NFL Nation: Mike McCoy


The San Diego Chargers (5-3) will travel to face the Miami Dolphins (4-3) in an important game with early playoff implications. Both teams could be fighting for a wild card in the AFC, which would make owning the head-to-head tiebreaker important.

Who will prevail in this matchup? ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss:

Walker: Miami has won two in a row and San Diego has lost two in a row, so momentum may be a factor in this matchup. Where are the Chargers in terms of confidence and ending their losing streak?

Williams: The Chargers are a veteran-led group that understands the ebb and flow of an NFL season, so confidence will not be an issue traveling on the road to face the Dolphins. Two of San Diego's three losses have come on the road, against teams that have one loss apiece (Denver and Arizona). San Diego's other loss was a three-point setback to AFC West rival Kansas City at home.

The Chargers don't make a lot of mistakes and generally force opponents to beat them. Coach Mike McCoy is meticulous in his game-day preparation and his staff is skilled in making in-game adjustments. I expect San Diego will be ready for whatever the Dolphins plan to do scheme-wise on both sides of the ball.

The Dolphins are doing a nice job of running, ranked No. 6 by averaging 138 rushing yards per game. How has new coordinator Bill Lazor turned things around on offense?

Walker: Most people expected Lazor to come in and quickly fix the passing game, but he has made his biggest contribution with the running game. Miami's ground game has been consistent, whether it was Knowshon Moreno early, Lamar Miller lately or even quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has three runs of 30 yards or more in the past three games. Lazor has done a good job of spreading out defenses and calling run plays at the right time. His read-option with Tannehill and Miller has been a huge success. Miami's passing game still needs work, but there is progress.

West Coast teams often don't look the same in Miami; San Diego hasn't won here since the 1981 season. How are the Chargers combating that and will the 10-day layoff help?

Williams: Although West Coast teams traditionally struggle in early games traveling east, the Chargers have been relatively successful of late, posting a 7-5 record in 10 a.m. PT games since 2012. The extra days off have given this banged-up team a chance to get some players healthy, and with Philip Rivers controlling the offense, the Chargers are competitive more times than not. One of the keys for San Diego will be the possible return of running back Ryan Mathews. Out for the past six games with an MCL sprain, the Fresno State product could help provide some much-needed balance to San Diego's offense if healthy and cleared to play on Sunday.

After starting 1-2, the Dolphins have won three of their past four games to get back into the AFC playoff race. What has been the difference?

Walker: Part of it is the schedule. The Dolphins cannot hide from that fact. All three of Miami's victories during this stretch have been against the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7), Oakland Raiders (0-7) and Chicago Bears (3-5). Those are bad teams the Dolphins must beat if they want to be considered playoff contenders, and to their credit they took care of business.

The Dolphins are 1-3 against teams with winning records. That is why this game against San Diego is such a good measuring stick of where the Dolphins stand. Miami's next four opponents have a combined record of 22-9 (.709 winning percentage), so we are going to find out quickly whether the Dolphins are contenders or pretenders.

San Diego was banged up before its previous game against the Broncos. Where are the Chargers injury-wise heading into Sunday's game?

Williams: The Chargers should be in a better place health-wise. Four weeks ago against Jacksonville, the Chargers barely had enough healthy bodies to fill 46 spots on the active roster. Along with Mathews, cornerback Brandon Flowers and running back Donald Brown are possibilities to return from concussions. Pass rushers Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring) and Cordarro Law (ankle) also should have a chance to make it back on the field on Sunday. Offensive linemen D.J. Fluker (ankle) and Rich Ohrnberger (back) have been playing with injuries, so the extra time should work in their favor as well.

The Dolphins are No. 3 in passing defense, holding teams to just 212 passing yards a game. How does the front seven set the tone?

Walker: Miami's front four are the strength of the entire team. The Dolphins have waves of good players, starting with defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon and defensive tackles Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell and Randy Starks. Miami also is getting contributions off the bench from Derrick Shelby, Chris McCain and Dion Jordan, who recorded a couple of tackles in his first game off suspension. This group sets the tone for the defense. The Dolphins' linebackers have been inconsistent with the exception of Jelani Jenkins, who leads Miami in tackles (53) by a wide margin.

SAN DIEGO -- Saying he had seen enough, San Diego coach Mike McCoy let players take off for summer vacations a day early, ending the team's scheduled three-day, mandatory minicamp Wednesday after players finished a set of gassers.

McCoy
"I think the players have done an outstanding job this offseason and worked extremely hard,” McCoy said. "They've done everything we've asked of them, so as a little bit of an appreciation of what they did [we let them go early].

"I think we're at a good point right now. We've got a long ways still to go, but that was the best thing for the team moving forward.”

McCoy said only a couple of people knew that he going to cut minicamp short -- and none of the coaches knew his plan. McCoy said he made the decision not to practice on the final day of minicamp about halfway through Wednesday's session.

Chargers outside linebacker Jarret Johnson was pleased to get a reprieve.

"Any time you can cut out early, that's good,” Johnson said. "But we've been at it for nine weeks now, so we've had a lot of work. So it's kind of a nice little treat, especially for the older guys.”

Nick Hardwick, who suffered a foot injury Tuesday, watched practice from the sidelines. Hardwick did not wear a boot on his injured right foot, and the expectation is he will be healthy for training camp.

Right guard Jeromey Clary was seen after practice walking with crutches. Clary had offseason shoulder and hip surgery, and his availability for the start of training camp at the end of July remains a question mark.

"Every player that is injured right now is working hard,” McCoy said, when asked for an update on Clary's status. "And they will be out there as soon as they can.”

San Diego State coaches attend practice: Rocky Long, head football coach for San Diego State, attended the Chargers' practice Wednesday, along with other members of his coaching staff. Long is good friends with defensive coordinator John Pagano. Long coached Pagano's older brother, John, while he served as defensive coordinator at Wyoming.

Long said the minicamp is a good opportunity for his staff to come to practice and learn a few things that they could use at their program.

"We look at their schemes and everything,” Long said. "In fact, John Pagano and I were talking about how they cover the bunch formations, because we do some similar things, but we do them differently. So you can always learn something out here X's and Os-wise.”

Look out for Williams: Asked about the quality depth of players at outside linebacker, Johnson provided a player few have talked about so far this offseason, second-year pro Tourek Williams. With all of the injuries San Diego suffered last season, the sixth-round selection in the 2013 draft out of Florida International got a chance to play significant minutes as a rookie.

Williams played in 204 snaps last season, finishing with 10 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. His signature play was a strip sack of Peyton Manning recovered by middle linebacker Donald Butler in a home game at Qualcomm Stadium against Denver.

"Tourek is the one that's been pretty interesting to me how much he's gained over the offseason -- just how much more mature he is,” Johnson said. "He's the one that I think is going to have a huge year.”

Roll call: Safety Jahleel Addae did not practice for a second straight day due to an unspecified injury. Middle linebacker Jonas Mouton (knee) also did not practice. Tackle Michael Harris (ankle), cornerback Jason Verrett (shoulder), outside linebacker Dwight Freeney (quad) and tight end John Phillips participated in individual drills, but were spectators during the team portions of practice.
If you believed the reclamation of Philip Rivers by San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy was a short-term stint while the team found a long-term answer at the position, think again.

Rivers
In a conversation with ESPN's John Keim at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., this week, McCoy reaffirmed that Rivers remains the team's franchise quarterback for the long haul.

Further, McCoy believes Rivers' improved performance is not an aberration.

"He should start off where he finished and have the type of year he had last year," McCoy said. "Our team will only improve. There were a lot of first times for our team also, in a new system. There's things you're learning -- you practice things all the time but they may not be against a certain coverage.

"He was learning as we were going during the year. As time goes along you put in a new play, maybe it's a play out of a new formation, or someone else is running it, Ladarius [Green] is running it versus one of the receivers. You're still learning about one another and your system every week.

"We said the first day sitting here last year [that] Philip Rivers was not the problem. It was everyone else around him playing better. He'll be the first one to tell you also that he needed to play better. He couldn't make certain decisions he made. That's the quarterback position. You'll throw interceptions sometimes. He's going to make more good decisions than bad decisions."

McCoy said even with former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt moving on and taking the head coaching job in Tennessee, he still expects Rivers to have similar success under new offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

"The system's in place," McCoy said. "We put a system in place last year to be there for the long haul, and we all sat down and there were good offensive minds in there and there are still some good offensive minds in there. We knew this could happen at this point in time that Ken could leave. But that's what happens in this profession. We have a great staff in place. We added [tight ends coach] Pete Metzelaars and he will be great for the offense also. We built the system for the long haul."

The eventual departure of receiver Steve Smith from the Carolina Panthers has been rumored for the past week. But according to this story by Steve Reed of the Associated Press, that speculation could soon become a reality.

Reed quotes Smith’s longtime agent, Derrick Fox, stating that whether through trade or outright release, Smith will not be with the Panthers in 2014.

“[Steve] is not going to play for the Panthers next year, I know that,” Fox told the Associated Press. “I just don’t know when that transaction is going to take place.”

Smith’s contract runs through 2016. Carolina will have to pay the Utah product $3 million whether he’s with the team or not for the upcoming season.

Despite the Panthers moving on from Smith, the 13-year, NFL veteran can still play, and would be a good fit for a San Diego offense looking to add more playmakers. Smith was one of Cam Newton's favorite targets, finishing with 64 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns in 2013.

At 5-9 and 185 pounds, Smith still has enough speed to get deep, the ability to make plays after the catch and is one of the most competitive players in the league. That passion should fit in well with the ultra-competitive Philip Rivers.

Chargers coach Mike McCoy is very familiar with Smith, having coached him for eight seasons while serving as quarterbacks coach, receivers coach and passing game coordinator in Carolina. So McCoy will know how to use Smith’s skill set in new offensive coordinator Frank Reich's version of San Diego's offense.

Smith, who turns 35 in May, also would pair with Eddie Royal to give San Diego a nice rotation at slot receiver, along with a veteran presence in the receiving room to balance against young receivers like Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown. Smith, a Los Angeles native, also could return to his West Coast roots.

Smith would have a chance to still make a run at a Super Bowl with San Diego. And with Carolina basically paying Smith $3 million to play for someone else in 2014, Smith could be an inexpensive option to help bolster the team’s receiving group.
Tom TelescoAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackComing off a playoff season, Tom Telesco hopes to build the Chargers into a perennial contender.
SAN DIEGO -- A patient decision-maker with just a week on the job, San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco helped his new franchise make perhaps the most impactful move in recent memory when he hired Mike McCoy as the team’s new head coach a little over a year ago.

The detail-oriented McCoy, who had been the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator, led the Chargers to their first playoff appearance since 2009. Along the way, he resuscitated the careers of quarterback Philip Rivers and running back Ryan Mathews.

Telesco and McCoy have San Diego headed in the right direction, re-establishing a good working relationship between the personnel department and coaching staff that had turned sour under former head personnel man A.J. Smith.

Telesco and McCoy let their actions speak louder than their words. McCoy divulged little about his team in weekly conversations with reporters, concerned with leaking information to the opponent.

Telesco shares a similar approach, preferring to speak in generalities about his team’s performance. For now, the hushed approach has proved effective.

On the field, Telesco said he was attracted to McCoy’s knack for teaching his coaching staff and players what he wanted to accomplish, along with an ability to adapt.

“He’s direct with the players,” Telesco said of McCoy. “He defines what he wants from them, so there’s no gray area. So everyone knows what’s exactly expected of them, and I think that’s a great trait to have.

“We had some ups and downs, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a team in transition. And you saw on the field that sometimes we looked like a pretty good football team, while other times you could say we looked pretty far away.

“So we were a little inconsistent early in the year, but he always kept the players focused. Even when we were 5-7 and most people had counted us out, the players were locked in on Mike the whole time. And you saw that on the practice field every day.”

The Chargers were a surprise entry to the playoffs last season. But San Diego has several aging foundational players in place, including Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, center Nick Hardwick and safety Eric Weddle.

It’s the mild-mannered Telesco’s job in Year 2 to help provide McCoy with more tools to make a deeper playoff run in 2014, which means talent upgrades in the secondary and defensive and offensive lines, along with improving overall team speed through the draft and free agency.

Like most general managers, Telesco’s mantra is to build through the draft.

Telesco, 41, received his foundation for football while playing receiver at Division III John Carroll University in Ohio. And he cut his teeth in the personnel department of one of the best in the business, spending 15 years in Indianapolis under former NFL head personnel man Bill Polian. Indianapolis appeared in the playoffs 12 times, winning eight division titles and a Super Bowl during that time frame.

“He had a really great process with the way we did things,” Telesco said about his former boss. “We were very consistent. We tried to make as many good football decisions that we could, and that included taking opinions from everybody. One thing about Bill is he always listened to everybody, coaches and scouts -- and even younger guys like me when I first started.

“It doesn't mean he’s always going to go with what you said, but he always listened, which was great. We just worked the process, and we always stayed true to the process.”

The Chargers drafted well under the direction of Telesco in 2013, selecting right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round, linebacker Manti Te’o in the second and offensive rookie of the year candidate Keenan Allen in the third round -- all key contributors in their first season.

Along with those picks, Telesco found some bargains in free agency, signing running back Danny Woodhead and offensive tackle King Dunlap to two-year deals, and offensive lineman Chad Rinehart to a one-year deal.

Rinehart returned to the Chargers on a two-year deal before the onset of free agency.

However, everything did not go perfectly. Telesco’s top free-agent signing, cornerback Derek Cox, struggled through the first half of the season, and was eventually replaced by Richard Marshall.

Signed to a $20 million, four-year deal, the Chargers released Cox last week, saving $1.65 million in cap space and $4.25 million in cash.

“All the decisions that we make in this business, you’re never right all the time,” Telesco said. “And you try and learn.”

With free agency set to begin this week, the Chargers have little cap space to make a big splash. So expect Telesco to use his seven draft picks wisely, and once again spend sensibly in free agency in pursuit of building the Chargers into a perennial Super Bowl contender.
JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The Super Bowl is a long way from the crossroads that led to it.

A long way from the moment when Adam Gase felt doubt creeping in, the moment when he had started to feel he could be many things in his life but a football coach was not one of them.

“I remember sitting in an Applebee's, interviewing for an insurance salesman job," said Gase, the Broncos' offensive coordinator. “And him basically telling me I would have to move back to Mount Pleasant [in Michigan] and me thinking that was what I was going to do."

Yes, the guy who will be on the headset to Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII, the guy who called plays for the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, the guy Manning has called “a superstar" in conversations with some around the team was sitting in a restaurant just minutes from his parents' house, about to call for the check on his coaching career.

[+] EnlargeAdam Gase
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliDenver offensive coordinator Adam Gase almost gave up coaching in his early 20s to sell insurance.
It was just after the LSU Tigers had won the 2001 SEC championship, and Gase, as an “eight grand a year" graduate assistant with student loans staring him in the face to go with the fact he “may or may not have been kicked out of grad school," was contemplating a future that was quickly becoming cloaked in uncertainty.

“It was just kind of that stage," Gase said. “… [LSU] was trying to find a role for me; that's not an easy thing to do at that level. I was back home to see my parents, and there was a part of me that was saying I might not go back [to LSU]."

At least until three friends -- Scott Angove, Nate Lambertson and Jeff Sablack -- who were, as Gase puts it, “beside themselves," got him to reconsider the notion of walking away. So Gase went back to LSU in 2002 and started stepping up the rungs from there. He went to the Detroit Lions, the San Francisco 49ers and the Broncos in the years and nameplates that followed.

He was a scouting assistant, an offensive assistant, a quality control coach, quarterbacks coach, wide receivers coach and quarterbacks coach. And then, when Mike McCoy left the Broncos to become the San Diego Chargers coach, Gase, at 34, was named the Broncos' offensive coordinator.

A short, a long and a winding road, all at the same time.

“He's bright -- very, very bright," Broncos coach John Fox said. “We knew his work. We knew how he handled himself. To me, when Mike left, it was a clear choice."

“I know there was a point when I thought it might not work," Gase said. "… I don't really think about sitting there in that interview anymore, but I'm glad I kept going."

Gase is not the product of a playing career that evolved into coaching once the on-field work was done. He is a product of from-the-ground-up work, of rolled-up sleeves to learn a profession. A process that started when he met current Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Gase was in high school, and Pees was at Michigan State.

Pees visited Gase's high school, handed him a business card and said when he arrived at Michigan State the following fall, as a student, he should come to the school's football offices.

“When I was in high school, I enjoyed the sport a lot; I was just terrible at it," Gase said. "… And I think [Pees] was thinking more like equipment manager and that. What ended up happening was Dean said here's my card and come see me when you get on campus.

“… And I showed up, gave the secretary the card. She goes OK, and I sat in [Pees'] office for like an hour and he gave me a self-scout [personnel evaluation] from when he was with the Cleveland Browns. I had just gotten a computer for my graduation, and he said, 'You know how to use a computer?' And I was like, 'I've got a computer' and I hadn't touched it yet. I kind of figured out how to put that together and set it up in my dorm room. I went through a lot of ink cartridges."

That's where it started, the get-it-done side it took to help McCoy dismantle the Broncos' playbook in roughly a week in 2011 and reconfigure it as a read-option attack with Tim Tebow at quarterback. The same guy who helped to then dismantle that when Manning arrived in 2012 and retooled it again when he was promoted to be the team's primary playcaller.

His go-for-it aggressiveness is rooted in Mike Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf" offense that powered the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances. Gase calls Martz “a mentor, a guy who taught me so much." The attention to detail and the respect for the need to play some power football come from his time with former LSU coach Nick Saban to go with some things from Josh McDaniels' Patriots playbook as well as his time with Fox and McCoy that helped him see the bigger picture, the one where he had to understand what defenses were doing and why.

“Adam is just a guy that was ready," McCoy said. “He's smart, creative, works very, very hard, a guy I leaned on a lot in my time in Denver. And you can see he's had a big impact in what they're doing."

What the Broncos did in the regular season was make history. From Manning's statistics to Denver's push-the-pace philosophy to the pile of touchdowns, the Broncos pushed the envelope on offense to a spot that had not been seen before.

None other than John Elway, still considered the final word on most things football for legions of fans across the Front Range, has said “I wish I could have played for him" and characterized Gase's decision not to interview with the Minnesota Vikings and Browns for their head-coaching jobs while the Broncos were still playing as “studly."

“Being somebody that did not play in college or at the professional level, I had to learn as fast as possible," Gase said. “It was an adapt-or-die situation for me. I said that a lot, especially with Peyton. You go from running an option offense to all of a sudden the protections are ‘you've got to be on it.' You have no choice but to figure out a way to speed up that learning curve.”

The curve now has a Super Bowl on it. The one where Gase will call the plays Sunday against the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

A game, an opportunity, that was almost left on the table. At Applebee's.

“I'm grateful for the chance, grateful to everyone who helped me, grateful to be a part of this organization," Gase said. “And I'm excited to be in this position, in this job. It's what I want to do, and you know, it really has worked out OK."
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.

ESPN.com 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.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Perhaps it's because Dave Logan is a former NFL wide receiver.

Perhaps it's because Logan's athletic life is something of a state landmark, having once been selected in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball drafts, or that the Broncos' play-by-play voice is also one of the most successful prep football coaches in the state's history.

By when Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning let down his well-rehearsed guard this season, when Manning pulled back the curtain on his emotions a bit it was to Logan in the moments following the Broncos' Dec. 8 win over the Tennessee Titans.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeThe Chargers were one of just three teams that were able to beat the Broncos during the regular season.
On a day when the kickoff temperature was 18 degrees, Manning had just blistered the Titans' defense on 39-of-59 passing for 397 yards and four touchdowns. And in a postgame interview with Logan, Manning simply said the people who said he couldn't play in the cold could take that "narrative" and "stick it where the sun don't shine."

Those who know Manning well were not surprised and they say, despite his perpetually calm demeanor in interviews, the narratives matter to Manning. Perhaps one of the most driven players to wear a helmet, Manning is often fueled by circumstances.

And at a time when his playoff record is making the rounds -- it's 9-11 -- there is also the matter of Sunday's opponent, the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers are 2-0 against Manning in playoff games -- to close out the 2007 and 2008 seasons, both against the Colts -- and the Chargers are one of three teams to have beaten Manning and the Broncos this season.

It's yet another narrative. And mix in the fact Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was Manning's offensive coordinator in Denver last season so he knows what the quarterback does and doesn't like in a game plan and from a defense.

Also consider that McCoy and Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano put together a defensive game plan Dec. 12 that was essentially one of the best anybody authored against the Broncos this season. And while it is a testament to the Broncos' record-breaking season on offense that the 20 points scored in the 27-20 loss was their fewest of the year, the Chargers were the only team to limit the Broncos' offense to fewer than 61 plays in a game this season. And the Chargers did it in both games, including a season-low 53 plays in the Dec. 12 game.

Asked if his up-close-and-personal time with Manning helped in devising game plans, McCoy deferred to his players' efforts.

"Players play, coaches coach," McCoy said. "There are 11 guys out there on the field, they've got to play. We could call out every play, or call out every defense, whatever it is. The players have to go out and execute it. Peyton is good enough, he knows where to go. He sees a certain coverage and knows where to go with the ball. So it's all the players, give the players all the credit for the way they played last time."

Manning is in just his second season with the Broncos so many of his teammates are still adjusting to the swirl that follows the future Hall of Famer through a season. His sore ankle earlier this season was the stuff live updates were made of in the news cycle and some of his teammates simply shake their heads at all the fuss, even this week.

"I don't really think about it," defensive end Shaun Phillips said. "I try to worry about our side of the ball. Peyton is going to handle his business. He's been doing that for years. That's something -- when you're great, they're going to find something to nitpick at you. He can't be perfect. If he was perfect, he would win every single game and win every single Super Bowl. But no one is perfect. All he can do is go out there and do his job. And we're going to do our part to try to help the way we can on our side of the ball."

Manning did admit, like many of his teammates, that last January's double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens, a one-and-done exit from the postseason as the AFC's top seed, provided plenty of fuel this season in many of the team's activities. But Manning has also consistently said if you're just ramping up your intensity now, with the playoffs underway, you probably weren't handling your business properly before that.

"I think we've kind of used that throughout the season," Manning said. "We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our offseason training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squads, whatever it may be. We've used it on the practice field. I don't think that you just get to this week and you start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before. I feel like we've done that and, like I said, we're excited to be at this place right now.

"I think you just sort of focus on the now. I think we've prepared well throughout this season. I don't think you do anything differently here now that you're only one of a few teams left playing. It means you haven't been preparing the right way all along if you try to do something differently now. I'm not sure that you really look much past this season, the games you played against these guys, the games they played last week, our game we played a couple of weeks ago -- and kind of focus on that. I'm not sure any of the other stuff has a whole lot to do with what actually is going to occur in this game."
SAN DIEGO -- Sunday’s AFC divisional round contest between the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos will be the rubber match for the AFC West rivals.

Denver took the first contest, a 28-20 victory in which San Diego made a late charge to pull within a score in the fourth quarter. The Chargers surprisingly took the second contest in Denver, 27-20, dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Now the Chargers face the daunting task of playing the Broncos a third time in one season, with a chance to play for an appearance in the Super Bowl on the line. Making the task more difficult, the Chargers face Peyton Manning on two weeks rest and plenty of time to game plan for his opponent.

"You have to do what you do best when you go out there," San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "Every week, regardless of who it is, you’re going to put a few new wrinkles in there. And that’s all part of game planning. You’re more familiar with the opponent. You have a good idea what they’re going to do, but you have to adjust on the fly.”

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said with the endless amount of game tape and statistical information at their disposal, it’s important to not get bogged down with minutia.

“You can almost out think yourself or out plan,” Rivers said. “As a quarterback, I can out think myself, and you out think what they might do or did there, what they did on this situation or that.

“So I think it’s important just to plan like you always have, prepare like you always have, study the same and be prepared for something new. ...You prepare for a wrinkle, and the way you prepare for something new is just by saying that they’re going to throw something new at us. You can’t chase ghosts and start trying to dream up what they may do new.”

The Chargers can lean on the fact that they have had some success in the postseason against Manning. San Diego is 2-0 against Manning-led teams. The Chargers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 28-24 on their way to the AFC title game in 2007. A year later, San Diego beat the Colts in overtime, 23-17 in an AFC wild-card matchup.

The pressure is on Manning to put the finishing touches on a historic season by leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl win. Manning is 9-11 in the playoffs, and has been one-and-done eight times in the postseason, a NFL record in the Super Bowl era.

McCoy said his team is not focused on winning streaks, trends or facing a team a third time. McCoy just wants to win the game in front of him.

“It’s the next step,” McCoy said. “To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. And they’re the No. 1 seed. We are where we are at. And we know who they are, and what type of team they have. It’s going to be a tough test for us. We have to go out and play our best football game.”
CINCINNATI -- It’s been six years since San Diego Chargers running back Ronnie Brown galloped that far on the football field in anger.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Brown
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChargers RB Ronnie Brown saw his most extensive action of the season on Sunday at Cincinnati.
"A long time, especially for an old guy like myself," Brown said, smiling. "It felt good, but I think the biggest part was us getting a victory. I think it pretty much put the icing on the cake at the end of the game."

Brown's 58-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter on Sunday sealed a 27-10 playoff win for the Chargers over Cincinnati. Brown hasn’t had a run that far since a 62-yard touchdown scamper in a 38-13 win against New England on Sept. 21, 2008. That season, Brown sometimes served as the Wildcat quarterback for the Dolphins.

The No. 2 overall selection in the 2005 draft for the Dolphins, at 32 years old Brown is one of nine players on San Diego’s roster 30 years old or older.

He helps provide a calming influence in the locker room.

“He shows up to work every day,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "All he does is work and help his teammates out, and that’s all you can ask. He’s a true professional -- a great guy to be around. We’re very fortunate to have him.”

Brown’s long run helped contribute to San Diego’s season-high 196 rushing yards against Cincinnati, and was the team’s longest run of the season. Brown finished with eight rushes for 77 yards.

The Chargers might have to take advantage of Brown’s fresh legs even more this Sunday in the team’s AFC divisional round game at Denver.

Workhorse running back Ryan Mathews entered the contest with a balky ankle. Mathews rushed for 52 yards on 13 carries, but gave way to Danny Woodhead and Brown after one carry in the second half.

"We're doing what’s best for the football team," McCoy said, when asked about Mathews' injury status. "We rested him a little this week, as we’ve done the past couple weeks. We’re still playing, so we have to do what’s best for the team moving forward."

What’s best for the team moving forward could mean more carries for a healthy Brown over playing a hobbled Mathews.

Brown should be ready for the increased workload. Besides handling kick return duties, Brown’s played in a total of 14 snaps in the month of December before San Diego’s playoff win against Cincinnati.

“Every guy is important,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Ronnie Brown is a team favorite and a great teammate. He's so unselfish. He’s dressed so many games and not played. When he’s called on, you see why he was picked high in the draft and why he’s had a heck of a career. We’re glad we got him."
Giovani BernardAP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe Chargers' defense stifled the Cincinnati offense by forcing four turnovers.
CINCINNATI -- According to Mike McCoy, the San Diego Chargers executed the rope-a-dope Muhammad Ali made famous on the Cincinnati Bengals.

"A lot of times teams lose the game rather than win it," the San Diego coach said of the Chargers' 27-10 victory. "When you make some mistakes and turn the football over and do certain things, it hurts your football team."

The team McCoy not-so-subtly referred to is the unlucky Bengals. San Diego advanced to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs by expertly sidestepping Cincinnati's initial barrage, ultimately allowing the Bengals to beat themselves by turning the ball over four times and falling for the fifth straight time in the postseason.

Cincinnati entered the contest as a seven-point favorite, but the Chargers performed more like the experienced playoff team from the onset.

It started with the Chargers' unflappable quarterback, Philip Rivers, who didn't try to do too much in his first postseason appearance since 2009.

"Playoff games aren't meant to be pretty," said Rivers, who sported his trademark bolo tie. This one made from elk horn was sent to him by a fan. "You just find a way to win, and we did that in all three phases today."

Rivers was efficient, finishing 12-of-16 for 128 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Ladarius Green. Rivers threw a career-low six times in the first half.

"Rivers played a smart game," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said. "He didn't force anything. He took what was there."

San Diego's complete effort was punctuated by a surprisingly suffocating defense that limited Cincinnati's potent offense to a season-low 10 points at home. The last time these two teams met, the Bengals bowled over the Chargers for 164 rushing yards in a 17-10 win. But San Diego was ready this time.

"We were talking all week -- if we stopped the run, they weren't going to beat us," Chargers linebacker Reggie Walker said. "We just knew if we made it a passing game, they weren't going to beat us."

The Chargers held Cincinnati to 113 rushing yards, grabbed a 14-10 lead at halftime and extended it to 20-10 with just more than 14 minutes left in the game.

The Chargers forced Andy Dalton to beat them with his arm, and he couldn't do it. Dalton wilted under the steady pressure of San Diego's defensive front. He finished 29-of-51 for 334 yards but also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Dalton was sacked three times and was hit six other times. He finished with a 67 passer rating.

The Bengals had not lost at home this season, averaging 34 points per contest.

"I know we were all glad, and itching to play them again," Walker said. "Thank God we got seeded to play them again. Because of all the teams we wanted to play, we wanted to play them again. We had to get our toughness back, because that was ridiculous.

"We have a great blitz package. So we knew if we could get them in third-and-long, they were not going to beat us."

Need proof that the Chargers have reached the big time? Golfer and San Diego native Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, attended the game on Sunday, and have plans to make it to the Chargers' AFC divisional-round game at Denver next week.

The Chargers could use star power facing Peyton Manning for a third time this season. No doubt, Manning and the Broncos will be ready after losing 27-20 in Denver on Dec. 12, the last time these two teams met.

But the San Diego defense plans on bringing its A-game, too. Aside from holding Denver to a season-low 20 points, this defense has allowed an average of just 16 points a game in the team's past five contests.

"They're going to be ready, but we're going to be ready, too," Walker said. "So we're just going to go in there and put our hard hats on and see what happens. We're not just happy to be playing. We've got a goal, and we're going to go get that."

Added middle linebacker Donald Butler, who finished with a team-high 12 tackles: "All the pressure is on them. We're loose. We're just going to go play and try and win another game."

 

Quick Take: Chargers at Broncos

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
4:35
PM ET
Three things to know about the Denver Broncos' matchup against the San Diego Chargers in the AFC divisional round at 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Get loose: Over the previous eight seasons, six of the Super Bowl winners have played on wild-card weekend, including the past three champions. While there is a talent factor there -- or in the case of the past three Super Bowl winners quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco -- there is also the matter of the favorite feeling pressure. The top two seeds wait and the pressure builds around them, as their opponent has already worked through the butterflies and earned a win. It could be even more of a factor for a team like the Broncos. For many fans, last January’s double-overtime loss to the Ravens overshadows all the broken records this season. How the Broncos work through that this week and deal with it early on Sunday -- on all fronts from the head coach down -- will have a lot to do with whether they advance. They just need to live up to coach John Fox’s words to Peyton Manning in Houston when the quarterback was staring at the touchdown record in the game’s waning minutes: "Go play ball."

2. No keep-away: No opposing coach worth his headset needs to be reminded of the troubles that come with giving Manning the ball too often. Having been the Broncos' offensive coordinator with Manning behind center, Chargers coach Mike McCoy has a better working knowledge than most. The Denver offense has run fewer than 65 plays in two games this season -- both against McCoy’s Chargers. In San Diego’s win in Denver on Dec. 12, the Broncos ran a season-low 54 plays, including penalty snaps. Their average drive start was the 19-yard line. Sunday the Chargers’ first two touchdown drives against the Bengals went for 12 and 10 plays for 86 and 80 yards respectively. The Broncos' defense has to get San Diego off the field. The Broncos' odds of winning go up if their play count on offense is north of 65 plays.

3. Arrive early: The Chargers are going to want to slow things down and shorten the game. But the sooner the Broncos can squash the threat of an upset the better. The Chargers are not built for comebacks filled with explosive plays, so if the Broncos open with some precision in their speedball game they can get the pace they want. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has largely chosen coverage over pressure against Manning this season, banking on the idea they can get to Manning out of a three- or four-man rush before he can find room against seven- and eight-man coverage looks. The Broncos must protect Manning better than they did last month against San Diego -- especially against the Chargers' interior pass-rushers when Pagano attacked the left side of the offensive line, and got to work right out of the gate.


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.

.
videoSAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers should have popped some bubbly in the locker room to celebrate the team’s first postseason berth since 2009, not fretted over the possibility being left out of the dance.

But at 8-7, the Chargers still need help to get into the playoffs because of games squandered against the Washington Redskins and Tennessee Titans earlier this season, along with winnable contests that slipped away against playoff-caliber teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins.

“That’s our own fault,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “We should have clinched a spot today. But those are all what ifs. We didn’t."

The Chargers were not at their best in a 26-13 victory against their hated rivals, the Oakland Raiders. San Diego turned the ball over three times, leading to 10 points for the Raiders. They settled for four Nick Novak field goals instead of punching the ball into the end zone.

But San Diego persevered. Unlike earlier this season, the Chargers found a way to win instead of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Chargers have now won three straight, and four of their last five games.

“We talked to the team and told them to keep on playing,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. “It’s one play at a time. There are going to be some bad plays in games. That’s a good football team over there, a good defense and we just kept on fighting.”

Unlike last week, when Miami and Baltimore both found ways to win, the Chargers got some help on Sunday. Buffalo shut out the Dolphins 19-0, and New England throttled Baltimore 41-7, leaving all three teams competing for the final wild-card berth at 8-7 heading into the final week of the regular season.

The Chargers have to defeat Kansas City at home next week, along with Baltimore losing at Cincinnati and Miami losing at home to the New York Jets to grab the last AFC playoff spot.

“We all know what games affected us,” Rivers said. “And all three went our way today, including the one we had control of. So we’ll be in the same boat next week. We need all three to go our way. The only one we can control is the one here against the Chiefs.

“So whatever those teams do, we want to be 9-7. And if that’s our last game, that’s our last game. We can say we won four of the last five, won four in a row and finished the way teams with character finish. If we get a bonus game the next week we’ll be fired up about it.”

McCoy said the players watched part of the Miami-Buffalo game in the locker room before pre-game warm-ups. And scoring updates for the Baltimore-New England game were announced at Qualcomm Stadium, bringing cheers to the crowd.

“It definitely served as motivation,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “There were all types of stuff going through our head once we found out those guys lost. And Baltimore was losing throughout our game, so we just had to find a way to win.”

The Chargers will have to find a way to win one more next week to keep playing.

“This is what it’s all about,” McCoy said. “This is what we’re in the business for. And we tell the players all the time, ‘Big-time players make big-time plays in big games.’ And we’ve got a big game coming up. And we’ve got to play our best game of the year. It’s all or nothing.”

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