NFC South: San Diego Chargers

Join us at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT today for ESPN’s NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast episode No. 12. Host Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and guests Eric Williams (San Diego Chargers reporter) and Mike Triplett (New Orleans Saints reporter) discuss a range of topics from the pending decision on Jimmy Graham's franchise tag grievance to Johnny Manziel's latest escapades to Randy Moss getting the coaching bug, among other issues. Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions and contribute in the chat feature in the box atop the video player.


Wrap-up: Panthers 31, Chargers 7

December, 16, 2012

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 31-7 victory against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday:

What it means: Two teams without much to play for were meeting. The Panthers (5-9) showed up, and the Chargers packed it in. This bodes really well for coach Ron Rivera keeping his job next season. His team still is playing hard, and it won two games in a row for the first time all season. Owner Jerry Richardson likes Rivera but wants to see the team finish the season with some positive momentum. The Panthers suddenly are playing a lot better, and they have two remaining games against teams with losing records. As long as Carolina plays well in those two games, I see Rivera keeping his job.

The Cam factor: There’s another reason I think Rivera and his coaching staff will stay in place. Second-year quarterback Cam Newton has played well for the past month and a half after starting the season slowly. Newton had another solid game against the Chargers, and that only helps Rivera’s cause. The Panthers have a lot invested in Newton, and keeping continuity on the coaching staff probably would help his development a lot more than starting all over.

Defense continues surge: The Carolina defense was a major problem last year and early this season. But that unit has come on strong in recent weeks. San Diego’s offense might not be what it was in recent years, but the Panthers pretty much shut down quarterback Philip Rivers, and the Chargers had only 164 yards of total offense.

What’s next: The Panthers host the Oakland Raiders next Sunday.

Video: Panthers-Chargers predictions

December, 14, 2012

The NFL Live crew makes its picks for the Carolina at San Diego matchup.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 34, Chargers 24

November, 11, 2012
Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 34-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: The Bucs are 5-4. For a young team with a rookie NFL head coach in Greg Schiano, it is hugely significant to be over .500 in the second half of the season. A week or two ago, it was easy to look at the Bucs and say they were a team that could be on target for the playoffs next season. Now, you have to start wondering if the Bucs can make the playoffs this season. At the moment, they’re definitely in the mix.

The kid has grown up: Look at what Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has done in the past five games. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes with just one interception. After it appeared Freeman’s career was crashing last season, the new coaching staff has turned him into a quarterback who doesn’t make many mistakes. Maybe Freeman needs to sustain this pace for the rest of the season and lead this team to the playoffs, but it sure is starting to look like the Bucs have their first franchise quarterback since Doug Williams (if you think Williams' brief tenure qualifies) or the first franchise quarterback in team history.

Plenty of help: The best thing about this team, as opposed to the 2010 team Freeman led to a 10-6 record, is that the quarterback doesn’t have to carry this team. Freeman got help Sunday as Adam Hayward scored on a blocked punt and Leonard Johnson returned an interception for a touchdown.

More help: It’s easy to look at Doug Martin’s 68 rushing yards and say the Chargers cooled him off after he went for 251 yards against the Raiders the previous week. But Martin is much more than just a guy who can run the ball. He’s an all-purpose back, and he finished with 119 yards of total offense. It’s the sixth time this season that Martin has had at least 100 yards from scrimmage. It’s also the fifth consecutive game he’s had at least 100 yards from scrimmage.

What’s next: The Buccaneers travel to Carolina next Sunday.
I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan for a Veterans Day story.

The complete story is running over on our main NFL page and I strongly suggest you go check it out.

But let me share a little bit with you here.

Sullivan’s a unique story on his own. He’s a West Point graduate and played football there. He went on to become an Army Ranger, but his military career was cut short by a back injury. Sullivan then got into coaching, largely because he felt that’s where he could best use the skills he learned in the military.

"It wasn't necessarily ever in my mind to someday get into coaching," Sullivan said. "I think it was that experience of leading at that level as a junior officer and working through stressful situations individually and as a group to accomplish a goal and then to see a unit go out and get tested and performing well and seeing guys developing -- that's what inspired me to get into the coaching field."

Although he’s been out of the military since 1993, it remains an important part of Sullivan’s life. As the Bucs hold several Veterans Day events before Sunday’s game with the San Diego Chargers at Raymond James Stadium, Sullivan said he’ll be thinking of present and past military members.

He also talked at length about his close friendship with Colonel Greg Gadson, who was a classmate and teammate at West Point. If you haven’t followed the New York Giants, where Sullivan previously coached, in recent years and don’t know Gadson’s background, please go read the main story.

Bucs will have another blackout

November, 8, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. – Despite winning their last two games and three of their last four, the Buccaneers still aren’t winning at the box office.

The team just said Sunday’s home game with San Diego will not be shown live on local television. Although the Bucs only need to sell 85-percent of their non-premium seats to meet the NFL requirement to lift the blackout, they weren’t able to do it.

Earlier in the week, the team said it was about 9,000 short of reaching the mark. Team officials did not give a final number on how many tickets remained Thursday afternoon.

The Bucs have only had one home game televised locally (an October contest with the Saints) this season. They had only two sellouts in their previous two seasons.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 42, Raiders 32

November, 4, 2012

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 42-32 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday:

What it means: Don’t look now, but the Bucs are suddenly 4-4 and somewhat in playoff contention and you can see this is a team that’s very much on the upswing. Oakland and Minnesota may not be dominant teams, but the Bucs went up to Minnesota in a short week and won in a hostile environment. Then, they flew cross-country and got a win at Oakland, even if the Bucs came very close to squandering what was a 28-10 lead before Oakland rallied in the fourth quarter.. When you’re a young team like the Bucs, showing you can win on the road, even if it's not particularly pretty, is a very positive sign. The Bucs already have won as many games as they did all last season.

Changing perceptions: Early in the season, critics were saying rookie running back Doug Martin didn’t have the ability to make big plays. That changed in the past few weeks and the trend continued Sunday as Martin had touchdown runs of 45, 67 and 70 yards. Martin’s starting to look like a legitimate offensive rookie of the year candidate. He finished with 22 carries for 265 yards and four touchdowns.

High praise: I was listening to the Oakland radio broadcast for the first few minutes of the game as I drove to the Georgia Dome and the announcers had high praise for Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams. They said he’s the best in the NFL at working the sideline and compared him to past greats Fred Biletnikoff and Cris Carter in that department.

Missing Nicks? The Bucs had to put All-Pro guard Carl Nicks on injured reserve last week. That’s a huge loss, but the Bucs got through their first game without Nicks fairly well as Martin had a second straight with more than 100 rushing yards.

Unsung hero: With Oakland putting together a lengthy drive in the third quarter, undrafted rookie defensive back Leonard Johnson put an end to it by intercepting Carson Palmer. Johnson now has an interception in two straight games. If Johnson didn't come up with that interception, Oakland might have started its rally earlier and the result could have been different.

What’s next: The Buccaneers are at home against the San Diego Chargers next Sunday.

Superlatives on the Saints

October, 8, 2012
We weren’t able to do this in the first four weeks because they didn’t win. But now that they have, it’s time to take a look at some statistical superlatives on the New Orleans Saints’ 31-24 victory against the San Diego Chargers.

We’ll turn to ESPN Stats & Information and the Saints’ media relations department for some help.
  • You already know that quarterback Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas’ record by throwing a touchdown pass in the 48th consecutive game. But let’s put a little more context on the accomplishment. Unitas first took possession of the record 54 years ago and, prior to Brees, no one came within 10 games of his streak. But New England’s Tom Brady has an active streak that’s not too far off Brees’. Brady has thrown a touchdown pass in 37 straight games.
  • Brees has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 90 of his 100 career starts.
  • Brees now has 17 career games with four or more touchdowns. That’s second among active quarterbacks. Peyton Manning leads with 22.
  • Brees now has thrown for 300 yards or more 54 times since joining the Saints in 2006.
  • Brees also has another NFL-best streak that remains active. He has completed 20 or more passes in 41 straight games.
  • Receiver Marques Colston caught three touchdown passes. That tied his career high. Colston also had three touchdowns in a 2007 game against the 49ers. Colston now is the franchise’s all-time leader with 52 touchdown catches and is third on the list for touchdowns.
  • Colston and Devery Henderson each had at least eight receptions, 120 receiving yards and a touchdown. It’s the first time in franchise history that two receivers have put up such numbers in the same game.
  • Sunday was the 300th regular-season win in franchise history. The Saints are 300-390-5 in 46 NFL seasons.

Wrap-up: Saints 31, Chargers 24

October, 7, 2012

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 31-24 victory against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

What it means: It was a nice night for the Saints. Suspended coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis were given special permission to attend the game and witness history. They did. They got to witness Drew Brees break Johnny Unitas’ record by throwing a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game. The Saints also got their first win of the season. But the reality is it’s probably too little, too late. They’re 1-4 and, unless they go on some sort of dramatic run, their chances of making the playoffs are slim.

The “other streak’’ ends: Safety Roman Harper came up with a fourth-quarter interception. Might not sound like a big deal, but it was significant. Harper and fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins didn’t produce an interception all last season or in the first four games of this season.

Colston’s big game: The night belonged to Brees, for obvious reasons, but receiver Marques Colston had a memorable night. Colston had nine catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns. After starting the season slowly, Colston got healthy and has had two big games in a row.

Signs of hope: Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his defense took a lot of criticism in the first four weeks of the season. But there were signs Sunday night that Spagnuolo's defense is taking hold. It wasn't spectacular, but there were a few times when I saw sacks that were the result of coverage. When you're relying on your front four for your pass rush, you need some help from the guys in coverage.

Meachem’s revenge: In part because the Saints were in the process of making Brees the NFL’s highest-paid player, they didn’t have the salary-cap room to keep Robert Meachem, a former first-round draft pick. But Meachem provided the Saints with a reminder of what they’re missing. He caught two touchdown passes.

What’s next: The Saints have a bye week. They’ll return to action Oct. 21 at Tampa Bay.

Drew Brees' streak defines him

October, 7, 2012
Since his arrival in New Orleans in 2006, Drew Brees has been piling up huge numbers.

He’s set records and won a lot of games -- and a Super Bowl. But I don’t think those records or even the Super Bowl are what define Brees.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Chuck Cook/US PresswireDrew Brees celebrates his record-breaking touchdown pass in the first quarter Sunday night.
I think the record he set Sunday night against the San Diego Chargers will be what defines Brees down the road. Brees threw a touchdown pass to Devery Henderson with 2:58 remaining in the first quarter.

That score gave Brees a touchdown pass in 48 consecutive games, dating back to 2009. He entered the game tied with Johnny Unitas, who established the previous record (47) from 1956 to 1960.

Breaking any record set by Unitas is monumental, but this one is particularly big.

If you’re throwing a touchdown pass in 48 straight games, you’re consistently excellent. That’s why I’m more impressed with this streak than anything else Brees has done. He broke a record that lasted for 52 years.

What he’s showing is sustained greatness. When he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame some day, people will look at Brees’ streak, which could end up going on much longer, as his trademark.

I compare Brees’ streak a little to Cal Ripken’s string of consecutive games played. Fans may not know his career batting average, but even the most casual fan knows that Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record.

Break a record held by a Unitas or a Gehrig and that’s going to be one of the things people will remember most about you.

The record also brought some joy to what, up until this point, has been a joyless season for the Saints. It came with suspended coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis in attendance. Although they're not supposed to have contact with the Saints during their suspensions, the NFL gave the trio permission to attend after Brees requested.

For at least a brief moment, all was well with the Saints again.

NFC South programming notes

October, 6, 2012
TAMPA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT -- I’m getting ready to head toward Washington, D.C. to cover Sunday’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins.

I’ll check in from my hotel in suburban Maryland later this afternoon if there’s any news worth noting around the NFC South.

If not, join us Sunday morning. I’ll be at FedEx Field a couple hours before game time and will get you pregame notes and inactives. Should be a good day because we’ve got the three NFC South games in three different time slots.

The Falcons play at 1 p.m. ET, the Panthers take on the Seahawks in the late-afternoon time slot and the Saints host the Chargers on Sunday night.

Video: Countdown Daily -- Chargers-Saints

October, 6, 2012

The NFL Live crew makes their picks for San Diego at New Orleans.

Sean Payton can attend Sunday's game

October, 3, 2012
There is pretty major news on the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday night.

ESPN’s Ed Werder reports that the NFL has granted quarterback Drew Brees' request to have suspended coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt attend Sunday night’s game with the San Diego Chargers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

This is a significant game because Brees needs one touchdown pass to set a new record for consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass. He’s tied with Johnny Unitas at 47 straight games. The game is also special to Brees because he was drafted by the Chargers, but the team let him go after the 2005 season because there was uncertainty about the health of his shoulder.

Payton, who was hired in 2006 by the Saints, was willing to take a chance on Brees’ shoulder and they’ve turned into one of the league’s best quarterback/coach tandems.

The league suspended Payton for the full season, Loomis for eight games and Vitt for six games for their roles in the alleged bounty scandal. During the suspensions, Payton, Loomis and Vitt have not been allowed to have contact with the team, other than a brief visit by Payton at the Hall of Fame Game.

I’m sure the NFL isn’t going to let the trio on the sideline, but I don’t have any problem with the league making an exception and allowing Payton, Loomis and Vitt to at least be in the building.

They’ve played a major role in Brees' getting to this historic moment and they at least deserve to witness it.

Ryan outduels Rivers in Falcons win

September, 24, 2012
Let's turn to ESPN Stats & Information for a look at how the Falcons defeated the San Diego Chargers 27-3 on Sunday.

Matt Ryan outdueled Philip Rivers when it came to dealing with pressure. When facing five or more pass rushers, Ryan completed 83.3 percent (10-of-12) of his passes, averaging 6.7 yards per attempt and throwing for a touchdown. Rivers completed only 42.9 percent (2-of-7) of his passes, averaging 4.8 yards per attempt and was intercepted twice.

Although Atlanta’s running game hasn’t been stellar this year, the mere presence of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers still caused problems for defenses. Against San Diego, Ryan completed all seven pass attempts of play action for 67 yards and a touchdown. Even before Sunday, Ryan had been efficient with play action, completing 17 of 21 passes with no sacks and no interceptions.

Wrap-up: Falcons 27, Chargers 3

September, 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 27-3 victory against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday:

What it means: This was a huge win on many levels. The Falcons are now 3-0 and in first place in the NFC South. But this one was about a lot more than simply adding to the division lead. This was a statement game for the Falcons, who were playing on a short week after defeating the Denver Broncos on "Monday Night Football" and then had to fly across the country to face a good team. Only good teams are capable of doing that and the evidence is starting to mount that the Falcons are a very good team.

Defense continues to shine: There’s no question the Atlanta defense was responsible for Monday night’s victory. There's no question it was very instrumental against the Chargers, who were unable to score a touchdown. The Falcons forced two first-half turnovers (an interception and a fumble recovery) and that allowed them to take control of the game. They finished the game with four takeaways. It’s kind of amazing how quickly and thoroughly new coordinator Mike Nolan has transformed this defense into a unit with an aggressive identity. Makes you wonder why Steve Spagunolo hasn’t been able to do anything even remotely close with the New Orleans defense he took over. The Falcons and Saints were battling to hire Nolan and Spagnuolo. I’m not sure who the first choice was in either place, but it certainly looks like the Falcons got the right guy.

Controlling the game: Aside from the 20-0 halftime score, the most amazing stat of the first two quarters was time of possession. The Falcons held the ball for 20:21, while the Chargers had it for only 9:24.

Matty Ice for MVP: It’s hard to argue that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t a legitimate MVP candidate so far. Ryan only helped his case Sunday, completing 30 of 40 passes with three touchdowns. All three of those touchdowns came in the first half. Ryan has thrown for eight touchdown passes with only one interception. By the way, he also is undefeated.

Moore from Moore: After Monday night’s victory, I wrote that Atlanta safety William Moore had the game of his life. There wasn’t much of a letdown Sunday. Moore was steady in coverage and also forced and recovered a fumble late in the game. Fellow safety Thomas DeCoud also had another good game, coming up with two interceptions. I could see either Moore or DeCoud making the Pro Bowl. I could also see linebacker Sean Weatherspoon ending up there and maybe even linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who easily is off to the most productive start of his career. That’s pretty impressive because defensive end John Abraham is about the only Atlanta defensive player that has gotten any Pro Bowl consideration in recent years.

Roaming outside the dome: Since coach Mike Smith and Ryan have been around, there’s been a perception that the Falcons aren’t a very good outdoor team. Well, it might be time to rethink that. The Falcons won convincingly outdoors in San Diego and they did the same thing in the opener at Kansas City. The best news of all is that the Falcons only have four more outdoor games on their schedule. They play at Washington Oct. 7 and at Philadelphia on Oct. 28 and the weather in the Mid-Atlantic usually doesn’t get bad until later in the fall. The Falcons are at Tampa Bay Nov. 25 and November weather in Tampa is generally nice. The final outdoor game is Dec. 9 at Carolina. December weather in Charlotte can go either way, but going into North Carolina in December isn’t anything like going into Green Bay in December.

Memo to Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter: Whatever that play was where you had rookie offensive lineman Peter Konz line up at fullback with 12:21 left in the fourth quarter, rip it out of your playbook. The Falcons also had two tight ends in on that formation and Ryan ended up throwing his first interception of the season on a red-zone pass intended for Tony Gonzalez. If you’re going to use that formation, run the ball because you don’t have enough receivers to spread out the defense.

Turner bounces back: Atlanta running back Michael Turner was quiet and ineffective in the first two weeks and he also had to deal with being charged with DUI early Tuesday morning. Turner got off to a slow start against the Chargers, but finished with 80 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Most of Turner’s rushing yards came in the second half. That’s something the Falcons need more of as the season goes on. If they can keep getting off to fast starts, they can use Turner and the running game to run down the clock later in the game. With Turner's contribution and some help from Jacquizz Rodgers and others, the Falcons finished with 119 rushing yards.

What’s next: The Falcons host the Carolina Panthers next Sunday at the Georgia Dome.