rivers led the league in completion percentage (69.5 percent) and finished fourth in passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5). However, he does not get as much attention as some of the other elite quarterbacks because he doesn't have a Super Bowl ring, and that's how we judge the best quarterbacks in the game.
I also believe San Diego has an above-average group of receivers, led by Keenan Allen, and perhaps the best tight end tandem in the NFL in Gates and Ladarius Green. Add Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown at running back, and Rivers has plenty of playmakers at his disposal to take advantage of specific matchups each week.
Manuel struggled during exhibition play but has been a steady performer during the first two games of the regular season. Manuel has completed 67 percent of his passes, has been sacked only once and has a 95.4 passer rating in helping lead the Bills to two victories. What has been the difference?
Rodak: There is a marked difference at wide receiver that has helped boost Manuel's play this season. Last season, Manuel and top wideout Stevie Johnson never seemed to be on the same page, plus Johnson had some lingering injury problems. Second-round pick Robert Woods was a rookie and third receiver T.J. Graham had a limited skill set that didn't do Manuel many favors. Manuel's leading receiver was tight end Scott Chandler (53 catches, 655 yards), but Chandler has just two catches in two games this season.
Instead, Manuel has fired away at top pick Sammy Watkins. Watkins has 15 targets, the most on the team. In addition, Woods came up with a pair of impressive catches in Week 1 that bailed out Manuel on some less-than-accurate throws. Manuel certainly deserves credit for better decision-making in his second season, but the Bills wanted to improve his group of receivers, and the difference has been noticeable.
The Chargers' defense ranks 30th in yards allowed per play (6.58) and opponent yards per rush (5.56) but has allowed only 19.5 points per game, which is 12th-best in the NFL. Is run defense a problem for San Diego and if so, how have they covered it up?
Williams: The Chargers struggled against the run last season but did a better job against a pretty good running offense (Seattle) Sunday. The key for San Diego's defense is actually how much the offense controls tempo. The Chargers are No. 2 on offense in the NFL in time of possession (35:13), so the defense isn't on the field for long periods of time. San Diego also forced three turnovers in two games -- along with a blocked punt -- and only has one turnover on offense. So the Chargers do a good job of stealing a few possessions each game. Those things help hide other deficiencies San Diego has on defense.
Watkins had a breakout performance against Miami, finishing with eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. We know that Buffalo leans on the run game with C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and Anthony Dixon, but how has Watkins added another dimension to the offense?
Rodak: We didn't see too much of Watkins in the season opener; he had three catches in the first half and Manuel overthrew Watkins on his only target in the second half. Things changed in Week 2. He brings a clear advantage over most other receivers: Watkins has speed that allows him to be a deep threat, sure hands and a large catch radius that allows him to haul in off-target passes, and some shiftiness that makes him dangerous after the catch. The Bills had speed at receiver last season but lacked the route-running and pass-catching ability that Watkins brings to the table.
Let’s turn back the clock, way back to, say, 2011.
John Fox is in his first season as coach of the Denver Broncos, and John Elway in his first season as the team’s top football executive. After five weeks, the Broncos are 1-4. Kyle Orton gets benched, the Broncos put Tim Tebow in at quarterback, and Denver goes 7-4 to finish 8-8 and win a tightly clustered AFC West on the basis of tiebreakers.
The San Diego Chargers also finished 8-8, as did the Oakland Raiders. The Kansas City Chiefs were 7-9.
All four teams piled together in a bit of a mediocrity club. Not too good, not too bad.
And then, in March 2012, the balance of power didn’t just shift, it was tilted by the weight of a future Hall of Famer when the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. The Broncos have followed with two more division titles, back-to-back 13-3 finishes and one Super Bowl appearance.
In all, the Broncos have gone 33-10 since moving Tebow and then Manning into the starting lineup. But the Broncos lost a Super Bowl by 35 points, looking physically overwhelmed while doing it, and Manning just turned 38. The clock is ticking on his storied career, and three teams with head coaches and general managers all hired since 2012 hope there is opportunity.
“You know they’re working their tails off to change things," Fox said. “We’re working hard to keep going, but your first goal always is to win the division; that’s the only guaranteed way to get in the tournament."
The Broncos were the most active of the four AFC West teams in free agency in recent weeks, but as Chargers coach Mike McCoy put it, “We’re grinding away. That’s the solution, just keep grinding."
The four writers who cover the AFC West for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Paul Gutierrez in Oakland, Jeff Legwold in Denver, Adam Teicher in Kansas City and Eric D. Williams in San Diego -- offered their insights on closing the gap on the Broncos and some other key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which team is closest to catching the Broncos in the AFC West?
Paul Gutierrez: Is this a trick question? Sure, the Broncos excel at losing Super Bowls in blowout fashion like no one else this side of Fran Tarkenton's Minnesota Vikings. But when it comes to the division in which they reside, the Broncos got better defensively in free agency by adding DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Since the Chargers were the only ones in the AFC West to beat the Broncos last season and have had a better run than the Chiefs in free agency, I'll go with the Bolts. While Kansas City lost three starting offensive linemen, San Diego essentially stayed the course. Quarterback Philip Rivers enjoyed a renaissance season under first-year coach Mike McCoy and figures to spread his wings (and bolo ties) with a year of experience. As far as the Raiders are concerned, there are simply too many questions and new faces at this juncture to think they will make a quantum leap in improvement, though stranger things have happened. Think Tony Sparano and the 2008 Miami Dolphins, who improved to 11-5 a year after going 1-15. And, yes, Sparano is on Oakland's staff.
Jeff Legwold: Everyone in the division, including the Broncos, carries a significant question in tow this season. For the Chiefs, it's their secondary; for the Chargers, it's their offensive line; and for the Raiders, their search for a get-it-done quarterback has now landed on Matt Schaub. The Chiefs were closest in the standings last season, powered by their defense, but the Chargers were closest on the field, with a win over the Broncos in the regular season and a hard-fought loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Chiefs return the guts of that defense, and even with the questions in the secondary, they are poised to duplicate a double-digit-win season in coach Andy Reid's second year. The Chargers played the Broncos tougher last season, and if Philip Rivers has another quality year, they will be in the playoff conversation. But they have largely sat out free agency with a draft-built approach. That puts them on a timetable to need one or two more drafts to be in position to win the division.
Adam Teicher: The Chargers finished last season in that spot, and though they lost offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, I don't see how much else has changed in that regard. The Chargers were competitive in their games against the Broncos last season, something the Chiefs and Raiders couldn't manage. San Diego also has the division's best quarterback and, yes, that includes Peyton Manning. The way the Chiefs finished last season, losing six of their last eight games, makes me wonder which way their program is headed. Their 9-0 start was a long time ago. The Raiders should be better than in 2013 but still haven't come far enough to be a serious part of this discussion. They had a huge pile of money to spend, but for the most part I don't agree with how they used it. While Matt Schaub is better at quarterback than the guys who played there for Oakland last season, he's still fourth among the four starters in the division.
Eric D. Williams: The Chargers offer the best challenge to Denver's throne in 2014. San Diego is the only AFC West team to defeat the Broncos since Peyton Manning's arrival in 2012. The Chargers held Denver's offense to 24 points a contest in three games last season, 14 points lower than the Broncos' NFL-best average of 38 points a game during the regular season. San Diego is the only team that returns its entire offensive line from 2013, and the defense should improve with the return of a healthy Dwight Freeney along with the development of young players like Shareece Wright, Jahleel Addae and Manti Te'o.
@adamteicher As much as I want to say the Chiefs I think it's the Chargers. Great coach, Top 10 QB, no significant FA losses.— clarkgriffiths (@clarkgriffiths) March 26, 2014
The AFC West had three teams make the playoffs last season. Can it happen again?
Gutierrez: Sorry, can't see it happening this season. Besides the fact that the Broncos are still the class of the division, even if they lost Eric Decker and Wesley Woodyard, and the Chiefs and Chargers are stuck playing catch-up, the rest of the AFC's wild-card chasers -- the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens -- won't be down for long. Plus, it's such a statistical anomaly for a division to gobble up three of the six playoff slots in a conference. Since the 2002 realignment, it's happened only five times -- in 2006 with the NFC East (Philadelphia, Dallas and the New York Giants), in 2007 with the AFC South (Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee) and the NFC East (Dallas, New York and Washington), in 2011 with the AFC North (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) and last season with the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers. Then there's this: The AFC West next season plays the tough NFC West, which went a combined 42-22 last season, compared to the AFC West going 37-27. They will beat up on each other a bit, allowing other AFC teams to grab playoff berths.
Legwold: That's a tough sell. When the division had three teams make the postseason in 2013, it was because the Steelers, Ravens, Jets and Dolphins -- who finished 8-8 -- lost a spot on the final day of the regular season. For the second consecutive year, Miami has tried to buy improvement in free agency, the Jets waved the checkbook around, and the Steelers and Ravens continued to trust the draft-first formula that has served them well on the way to multiple Super Bowl wins. It's a stretch to think all four of those teams won't cross the .500 mark in 2014 or that somebody won't come out of the AFC South. NFL personnel evaluators continue to say Houston's roster isn't that of a 2-14 team and that, with the No. 1 pick in the draft, their turnaround could come quickly.
Teicher: It can, but it won't. That Denver, Kansas City and San Diego all made the playoffs last season was a factor of the AFC West teams getting some extremely favorable scheduling. AFC West teams played against teams from the AFC South and NFC East. Only two of those eight opponents finished with a winning record and included were games against three of the worst teams in the league (Jacksonville, Houston and Washington). They won't have such luck in 2014. The common opponents from outside the division include four teams that won 10 or more games last season (New England, Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona). So all three of last year's playoff teams from the AFC West will find it difficult to beat or even match their records from last season. Few if any gimmes are built into this year's schedule.
Williams: While I believe the AFC West will remain one of the most competitive divisions in pro football, three teams will not make the playoffs again. The Chargers needed several things to go their way on the final week of the regular season, including Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop missing a relatively easy 41-yard field goal, to sneak in as the final AFC wild-card team. Other teams like Houston, Pittsburgh and Tennessee should improve, making it tough for three teams from one division to get into the postseason for a second straight year.
@eric_d_williams There will only be 2. The Chargers and Broncos. Too much turnover in KC especially on the O-line.— Mikey G (@MikeyG253) March 27, 2014
Peyton Manning is the obvious top choice at quarterback in the division. Which of the other current starters -- Philip Rivers, Alex Smith and Matt Schaub -- do you think will have the best 2014?
Gutierrez: The knee-jerk reaction is to go with Rivers, who, as mentioned above, experienced enough of a rebirth to be named the NFL's comeback player of the year by The Associated Press, an honor that usually goes to someone coming back from injury. But let's think outside of the box and put on our silver-and-black-tinted glasses. Schaub had a nightmarish season in Houston last year, with visions of pick-sixes dancing through his head. But if a change of scenery is all the doctor ordered -- and Darren McFadden stays healthy enough to make the play-action pass a devastating weapon for Schaub, and the Raiders' rebuilt offensive line gives him time, and a playmaking receiver emerges -- then Schaub might be the guy. That's a lot of ifs, but we're just talking here, right? I'm not saying that translates to wins, but with an offense tailored to his strengths and confidence, might Schaub be the second straight QB from the division to win a non-injury related comeback player of the year award?
Legwold: The Raiders were quick to pour on the optimism at the recent league meetings about Schaub's arrival and what he could mean to their offense, and the Chiefs believe Smith will be better in his second season with Andy Reid. But after Manning, Rivers is still the most accomplished passer among the other three, and he, too, will be better in the second season with McCoy. With former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's departure to be the Tennessee Titans coach, Rivers is facing at least some transition, but with McCoy's presence and the promotion of Frank Reich from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, it should be fairly seamless. If the Chargers can protect Rivers, they will benefit from the results.
Teicher: Rivers. He was rejuvenated in Mike McCoy's offensive system. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact Whisenhunt's departure has on him. Smith had a strong finish last season, even if the Chiefs didn't. Things should run more smoothly for him in Year 2 in Andy Reid's system, but it's troubling that the Chiefs lost their best offensive lineman in left tackle Branden Albert and two other regulars on their line. They have yet to add to their meager collection of offensive threats, though I expect they will in the draft. Their inability to sign Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency will haunt them. I have little in the way of expectations for Schaub in his first season with the Raiders. It's a bit much to ask him to thrive in his first year in a new system with unfamiliar teammates.
Williams: Rivers has the best chance to repeat his success from 2013 for one reason: continuity. The Chargers will return almost every starter from one of the best offenses in the NFL last season. San Diego added Donald Brown in free agency to bolster an already potent run game led by Ryan Mathews. Young playmakers Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green should get better. Look for San Diego to add another playmaker in the draft, along with a player or two to bolster an aging offensive line.
What is the dark-horse free-agency move in the AFC West that will have the biggest impact?
Gutierrez: Seems to me that there have been few, if any, dark-horse signings in free agency; they've all been pretty big names, especially among the top three teams. Even the Raiders' signings have been relatively well-known names. Perhaps, then, the most surprising signing that could have an impact in the division is the guy who was thought to be long gone: Oakland running back Darren McFadden. When he's healthy and used to his skill set -- think early 2011, before a Lisfranc injury ended his season -- Run DMC looks like a league MVP candidate. With the zone-blocking scheme all but scrapped in Oakland, McFadden figures to benefit from the change back to a power-blocking mantra. The Raiders re-signed him to a relatively cheap, incentive-laden deal, so that qualifies as a dark-horse move. Whether he has a breakthrough season will determine if the signing is impactful enough to help decide the division.
Legwold: LaMarr Woodley will turn 30 in November and Justin Tuck turned 31 on March 29, but if the two have a little something left in the career tanks, then they can have an impact in Dennis Allen's defense with the Raiders. If not, well, then they are the first steps toward some salary-cap dead money when they can't play out their contracts. But overall, Emmanuel Sanders was the Broncos' last big splash in the opening days of free agency, and he's the guy who could make a significant jump in the Broncos offense. One of the league's better receivers in terms of yards after the catch, he is now with a quarterback whose greatest strength is getting the ball to players on short and intermediate routes in the best place to do the most with it. Sanders' 67 catches in 2013 were his career best, but his 11.0 yards per catch from '13 figures to jump with the opportunities he will get in the Broncos offense.
Teicher: This probably doesn't qualify as a dark-horse move, but when Sanders didn't sign with the Chiefs and instead joined the Broncos, it further tipped the balance of power in the division. Sanders would have been a nice fit in Kansas City's offense. His ability to line up in the slot or split wide would have given the Chiefs a fast receiver to use in a variety of ways. The Chiefs, for the time being at least, are without a proven slot receiver after losing Dexter McCluster to free agency. Their best hope at this point for that position is Weston Dressler, who was signed this year after putting up big numbers for several seasons in the CFL. Sanders, meanwhile, appears destined to catch 80 or more passes for better than 1,000 yards and several touchdowns as Eric Decker's replacement in Denver.
Williams: While some league observers consider San Diego signing Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million deal a reach because the team needs more immediate help in other areas, I believe the Chargers made a good decision for a couple of reasons. Brown is a known commodity because of general manager Tom Telesco's familiarity with the University of Connecticut product from their time together in Indianapolis. Brown is a perfect fit in San Diego's offense with his ability to run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. Brown strengthens something the Chargers already do well: running the football. With Brown, Mathews and Danny Woodhead, San Diego has the most talented running back group in the AFC West.
Cornerback is a huge need for the San Diego Chargers and McShay had them selecting Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy in his second mock. There should be several quality cornerbacks to pick from at this point of the draft, and it seems like a logical position for San Diego to address at No. 25.
This defense could use work at almost any position besides inside linebacker, and passing on a quality defensive prospect wouldn’t be prudent for the Chargers. Wide receiver is also an option, and in a deep receiver class, there should be several attractive wideouts at this stage in the first round. This roster isn’t as strong as their draft position would indicate.
Whom does McShay have the Chargers drafting at No. 25? ?Let's take a look :
The last time the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals met, both teams were missing key players, they played in a local TV blackout, and they could comfortably compete on a 60-degree, postcard-perfect Southern California afternoon.
Those were the conditions just one month ago Wednesday.
At least one of them could be the same. With ticket uncertainty rolling over into Thursday, Bengals officials have been working hard to avoid the NFL's first postseason blackout since 2002. On the field, the Bengals and Chargers have been working to get back key members of their teams, and are anticipating playing in conditions much less favorable than what they had on the West Coast.
Sunday's playoff game isn't only a rematch of the regular-season game won 17-10 by the Bengals. It also marks the first time the teams have met in the postseason since 1981, when Cincinnati beat San Diego for the AFC championship at old Riverfront Stadium. Because of a minus-59 wind chill, that game was dubbed the "Freezer Bowl." While it shouldn't feel that cold Sunday, conditions will be tough. Snow, freezing rain and rapidly dipping temperatures are in the forecast. The weather could make passing difficult for two teams that rely heavily on their quarterbacks.
To break down Sunday's game, we turn to ESPN.com NFL reporters Eric D. Williams (Chargers) and Coley Harvey (Bengals).
Harvey: One of the Bengals' biggest keys in the first meeting was running the ball. They rushed for 164 yards, having success even late in the game when San Diego clearly knew a run was coming. How can the Chargers prevent Cincinnati from having another prolific ground game?
Williams: First, the Chargers will have two players available who did not play in the first game -- outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram. Both are pretty good run defenders who should help San Diego play more physical up front. Second, the Chargers have to do a better job of maintaining their gaps and not allowing Cincinnati’s talented offensive line to create space for the running backs. Last, the Chargers have to do a better job of wrapping up BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. Both running backs finished with a lot of yards after contact, as San Diego had trouble bringing down the hard runners in the back end of the defense.
One thing I'm curious about is the Bengals' defense. The Bengals are tied for third in the league in turnovers forced with 31, and have six defensive touchdowns this season, all at Paul Brown Stadium. Why has Cincinnati’s defense been so successful at creating turnovers?
Harvey: If you ask defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- which we did Monday -- he'll say it's because his players just know they have to do whatever is necessary to pick the offense up and to put the ball back in its hands. There have been several instances when a turnover put the Bengals' defense on the wrong side of the 50, needing to come up with a stop. Defensive players say they relish those opportunities, and believe in their ability to not only hold for a field goal, but get the ball back. Cincinnati's defensive line plays a major role in helping create a lot of the fumbles and interceptions. Even after losing Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, the defensive line has still pressured opposing quarterbacks, forcing poorly thrown balls. The line and linebackers also do a great job of stripping balls and forcing timely fumbles.
I'll add that there is something slightly different about the defense at home. When it comes to turnovers, for example, 21 of the 31 forced by the defense have come at Paul Brown Stadium. As you mentioned, six have resulted in scores. Each of those scores either changed momentum or helped ice the game.
How much do you think playing the Bengals just 35 days ago will benefit the Chargers? They clearly learned something from that loss, and haven’t lost since.
Williams: That is correct -- the Chargers are on a four-game winning streak since losing to the Bengals on Dec. 1. Defensively the Chargers have been stingy, holding teams to just 18 points a contest in the past four games. San Diego has played more consistently on offense, particularly in the red zone, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. And the Chargers are playing with more confidence now than earlier in the season. Chargers coach Mike McCoy has figured out a blueprint for his team to win on both offense and defense -- a prolific, ball-control offense paired with a bend-but-don’t-break defense that keeps teams out of the end zone.
Philip Rivers finished the regular season tops in the NFL in completion percentage (69.5), fourth in touchdown passes (32) and fifth in passing yards (4,478). The Bengals did a nice job containing Rivers in the first matchup. What will it take for a repeat performance?
Harvey: It's going to take a lot of pressure, and some tight coverage both downfield and near the line of scrimmage. Bengals cornerback Terence Newman was telling reporters this week about what he felt made Rivers special -- his intelligence. As an 11-year veteran, Newman has seen it all. According to Newman, what is most impressive is Rivers' ability to use his eyes to steer linebackers or safeties one way, only to pass another because he knows he has a tight end or running back open in a soft spot the defense isn't covering. Newman stopped short of comparing Rivers to Peyton Manning, but he believes the two have much in common. Members of the Bengals' secondary know they can't just key on his eyes, they have to know where his playmakers are at all times. Members of the Bengals' line know they have to keep hounding Rivers like they have hounded quarterbacks all season.
Rivers is San Diego's household name, but how important have running back Ryan Mathews and receiver Keenan Allen been to the offense?
Williams: The Chargers leaned heavily on Mathews during the second half of the season, with good results. San Diego is 7-1 this season when Mathews has at least 19 carries. He has carried the ball at least 24 times in the past four games, all wins for San Diego. Allen finished the season with 71 receptions for a team-leading 1,046 yards, becoming the first rookie since Cincinnati’s A.J. Green to finish with 1,000 receiving yards. Green had 1,057 in 2011. Mathews keeps defenses honest with his bruising running style, and Allen emerged as Rivers’ go-to receiver when San Diego gets near the red zone. Allen is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with eight.
We've seen the good (33 touchdowns) and the bad (20 interceptions) from Andy Dalton this season. What type of performance do you expect from Dalton on Sunday? And will it matter if he does not play well?
Harvey: Because of how good this defense is, especially at home, I'm not sure it will matter if he plays well Sunday. Last week against the Ravens, Dalton threw four interceptions -- the first came 1 yard outside Baltimore's red zone -- and the defense ended up acting as an eraser and pretending the turnovers never happened. The one interception that came on Cincinnati's 21 resulted in a field goal. An interception on the following drive also resulted in a field goal. Instead of being down 14-0 early, the Bengals trailed 6-0, giving Dalton enough confidence to calm down and make plays when he needed to as the comeback began. I'm expecting another mixed bag from Dalton. Just like last week, he has shown this season that he can pass for 270 yards, three touchdowns and still have three interceptions. I wouldn't be surprised if his nerves are elevated a little at the start of the game, but as long as the defense keeps playing the way it has been and his receivers are not dropping passes, I believe Dalton will come out OK on Sunday.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- It’s not uncommon for first-year coaches to have the type of see-saw season the San Diego Chargers are currently experiencing under Mike McCoy.
At 2-3 after a disappointing 27-17 loss to AFC West division rival Oakland, the Chargers have yet to win or lose two in a row through five games.
In order to develop into a championship-caliber team with sustained success, McCoy understands his team has to do the little things. And that means the Chargers can’t turn the ball over five times and expect to win.
The Chargers can’t have a 37-yard field goal blocked. Good teams don’t fail to recover a fumble defensively deep in their opponents’ territory.
Playoff teams get into the end zone on fourth-and-1 from the other team’s 1-yard line. Good teams don’t fall behind 17-0 to a team they’re favored to beat by five points.
Good teams aren’t lucky; they create their own luck. And if San Diego wants to be considered a good team, then the Chargers need to win the games they are supposed to, like the one they lost to Oakland on Sunday night -- even on the road.
“We’re a good football team,” McCoy said. “You’ve just got to keep playing, and that’s what we’re doing. You’ve just got to keep playing and keep going. Don’t worry about one play -- one score. That’s why you play for 60 minutes.”
Moral victories are for weak-minded people. The NFL is a bottom-line league, and if you have more losses than wins over a few seasons, you likely will not be in the league long.
So even though the Chargers rallied from a 24-3 deficit in the fourth quarter to actually have a chance to tie the game at 24-17 with a little over 10 minutes left, the fact is the Raiders dominated play on both sides of the ball for a majority of the contest.
“I’m not going to make excuses, if that’s what you’re looking for,” San Diego offensive lineman Jeromey Clary said. “We’re all pros here. And we’re expected to perform at a high level.”
The Chargers have experienced leaders on both sides of the ball who know what it takes to win in the NFL, including quarterback Philip Rivers, center Nick Hardwick, tight end Antonio Gates, safety Eric Weddle and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson.
However, this team has yet to develop a consistent blueprint to winning that allows them to reel off a streak of four or five wins in a row.
“No excuses, we got beat tonight,” McCoy said. “We came out, and we were outplayed in all three phases. It was tough to go on the road and turn the ball over the way we did and win a football game on the road against a good team.
“Too many big plays -- but it all starts with just executing the system that’s in place. There was a lack of execution. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we just have to keep working.”
Rivers had a September to remember, but a game to forget opening up the month of October. He threw for over 400 yards for a second straight game, completing 36 of 49 passes for 411 yards and three touchdowns.
But Rivers also had three costly interceptions, after throwing just two interceptions in the first four games.
Like the rest of his teammates, Rivers knows he has to perform consistently at a high level for this team to develop into a consistent winner.
“Certainly as an offense, when you turn it over five times, you’re not going to win usually,” Rivers said. “You very rarely overcome it, and then we found ourselves down 24-17 with 10 minutes left.
“That doesn’t make us feel any better. There was a lot more than just turnovers, but certainly on offense, we’ve got to make sure we don’t turn the ball over.”
PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 33-30 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles:
What it means: San Diego avoided the ignominy of losing a second consecutive game after having a double-digit lead in the second half. That would have been rough. The probability of making the playoffs drops significantly if a team starts the season 0-2 as opposed to 1-1.
San Diego won with offense despite two turnovers in the red zone. It controlled the clock, converted on third down (10-for-15) and kept the Eagles' fast-paced offense off the field. The Eagles tied the game at 30-30 with 1:51 remaining, but the Chargers marched down the field with ease to set up the game-winning field goal.
No Floyd: On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers targeted wide receiver Malcom Floyd for the sixth time in the game. Floyd caught all five passes thrown his way in the first half, gaining 102 yards and averaging 20.4 yards per catch. On his sixth target, Floyd had the ball in his hands but had Eagles safety Nate Allen on his back. As Allen tried to make the tackle, linebacker DeMeco Ryans’ shoulder made contact with Floyd’s head and neck. Floyd was on the ground motionless for several minutes. Floyd was taken off the field on a stretcher. He suffered a neck injury and did not return.
Best defense is a good offense: The Eagles ran 53 plays in the first half against Washington in Week 1. They didn’t get that opportunity against San Diego. The Chargers' offense was methodical and efficient and controlled the clock. Philadelphia ran 30 plays in the first half. San Diego ran 34. Through the first three quarters, San Diego had the ball for more than double the amount of time the Eagles did. The drive that broke a 20-20 tie took 17 plays and more than eight minutes.
Rivers has a big game: Rivers was exceptional early. He completed his first 10 passes of the game and 16-of-18 in the first half (for 216 yards and a touchdown). Rivers’ first-half passer rating was 135.2. Rivers had a ton of time in the pocket and consistently took advantage of a weak secondary.
What’s next: The Chargers will make another cross-country trip for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff next weekend when they play at the Tennessee Titans.
New head coaches made their debuts Monday night for the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Diego Chargers. Both teams held big leads early in the third quarter.
Chip Kelly’s Eagles hung on for the win. Mike McCoy’s Chargers lost on a field goal as time expired.
As a result, the mood in Philadelphia is downright giddy as the city prepares for Kelly’s home opener Sunday against the Chargers. The mood in San Diego is a bit different.
Let’s start there.
Phil Sheridan: How are the Chargers handling that dispiriting loss?
Bill Williamson: I think we will see the answer to that question on Sunday. The Chargers are saying the right things and they are going about their business. But this loss was devastating. San Diego led Houston 28-7 in the third quarter before being outscored 24-0 to end the game. San Diego was known for blowing leads in the Norv Turner era. To start the Mike McCoy era the same way has to sting badly. The Chargers looked really good for most of this game. But they have to wallow in the defeat. I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes them a while to get out of the funk Sunday.
Are the Eagles in any danger of being overconfident?
Sheridan: Actually, I think they are. There has been a lot of talk this week about how they showed the world they’re a legitimate contender now, and that Kelly’s offense can work and so forth. Meanwhile, they have former coach Andy Reid coming back Sept. 19 for a much-hyped game against Kansas City. This is a bit of a trap game, for sure.
Can the Chargers handle Kelly’s no-huddle, high-pressure offense?
Williamson: This is not the easiest team to prepare for after such a painful defeat. One of the reasons the Chargers fell apart Monday night was because the defense wore down. It was a nice, comfortable night in San Diego against a normal-paced offense. What is going to happen on a hot day in Philadelphia against Kelly’s amped offense? San Diego has a decent defense but it lacks depth, especially on the line and in the secondary. Keeping bodies fresh could be an issue.
Did the Eagles wear down themselves on Monday night?
Sheridan: They definitely did. It was very humid at FedEx Field. Center Jason Kelce said he needed to hit the oxygen tank for the first time since college (in fairness, it was only Kelce’s 19th NFL game). Kelly said he would be more careful to rotate players in order to keep them fresh. But this will be an issue all season for the Eagles.
Is Dwight Freeney the player he was in Indianapolis?
Williamson: In short, no. But he’s not bad. Freeney, 33, was very active against Houston. He had a half sack, but he was in the backfield often. The question is, can Freeney handle the Kelly attack on a regular basis? He is more of a rotational player. Keeping him on the field against the Eagles may be difficult. I could see his effectiveness wearing down late in the game if he doesn’t get a chance to rest much.
Is the Eagles' defense as good as it appeared against Robert Griffin III?
Sheridan: That is very much up in the air. RG III was not at all himself in his first live action since blowing out his knee last season in the playoffs. He found a rhythm in the second half, and the Eagles were not able to stop him. Philip Rivers is obviously a very different kind of quarterback. This Eagles secondary could be vulnerable to a smart, accurate passer -- especially if starting cornerback Bradley Fletcher (concussion) isn’t able to play.
Tania Ganguli: How has the atmosphere in the organization changed with GM Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy taking over?
Matt Williamson: A change in San Diego was certainly needed. The environment had become stale and the once wide-open window under former coach Norv Turner and a roster stocked with great players has closed. A rebuild is needed, and a new general manager and head coach are what is needed to potentially get this team back where it once was -- or maybe beyond. Has the right side of the Texans’ once-great offensive line been fixed?
Ganguli: It's certainly on its way. The Texans are rightfully very high on right guard Brandon Brooks, and right tackle Derek Newton is healthy. They didn't mind rotation in those spots last year, but stability will definitely help.
Can McCoy turn Philip Rivers (back?) into an elite quarterback?
Williamson: I feel as though we have seen the best of Rivers’ impressive career, unfortunately. That being said, the scheme change, which stresses getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, could be an advantageous move to boost Rivers. He does have a quick release and makes quick reads, making him a good fit for what McCoy is looking to accomplish.
What is the status of Arian Foster, and might Ben Tate have an expanded role for the season and to open the year?
Ganguli: Tate will have an expanded role, especially early in the year. The Texans won't ride Arian Foster too much given he missed all of the preseason, training camp and most of organized team activities (OTAs). He was working, but they're intent on being smart with his return to make sure they have him at full strength late in the season.
What are the biggest problems with the Chargers' offensive line?
Williamson: Once again, the scheme switch to a short passing game should help the protection of this line -- a line that is better-equipped to run block than protect. Still, the true problem with this line is they simply lack good players up front. They added a few free agents, but no one that is even a league-average starter, and they used their first-round pick on D.J. Fluker to play right tackle. However, I have my doubts that Fluker is quick or light enough on his feet for edge protection. Instead, I think Fluker could be a Pro Bowler at guard.
What impact does first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins have on the Texans' offense?
Ganguli: It's difficult for rookie receivers to put up big numbers, but Hopkins will have a major impact on the Texans' offense. He'll take pressure off Andre Johnson, on whom the Texans were overdependent last season in their passing game. He is very skilled on contested catches and will help Houston's red zone efficiency.
What impact does Dwight Freeney have in San Diego?
Williamson: Can he still be productive at 33? Of course it would be ideal to have Melvin Ingram in the fold as well as Freeney, who could be the perfect mentor, but Freeney has looked quite spry through the preseason and should have plenty left in the tank. The concern for me is that San Diego will be forced to play the 33-year-old too many snaps, which could lead to less effective play late in games and especially late in the season.
How big a boost to this team -- tacitly and emotionally -- is it to get Brian Cushing back on the field?
Ganguli: Cushing makes a difference in both ways. He creates mismatches in the pass rush that free up the outside linebackers. His presence in the middle makes things easier on the Texans' defensive backs, too. Emotionally, Cushing provides an edge for the Texans' defense. His maniacal intensity is contagious and the Texans feed off it.
How will Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews impact each other?
Williamson: While Mathews is a decent pass-catcher, Woodhead is an exceptional all-around contributor in the passing game. Their roles should be very distinctive, with Mathews -- who has looked excellent this preseason -- as the early-down workhorse (if he can hold up) and Woodhead being the specialty movement player that is equal parts running back and slot receiver.
Watt is a rare interior pass-rusher, but does Houston have enough pressure coming from their 3-4 outside linebackers?
Ganguli: That remains to be seen. It's definitely been a focus for the Texans' outside linebacker group. Whitney Mercilus, now in his second year, has taken over as a starter opposite Brooks Reed after the departure of Connor Barwin. Mercilus set a franchise record for rookies with six sacks last season, but he missed most of training camp and the preseason. Reed is healthier than he was at the end of last season when he returned from a groin injury. He had an offseason surgery to repair it fully.
Oakland is extremely inexperienced at the position and there is no clear-cut favorite to land the job, especially with David Ausberry hurt. Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie came from Green Bay and has a good relationship with the team’s brass. The problem with adding another young tight end in Oakland is, well, they have plenty of young tight ends. They need an experienced veteran at the spot.
In other AFC West notes:
In an Insider piece, KC Joyner doesn’t think taking San Diego tight end Antonio Gates in a fantasy draft would be wise. I’m no fantasy maven, but I buy that theory. Gates is 33 and aging rapidly. I think he will help the Chargers this year, but with Ladarius Green coming on, I think Gates’ playing time could potentially lessen.
In another fantasy look , Oakland running back Darren McFadden and San Diego’s Ryan Mathews don’t get much love, either. Because both players are so injury prone, I can understand.
However, Thomas didn’t catch on with the Saints and was an early cut. Now, he will get another NFL chance in a familiar spot. The Oakland Raiders have claimed the Stanford product off waivers.
Thomas will be reunited with Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who coached Thomas in 2011 at Stanford.
The Raiders are giving Thomas a chance partly because they have injuries at the position. I think he could be a potential practice squad player. Oakland waived injured offensive lineman John Wetzel to make room for Thomas.
Meanwhile, Oakland rookie tackle Menelik Watson may practice Wednesday. He has been out virtually all of training camp with a calf injury. The second-round pick could eventually be in the mix at left tackle. Right tackle Khalif Barnes is also a possibility at left tackle with Watson playing right tackle. The Raiders are trying to figure out a solution with standout left tackle Jared Veldheer out for about three months with a triceps injury.
The Raiders believe defensive end Lamarr Houston will play against Chicago on Friday. Defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker both returned to practice this week and are question marks to play.
In other AFC West notes:
The Chiefs claimed guard Ricky Henry off waivers from New Orleans.
Houston defensive end Antonio Smith has been suspended for the Week 1 “Monday Night Football” game at San Diego.
Miami cut cornerback Richard Marshall. He should be popular on the open market. San Diego is one of the teams in the league that are thin at cornerback. Plus, new San Diego coach Mike McCoy was in Carolina with Marshall. Thus, there could potentially be interest.