NFL Nation: Eric Weddle

With his team's offseason program underway, San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle’s long, gnarly beard is back for an encore. The cat-quick safety looks ready for an appearance on "Duck Dynasty."

“It's definitely through the season,” Weddle said, when asked when he'll shave his beard. “Hopefully it’s through the Super Bowl, and I’ll cut it. But I want to get it down to here maybe (pointing to his chest), and then braid it and cut it. But who knows.”

Weddle says he can barely buckle his chin strap.

[+] EnlargeEric Weddle
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSafety Eric Weddle looks back at the 2013 Chargers and projects ahead to the 2014 season by saying, "I expect us to play at that level or even higher."
“I’m going to have to figure that out,” Weddle said. “It bothered me all season. I’m going to have to figure out something there because my helmet kept coming off. And that’s not fun when you’re tackling someone and your helmet’s coming off.”

A year ago after the Chargers hired head coach Mike McCoy, Weddle made an interesting proclamation, calling San Diego the best team in the league. Cue the laugh track.

But the Chargers proved closer to Weddle's prediction than perhaps fans and folks around the NFL believed, finishing eight quarters away from the Super Bowl.

“To finally get back to the position was really exciting -- to get back and have those games finally mean something,” Weddle said about last season. “But we have a lot of work to do. Everyone’s getting better in our division, around the conference and in our league. And everyone has high aspirations.”

So how do the Chargers build on what happened last season?

“We have a lot of guys back that were playing at that time,” Weddle said. “And another year of experience, another year of getting coached up by the great coaches that we have, will only make us better in the long run.

“I expect us to play at that level or even higher. We expect a higher level of play from us. Those last eight games that we played at the end of the year, that’s what we expect from us for next season.”

Individually, after taking a few weeks off, Weddle said he's taken up yoga to improve his flexibility, along with regularly playing pick-up basketball to stay in shape.

He maintains a clear and simple aspiration to work toward during the offseason.

“To be the best,” Weddle said. “It’s as simple as that. Each year you look at yourself. Where weren't you good? Where were your negative plays, and why did it happen? Was it physical, or mental? Was it timing? Is it something you can work on, or is it something that happened, and earlier in the season wasn't happening?

“You look at all of those things, try and correct it and be coachable.”

While the Chargers finished the 2013 regular season by winning four straight and making the playoffs for the first time since 2009, like Weddle, quarterback Philip Rivers understands there's still room for improvement.

"I think it's quickly realizing that we were 5-7," Rivers said. “We were struggling there for a bit. It wasn't like we were lights out all year long. So I think we take what we can take that was good, and quickly put that behind us and try to become a team again.”
The Washington Redskins' defense is optimistic about where it's headed, thanks to the addition of Jason Hatcher and a tweaked philosophy regarding the pass rush. Whether their play matches that optimism always remains the biggest hurdle. What's not in doubt: They will have two players among the most expensive at their positions when it comes to the salary cap. The fact both are in their front seven isn't a coincidence as the Redskins' offseason goal has been to improve the pass rush. So, after breaking down where the Redskins' top cap hits at each position offensively stood in comparison to their NFL counterparts earlier this week, it's time to take a look at the defense.


NFL's top five cap hits
Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs $11,619,700
Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers, $10,100,000
Antrel Rolle, New York Giants, $9,250,000
Dashon Goldson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, $9,000,000
Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans, $8,000,000

Redskins' top cap hit
Brandon Meriweather (59th), $1,000,000

Summing it up: Notice who’s not in the top five? Jairus Byrd, after his new deal with New Orleans. But don’t worry: He’s set to take up the most cap room in 2015 at $10.3 million. I like Byrd, but not at that figure (I’d have paid Sean Taylor that sort of cash). But Byrd was never really a legitimate option for the Redskins. Mike Mitchell was and he’ll count $2.2 million this season and $4.95 million in 2015. But the overriding point is Washington views the best way to help this position is by bolstering the pass rush. Starters Meriweather and Ryan Clark both are on one-year contracts, so this position is still a question mark beyond this season (and still will be one entering the year).


NFL's top five cap hits
Brandon Carr, Dallas, $12,217,000
Johnathan Joseph, Houston, $11,250,000
Lardarius Webb, Baltimore, $10,500,000
Brandon Flowers, Kansas City, $10,500,000
Tramon Williams, Green Bay, $9,500,000

Redskins' top cap hit
Tracy Porter (43rd), $2,800,000

Summing it up: Next season, Darrelle Revis' cap hit jumps to $25 million. Which means he’s playing on a one-year deal. Is it a good thing the Redskins’ biggest cap hit here belongs to Porter, who has battled injury issues along with consistency during his career? Of course, it’s not like he occupies a lot of space. DeAngelo Hall's cap hit is $2,062,500 but that jumps to $4,812,500 in 2015. By then the Redskins need young corner David Amerson to have fully emerged -- can he become their best corner? If not, then they’ll have to start looking for a No. 1 corner. By the way, the top five on the list for 2014? They’ve combined for four Pro Bowl appearances and one All-Pro spot (Joseph). But Carr did do a good job vs. Washington last year (and in at least one game against then-Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson).


NFL's top five cap hits
Lawrence Timmons, $11,816,250
Tamba Hali, Kansas City, $11,464,706
Brian Orakpo, Washington, $11,455,000
Clay Matthews, Green Bay, $10,943,750
James Laurinaitis, St. Louis, $10,400,000

Redskins' top cap hit

Summing it up: That’s quite a list for Orakpo to be part of, but to stay on there after this season -- at least in Washington -- he’ll have to be a little more productive. But even if he has another season like last year, Orakpo will still be in the $10-million range. When Hali got paid, he responded with sack totals of 12, nine and 11 in the next three seasons (with nine forced fumbles and one interception). I don’t think anyone says Hali's overpaid (well, at least not many). In Orakpo’s last three full seasons, he has a combined 27.5 sacks, but only four forced fumbles. More game-changing plays and he’ll get the contract he desires. Another interesting part on this is that two of the five are inside linebackers, though Timmons plays in a 3-4 and Laurinaitis in a 4-3.

Defensive tackle

NFL's top five cap hits
Ndamukong Suh, Detroit, $22,412,000
Haloti Ngata, Baltimore, $16,000,000
Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay, $15,627,253
Geno Atkins, Cincinnati, $9,000,000
Barry Cofield, Washington, $7,667,500

Redskins' top cap hit

Summing it up: Cofield’s base salary jumped from $840,000 last season to $4.55 million (the lower figure was the result of a restructuring last spring in which $3.5 million in base salary was converted to a signing bonus). This is as high as Cofield’s cap number will be and in two years it falls to $6,877,500. I know the coaches felt he would become the NFL’s top nose tackle by this time. That’s not the case, but Cofield does have his strengths and has done a nice job with Washington. For a short stretch last season he was playing as well as anyone on the team defensively, and he always plays hard. He’ll be helped by having Hatcher in the pass rush, perhaps giving Cofield more one-on-one matchups. If that happens, then perhaps Cofield will have the sort of season in all phases that coaches have hoped for.

Defensive end

NFL's top five cap hits
Mario Williams, Buffalo, $18,800,000
Charles Johnson, Carolina, $16,420,000
Chris Long, St. Louis, $14,900,000
Greg Hardy, Carolina, $13,116,000
Calais Campbell , Arizona, $11,250,000

Redskins' top cap hit
Stephen Bowen (15th), $7,020,000

Summing it up: All of the top five on this list play in a 4-3, where ends can excel as playmakers and, therefore, command big bucks. The 3-4 ends, typically, are not -- with some exceptions. Bowen has not been a playmaker, though for a while he was an effective player both against the run and as a rusher. However, he has just one sack since the 2011 season (26 games). And after microfracture surgery and being 30, I wonder about the level at which he’ll be able to play. Multiple Redskins sources said they still expect him to be in the Redskins' plans, but will it be at this cap figure? That's a big hit for someone in his situation. If Bowen returns healthy and plays well, the Redskins will greatly benefit. If not? That's a lot of cap room to occupy. One more note: Johnson and Hardy combine for approximately 23 percent of Carolina's cap.
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: The production from rookie receiver Keenan Allen is the headline here, with the turnaround of quarterback Philip Rivers a close second. The rookie season of Allen, picked in the third round of 2013 draft, was supposed to be a redshirt year. But season-ending injuries to Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander forced the Cal product to play sooner rather than later. After a sluggish start, Allen responded. He finished the regular season with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards, and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with eight. Allen finished with eight catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason, emerging as an offensive rookie of the year candidate and San Diego's No. 1 receiver.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Derek Cox signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Chargers in free agency as the team's top cornerback but failed to live up to that expectation. Cox gave up several big plays and was one of the reasons San Diego's secondary struggled during the first half of the season. Cox ultimately was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran Richard Marshall in Week 13.

Biggest need: More talent in the secondary, with a pass rush help and beefing up the interior of the offensive line a close second. The Chargers gave up 23 passing touchdowns this season, No. 12 in the NFL, but 18 of those came in the first 11 games of the season. And San Diego also finished with just 11 interceptions on the season, No. 26 in the league. Veteran safety Eric Weddle played solid, mistake-free football for the most part in earning his second Pro Bowl berth, but he needs help. Shareece Wright gradually played better in his first season as a starter, but overall San Diego needs to add more young talent in the secondary.

Team MVP: Rivers elevated the play of the entire offense and deserves to be part of the conversation of league MVP. In his 10th season, Rivers benefited from former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's conversion of San Diego's offense to a short passing game. Rivers finished in the top five in completion percentage (69.5 percent), yards per pass (8.23), passing yards (4,478), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5). At 32 years old, Rivers looks like he still has the ability to play a few more years at an elite level. The Chargers need to add a couple of more pieces on offense to make his job easier.

SAN DIEGO -- Mike McCoy's journey to earning the head coaching job of the San Diego Chargers began north of the border, playing quarterback for the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.

McCoy was a midseason replacement for Calgary in August 1999 after Dave Dickenson and Henry Burris suffered injuries. He learned on the run, completing 117 of 183 passes (64 percent) for 1,669 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

[+] EnlargeMike McCoy
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsRookie head coach Mike McCoy says he taps into his experience as a player to better prepare him as the Chargers' leader.
According to his college head coach at the University of Utah, Ron McBride, McCoy learned Calgary's entire playbook in a day.

"That's his whole thing -- he's intelligent," McBride said. "He doesn't get rattled. He's confident. He knows what to do. Pressure doesn't bother him. He's the same way coaching. He doesn't get rattled. He has the same demeanor throughout the game."

McCoy led Calgary to the Grey Cup as an injury replacement, losing to Hamilton 32-21. Calgary wanted him back the following season, but at 28 years old, McCoy was ready to relinquish his dream of playing professional football.

Former San Francisco head coach George Seifert had taken a new job as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, offering McCoy a chance to work as an offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

"This was an opportunity of a lifetime," McCoy said. "I had always thought about it, and people had always talked to me about coaching. But to make that jump at such a young age and to work for a great coach like George Seifert and Jerry Richardson, as an owner, I couldn't pass it up."

McCoy quickly switched over to pursuing another dream -- becoming a head coach in the NFL.

Fast forward 14 years later and McCoy has reached his goal. One of eight new head coaches hired in 2013, McCoy is the only one still left in the postseason. That impressive fact is a testament to living up to his word when he first addressed the Chargers after being hired on Jan. 15, 2013.

On his way out the door after being relieved of his head-coaching duties, Norv Turner said San Diego had some serious work to do to once again become a playoff contender. But McCoy proved Turner wrong, leading the Chargers to the playoffs just a year later.

"From the very beginning in the first meeting, it was about us," safety Eric Weddle said. "It's not rebuilding. We're going to do things right, on and off the field. You're going to be a good person, and it's going to transfer over. And the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl.

"From the onset, that's what it's all been -- being confident and believing in each other. Every day he's preached it, consistency and belief, belief, belief -- that we can go in, play with anyone and beat anyone. And when you hear it every day, and the older guys transfer it down and push this team in the right direction, you're capable of doing anything."

McCoy, 41, instituted a dress code for game days, making players wear a suit and tie on road trips, giving birth to Philip Rivers' bolo ties. McCoy's a task master, paying attention to every detail of this team's schedule from sunup to sundown.

McCoy has a tough, no-nonsense attitude. He can be a bit paranoid about injury situations regarding his players, divulging as little information as possible on the status of his star performers heading into a game day.

But he also has built a bond and a trust with the Chargers by showing he cares about them. And that nurturing attitude stems from McCoy's time as a fringe player in the NFL and a star player at the University of Utah.

McCoy went to training camp with Denver in 1995, signing with Green Bay's practice squad that year. He played for NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals, and also spent time in San Francisco and Philadelphia before concluding his career with Calgary in 1999.

In college, McCoy led the Utes to a 10-win season and a 1994 Freedom Bowl victory over the University of Arizona's "Desert Swarm" defense.

"Being a former player you can always relate back to the players," McCoy said. "That is one thing that helps me now. I was very fortunate to only have one injury and it was in college. You see the ups and downs, and the losses you take at certain times that are harder than others."

San Diego's success did not come early. The Chargers hit a season-low at 5-7 during the 2013 campaign, but tight end Antonio Gates said players finally started to believe in McCoy's philosophy and approach.

That belief, along with key players such as King Dunlap, Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram returning to the field, resulted in a five-game winning streak -- and the Chargers being eight quarters away from the Super Bowl.

"Mike is very detailed, and very understanding," Gates said. "I can't say enough about what he brings to this team. The leadership ability that he has, and the ability to keep us poised in tough times, to me all those messages he tried to put out, unfortunately it took time for us to comprehend and buy in. And now we're just at a point where that's happening for us offensively and defensively as a group."

When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.

Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.

It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons. Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.

Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?

Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.

How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?

Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.

Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?

Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.

You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?

Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?

Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.

San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?

Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.

Eric WeddleStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesEric Weddle led San Diego in tackles during the regular season with 115.

SAN DIEGO -- A season's worth of bushy brown hair hangs uncomfortably from Eric Weddle's face, making it hard for him to buckle his chin strap on game days.

Weddle's beard serves as the inspiration for his Twitter handle -- @weddlesbeard, what else? -- emerging as somewhat of a symbol for the San Diego Chargers' improbable playoff run. Weddle says he won't shave it off until his team reaches the Super Bowl, or is eliminated from the postseason.

He received the epiphany of growing a beard after seeing an old picture of his father, Steven Weddle, fishing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, similar to this photo he posted on Twitter.

“I wondered if I could grow one because I never had one in my life,” he said. “It's a part of me now. I like it. It's cool."

Weddle also had his hair cut into a Mohawk at the start of this season as promise to his son, Gaige, who also shaved his head into a Mohawk.

But bushy beards and unique haircuts do not define Weddle the football player. His play does. The 29-year-old is one of the most versatile safeties in the game, the glue that holds together San Diego's much improved defense together.

“We've been the underdog all year,” Weddle said. “I've been the underdog my whole life. It's no different. We're out to continue to believe in ourselves. The great thing about this team is the struggles, and the ups and downs have really molded us into what we are right now, which is a confident belief in one another.”

The Chargers can thank this year's second-half run for the improvements made on defense, specifically the secondary.

San Diego allowed 23 passing touchdowns during the regular season, No. 12 in the league. But just five of those came in the team's final five games.

The Chargers forced 12 turnovers, including seven interceptions in the past six games, helping the defense hold teams to 16 points a contest. Also, the Chargers are holding teams to 35 percent on third downs during that stretch, consistently giving the ball back to an offense that leads the league in time of possession.

The return of linebackers Donald Butler, Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram from injuries helped improve the talent level and overall play on defense.

But at the heart of San Diego's turnaround has been the steady play of Weddle.

“How he plays the game and how he approaches it has been the key to a lot of our success,” Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano said. “He keeps getting better each week. He's a gamer, and that's what we need from him.”

“He's a football player,” added Pagano. “He's the other coordinator on the field that leads and get people lined up.”

Weddle earned his second invitation to the Pro Bowl this season, leading San Diego in tackles during the regular season with 115. He's also been a first or second-team All-Pro selection the last four years -- the only player at his position who can say that.

“He's a great player,” Chargers cornerback Shareece Wright said. “He's a great leader. He's always keeping us on top of our game, and always helping us out. He's like a quarterback back there.”

Weddle has 18 interceptions and six sacks over his seven-year career. And at 5-11 and 200 pounds, don't sleep on his speed.

“People underestimate how athletic this guy is,” Chargers secondary coach Ron Milus said. “He is a tremendous athlete -- quick, fast. He's able to hit, so I think people underestimate his athletic ability, and how good the kid is.

“If need be, he can play corner. So he can play anything other than defensive line. He's smart enough to handle all of that stuff. He's probably the brightest guy on our defense, knowing exactly what everyone has to do at all times.”

Weddle might not make the highlight reel hit across the middle, but he is a sure tackler. Perhaps Weddle's greatest strengths are his overall understanding of the game and ability to play with anticipation, which sometimes allows the San Diego safety to be in place to make a big play before the ball is snapped.

While he may go under the radar nationally playing in a sleepy town like San Diego without much media attention, Weddle believes he's one of the best at his position.

“I think I have respect from players, coaches and certain media who watch the games,” Weddle said. “I'm not a youngster anymore. I don't really worry or waste my energy on where I rank and this and that. I know where I'm at. I think I'm one of the best. If you don't think that, then that's your opinion.

“I know what I bring to this team in what roles I do. And I feel like when you look at me and what I can do, there's not many guys who can do that.”

Weddle will face one of the toughest challenges in his career in trying to get the best of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff matchup. But Weddle can look to his past experiences for more inspiration.

Weddle has three career interceptions against Manning, two of which have been returned for touchdowns.

“It's difficult no matter what, no matter how many times you're playing him,” Weddle said about playing against Manning. “He's so good at the line of scrimmage. He very rarely makes mistakes, or forces the ball into areas. You could be in position all game, and never really get the ball thrown at you. And the one time you're not, he'll find you and it will hurt you.

“It's very stressful. Play by play you really have to take that role that, this could be the difference of winning or losing on every play against him, because that's how good he is. He can kill you if you're not in the right position.”
SAN DIEGO -- For a second straight day, running back Ryan Mathews and center Nick Hardwick did not practice for the San Diego Chargers, creating some uncertainty that they will be available for Sunday’s AFC divisional round contest at Denver.

Mathews continues to wear a protective walking boot on his ailing left ankle to speed up the healing process. Hardwick sported a baseball cap and jersey while watching his position group go through individual drills during the early stages of practice.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy provided no timetable for either player's return. However, McCoy indicated on Wednesday that Mathews was on the same management program by the team’s training staff as the last two weeks, sitting out on Wednesday and Thursday, working as a limited participant on Friday, and playing on Sunday.

Hardwick has yet to pass the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Along with those two, receiver Eddie Royal (toe) and guard Jeromey Clary (shoulder) did not practice. But right tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle) returned as a limited participant after missing practice on Wednesday.

Defensive tackle Sean Lissemore (shoulder) also was a limited participant on Thursday, and left tackle King Dunlap (ankle), defensive end Kendall Reyes (ankle), and safety Eric Weddle (hamstring) were full participants.

Weddle missed practice on Wednesday as a rest day.
CINCINNATI -- Three things to know about the San Diego Chargers' matchup against the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round on Sunday at Sports Authority Field:

1. No secrets: These two teams have played twice in the past eight weeks, so they’ve pretty much seen everything the other team has to offer. The Chargers will have some confidence playing at Denver because they won there just three weeks ago, a 27-20 victory in a nationally televised Thursday night contest. San Diego's defense held the Broncos’ Peyton Manning-led offense to its lowest point total of the season. That said, the Chargers also understand that Manning likely will have a few more tricks up his sleeve this time.

2. Streaking: San Diego has won five consecutive games and six of its past seven. The Chargers are playing with a lot of confidence and remain dangerous because of the carefree, energetic way they perform on both sides of the ball. San Diego players said they could see the Bengals tightening up in the second half with the game slipping away. The Broncos are a team expected to go to the Super Bowl, so if San Diego can put pressure on Denver by getting ahead early, perhaps the Broncos could suffer the same fate as last year, when they lost to Baltimore.

3. Veteran leadership: Longtime Chargers such as Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Eric Weddle and Nick Hardwick have helped provide focus for this young team, exuding a quiet confidence that shows up on the playing field. As it's done throughout the second half of the season, San Diego does not get rattled when things do not go its way. That ability to handle adversity serves it well in the playoffs. The Chargers essentially have been in playoff mode since Week 14 of the regular season, so they approach each week with a sense of urgency that other teams have failed to match until this point.
CINCINNATI -- Although it’s been four years since the San Diego Chargers have been in the playoffs, they do have some guys who have been here before.

Six players on San Diego’s roster were with the team when the Chargers advanced to the playoffs in 2009 -- Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Nick Hardwick, Eric Weddle, Jeromey Clary, and Mike Scifres.

"It’s kind of like we are back,” Rivers said. “We are in it. We are alive. We have a chance. It’s special. Opportunity is just the first step. We are not in here high-fiving like it’s a destination. Everybody is 0-0 and we have a chance just like everyone else.”

Another 10 players on San Diego’s roster have played in the postseason for other teams. So the Chargers will count on veterans like Rivers and Weddle to explain to the younger players who have not performed in the postseason how to get ready for the team’s big game on Sunday here in Cincinnati.

On the other sideline, the Bengals have 37 players who were in the postseason for Cincinnati last season.

“There’s nothing like the playoffs,” Weddle said. “The atmosphere, the speed of the game, how intense (it is) and how vital each play is. The possessions shrink down.

“You’re going good-on-good, so instead of 12 possessions a game, you’re looking at nine, eight, sometimes. Every play matters. It’s exciting. You live for it.”

Rivers and Weddle spent this week explaining to younger players like running back Ryan Mathews the higher intensity level that comes with NFL playoff games.

“I’ve heard it’s a lot faster, with the intensity and the crowd,” Mathews said. “I heard everything is just amped up, tenfold.”

Chargers rookie receiver Keenan Allen said the biggest game he’s played in up to this point was the 2011 Holiday Bowl for Cal, a 21-10 loss to Texas. But Allen acknowledges a college bowl game does not rival NFL playoff football.

“I had a bowl game my sophomore year in college, but I don’t think it will be as intense as a playoff game in the NFL,” he said. “I expect a fast game, a lot of competition out there. And hopefully we do a good job.”

And what will be your approach, Keenan?

“Just play football,” Allen said. “That’s what it comes down to every week -- just a different team, different uniform.”
SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers admitted to rooting for the New England Patriots this weekend.

“It’s certainly one of the few times I ever have,” River said.

But the San Diego Chargers did not get the result they wanted, with the Patriots losing at Miami over the weekend. Still, Rivers understands his team can’t get caught watching the scoreboard as they fight for an AFC wild-card spot.

“What’s most important for our team is just to focus on trying to win another division game and see if we can get to 8-7,” Rivers said. “I think worrying about anything more than that doesn’t help you at all. Worry about anything more than that would be silly, really, because we can only control our end.”

Running back Ryan Mathews, receiver Eddie Royal, safety Eric Weddle and defensive back Johnny Patrick did not take the field during an hour-long practice for the Chargers.

Monday was a bonus workout day, as San Diego coach Mike McCoy gets his team prepared for the final two weeks of the season.

Mathews has been dealing with a lingering hamstring issue, while Royal has had a toe injury limit his work in practice for the past two months.

Patrick missed last week’s game against Denver because of an ankle injury. And Weddle’s missed practice was a rest day.

“It’s huge for this team,” Weddle said about the extra rest. “It’s very rare that you get an extra bye week this late in the season to kind of rejuvenate yourself, and get those injuries that you’ve had bothering you, get them healed up for the last couple games.”

Weddle was asked how much he and his teammates worry about the loss of earlier games this season against teams like Tennessee, Houston and Washington -- wins that would have put them in better position to make the playoffs.

“We can lament and kick ourselves for those losses,” Weddle said. “Or we can worry about what we can control, and that’s two games left in the season. I really don’t care what happened in the previous 14 games because they’re gone, and I’m focused on the Raiders. And that’s what this whole team is focused on -- trying to build on what we’ve done the last couple weeks and finish the season strong.”
SAN DIEGO -- At 4-4 overall at the midpoint, the San Diego Chargers are about where they should be heading into the season's backstretch.

Quarterback Philip Rivers' bounce-back season has been one of the main storylines for this team, along with the return of a competitive spirit established by first-year head coach Mike McCoy.

Still, the Chargers face a daunting schedule if they want to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. San Diego still has five AFC West division contests left -- two each against division leaders Kansas City and Denver.

As the San Diego Chargers head into the bye week on a two-game winning for the first time this season, is the glass half-full or half-empty for Mike McCoy’s team?

You certainly could argue for half-full just looking at the offense. Led by a resurgent Philip Rivers, the Chargers are in the top 10 offensively in total yards (No. 5, 402.9 yards per game), passing yards (No. 6, 294.1 yards per game) and third-down efficiency (No. 2, 49.4 percent).

Defensively, the Chargers are in the top 10 in perhaps the most meaningful statistic, points allowed (No. 9, allowing 20.6 points a game). Defensive coordinator John Pagano’s defense also has gone 11 quarters without giving up a touchdown.

Still, San Diego has allowed 378.6 yards a contest (No. 23 in the NFL) and forced just four turnovers. They’ve been resilient and resourceful defensively, but not dominant.

And the Chargers need to get healthy on the defensive side of the ball as they head into the second half of the season. Key players like outside linebackers Jarret Johnson (hamstring) and Melvin Ingram (knee), along with inside linebacker Donald Butler (groin) are still nursing injuries.

The Chargers still face the meaty part of their schedule, with three of their next four games on the road and five AFC West divisional games left on the schedule, including two each against Denver and Kansas City.

So McCoy understands that while his team is playing better, there’s a tough road ahead.

“It’s a long year,” McCoy said. “Now is a time where you’ve got to start talking to the younger players, because we’re making the turn now, and it’s coming at a good time.

“But we’ve got a lot of football left. So No. 1, we’ve got to take care of our bodies and enjoy the time off that we’re going to have at the end of this week. I think they are improving every day and have done a lot of good things.”

With that, here’s a look at midseason position grades for the Chargers.

Rivers’ turnaround this season has been remarkable. McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whishenhunt have done a nice job tailoring the passing game around the 31-year-old quarterback’s strengths, and it shows in his statistics this season.

Through seven games, Rivers leads the league in completion percentage (73.9) and is second in the NFL in passing yards (2,132) and passer rating (111.1).

But the head-scratching decision to try and run for a touchdown at the end of the first half against Jacksonville is Rivers at his worst. As a 10-year veteran, Rivers cannot let the competitor in him make decisions that are bad for the rest of the team. Rivers could have easily been injured on that scramble, making the choice to run an even more costly decision. Know and understand your limitations.

Rivers also threw three interceptions against Oakland, one of the worst teams in the league. Though he is playing at an elite level, there’s still room for improvement.
Grade: B-plus

With back-to-back rushing games of more than 100 yards, the emergence of Ryan Mathews as a focal point of the offense has been fun to watch. The Chargers have had more rushing attempts than passing attempts in the past two games. Let’s see if that continues during the second half of the season.

Mathews has 446 rushing yards, and is averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Even more impressive, Mathews has just one fumble on 110 rushing attempts.

The signing of Danny Woodhead during the offseason has proved one of the best additions during free agency. Woodhead has 40 receptions for 311 yards and three touchdowns, which is first in receptions among running backs in the NFL.
Grade: B-plus

Keenan Allen has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Chargers. With Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd suffering season-ending injuries, Allen has stepped in to fill the void, posting 26 catches for 399 yards and two touchdowns through seven games.

Slot receiver Eddie Royal has created some big plays, with 22 receptions for 285 yards and a team-leading six touchdowns. And Vincent Brown also has been consistent, with 26 catches for 265 yards.

The Chargers are No. 4 in the league in passing plays of 20 yards or more with 28. San Diego has just three passing plays of 40 yards or more, so they could produce more chunk plays in the passing game. But that’s a minor critique.
Grade: B

At 33 years old, Antonio Gates is healthy and back playing at an elite level. With a team-leading 42 receptions for 497 yards and two touchdowns, Gates is second in the NFL among tight ends in receptions (Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron has 45 receptions). Gates has a great rapport with Rivers, and also has held his own blocking in the run game.

Second-year pro Ladarius Green only has five receptions, but he’s averaging an impressive 22.6 yards per catch.
Grade: B-plus

With as many injuries as this group has suffered, the offensive line’s performance so far in my opinion has been commendable, and the most impressive feat for the Chargers this season.

Offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris deserves credit for keeping this group playing at a high level. Center Nick Hardwick is the only member of the offensive line to start every game this season. The Chargers have had five different starting offensive line combinations in seven games, and five different players see time at left tackle.

San Diego’s offensive line has given up just 11 sacks, which is tied for second-best in the NFL. The addition of second-year pro Johnnie Troutman at left guard has helped San Diego run the ball more effectively, although Troutman’s five false-start penalties in three starts needs to be cleaned up.
Grade: A-minus

This group is the most improved unit on the defensive side of the ball, with defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes anchoring this group. Both have played well against the run, and by pushing the pocket have allowed pass-rushers like Thomas Keiser and Larry English to get sacks.

After a slow start, the Chargers have 14 sacks in the past four games, including a season-high six-sack effort against Jacksonville. And San Diego has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
Grade: B

Starting middle linebacker Donald Butler has missed three games with a groin injury. And even when he has been active, Butler has not made many game-changing plays.

The same can be said of rookie linebacker Manti Te’o. Although he missed most of the preseason and the first three games of the year with a sprained foot, Te’o by his own admission has not played up to his potential, with just 17 tackles, no sacks and no forced turnovers in four starts.

Besides Liuget, Jarret Johnson has been San Diego’s most consistent player on defense. Johnson is tied for the team lead in sacks with Liuget (3).
Grade: C-plus

Versatile safety Eric Weddle leads the team in tackles with 47, and has been a steadying influence in the back end with his consistent approach each week. But this unit has just two interceptions this season. The Chargers also have given up 27 passing plays of 20 or more yards, which is fourth-worst in the NFL.

The Chargers have not scored a defensive touchdown this season. Cornerback Derek Cox understands that he has to play better, particularly with the contract he received in free agency (four-years, $20 million). The return of Shareece Wright gives San Diego some much-needed speed in the back end. And in limited roles, Johnny Patrick and Jahleel Addae have been effective.
Grade: C

Kicker Nick Novak has only missed two field goals, and both were blocked. However, Novak has just eight touchbacks on 38 kickoffs (21.1 percent) -- which is the worst in the NFL. Punter Mike Scifres has 11 punts inside the 20 yard line, but is averaging just 43.9 yards a punt. The Chargers have not gotten much out of the return game to help improve field position.
Grade: C

In his first season, McCoy has paid attention to the little things, instilled confidence in his players and surrounded himself with an experienced coaching staff. He’s made his share of mistakes, but overall has San Diego headed in the right direction.
Grade: B
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Observed in the locker room after the San Diego Chargers' 24-6 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

A reflective Rivers: Philip Rivers talked about becoming the second player in franchise history to eclipse the 30,000-yard passing mark with his effort against Jacksonville. Rivers has 30,023 yards, joining Dan Fouts, who finished his 15-year career as the Chargers all-time passing leader with 43,040 yards. “It’s kind of a ‘wow’ to myself when it hits you,” said Rivers, who received the game ball from coach Mike McCoy in the locker room. “It’s humbling when you hear that. And the first thing that comes to my mind is how many guys are involved in that happening. You don’t throw 30,000 yards to yourself. There’s a lot of guys that have been on the receptions end of it. No. 85 [Antonio Gates] has been on the other end of a lot of them. And then there’s a lot of guys up front that have protected for you to get the ball off.” One of those offensive linemen is longtime center Nick Hardwick. “It’s just a pleasure to work with such a great guy, a great teammate and true friend,” Hardwick said. “He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever been around. It’s a real honor.” Rivers also confirmed that his wife, Tiffany, did not give birth to the couple’s seventh child while he was in Jacksonville.

Still work to do: While players look forward to having some time off during the bye week, players understand there’s more work to do. Defensively, the Chargers have not given up a touchdown in 11 quarters, and did not allow a touchdown in back-to-back games for the first time since the first two weeks of the 2002 season. But, as safety Eric Weddle said, it’s better for players to learn from their mistakes by winning instead of losing. “The games and plays that you learn from help build your identity and who you are,” Weddle said. “So for us to play like we’ve played the last two and a half games is big -- and not reading the press and feeling like we’re all that -- but just staying closed-minded, staying the course and staying focused. It’s really a testament to these guys, the older players getting the young players right and the coaches coaching us up. Look at the guys that we had out there, and we’re playing lights out. It’s exciting, but we have to keep going upwards. We can’t take a step back.”

Last time Fluker played left tackle? Try high school: You can’t blame rookie offensive lineman D.J. Fluker for feeling a little uncomfortable moving over to left tackle in the opening quarter after King Dunlap left the game with his second concussion of the season. Fluker was drafted as San Diego’s long-term answer at right tackle, and had not played left tackle since his high school days in Foley, Ala. “I was a little nervous,” Fluker said. “So I had to kind of calm down, and the coaches just told me to be patient and it will come. And eventually that happened. I got beat a couple times, but I haven’t been over there for so long. Other than that, I think I did OK.” For the most part, San Diego’s offensive line kept Rivers clean, holding Jacksonville to just one sack.

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.

[+] EnlargeMike McCoy
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers have yet to string together consecutive wins under new head coach Mike McCoy.
And they have some emerging young talent, including receivers Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown, defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebackers Donald Butler and Manti Te'o.

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.”
SAN DIEGO -- Terrelle Pryor’s athleticism and ability to extend plays will not be a surprise for the San Diego Chargers, who already had a test run against the Oakland Raiders quarterback last season.

In the 2012 regular-season finale, Pryor threw for 150 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also ran for 49 yards, including a 3-yard run for a score in a game San Diego held on for a 24-21 win.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyOakland's Terrelle Pryor, a versatile, mobile quarterback, could prove to be a challenge for the Chargers' defense on Sunday.
So even though the Raiders limp into the AFC West divisional matchup at 1-3, don’t expect San Diego’s defense to take Pryor lightly when the team travels to Oakland on Sunday (11:35 p.m. ET, NFL Network).

“Pryor is still the guy we faced last, so he’s the same,” Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. “He can make plays outside and inside the pocket. He throws well on the run. He’s extremely athletic and fast. They’ve got weapons all over the field. [Darren] McFadden, [Marcel] Reece, and the receivers are fast and can make plays on the ball.

“They’re extremely talented. They’ve been in some tight games. They could have pulled off the Indy game. We’re gearing up for a tough, physical game and one that we’ve got to play at a high level to go win.”

Another reason for concern is San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano’s group has struggled against mobile quarterbacks so far this season. The Chargers allowed Titans quarterback Jake Locker to throw for 299 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago. Locker also ran for 68 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown run in a 20-17 Titans’ victory.

At Philadelphia in Week 2, Michael Vick threw for 428 yards and two touchdowns. Vick also ran for another 23 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown run, as the Chargers escaped with a 33-30 win.

Pryor didn’t play last week against Washington because of lingering concussion symptoms, but he has been cleared to play and is expected to start Sunday evening.

In three starts this season, Pryor has completed 65.4 percent of his passes, throwing for 624 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s been sacked seven times, and has an 86.7 passer rating.

Pryor’s 198 rushing yards is second among quarterbacks behind Vick (228 yards) in the NFL.

Pagano says his team needs to do a better job staying in their lanes when they rush the passer against Pryor, along with wrapping-up and making sure tackles once he breaks into the open field.

“He’s a guy that’s very athletic, that’s going to move around and create different matchups just from his feet,” Pagano said. “And we’ve got to go out and do a good job, and make sure it’s all about angles. And then we’ve got to go tackle him, get him on the ground and finish.”

Impersonating Pryor during this week’s practice has been reserve quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. At 6-5 and 226 pounds, the Clemson product is an underrated athlete, but not exactly as fleet of foot as the athletic Pryor.

“We played Philly earlier this year and did all of that, so I’m kind of used to it,” Whitehurst said. “You’ve just got to stretch real good before you go out there, and run around about as fast