Many are tooting the Super-Chargers horn this off-season. Many are saying that the Chargers will be the team to beat in the AFC, if not right at the top next to the Colts and the Patriots. Most of these high expectations stem from the playoff performance that the Chargers produced last season. After out-slugging Tennessee in the wild card round, they stunned the defending champion Indianapolis on the road 28-24. They also put up a tough fight against New England, though they failed to score a touchdown, losing 21-12. It was the first loss the team had since November 18 when they fell to Jacksonville. Phillip Rivers played on a torn knee ligament, Antonio Gates was out with a toe injury suffered versus Tennessee, and LT went out with a hurt knee as well. The team showed tremendous grit and the eight game winning streak late in the year is impressive, but discussing them in the AFC favorites category may be a bit hasty.
The first point that jumps out at me is the fact that this time has not climbed the mountain. The win against Indy was something to be proud of, a big upset in a game in which they were given no chance. The defense was the star of their win against Tennessee, holding Vince Young and company to six points. In the RCA Dome, a Gates-less San Diego fought tooth and nail, losing LT and Rivers along the way, and bested the Colts. It was a great story, but it ended a week later in New England. The win by the Patriots was by no means a work of art, and the tweak of Brady’s ankle and the defensive pressure the Chargers put on the Patriot offense was a preview of the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. But just like the Colts, it is hard to put the Chargers on the top of the mountain until they reach it. Before the Colts reached the pinnacle in 2006, they had to come back from a 21-3 deficit to WIN the AFC and advance to the Super Bowl and forgive me if Peyton inspires more confidence from the quarterback position than Rivers.
Let’s take a look at this eight game winning streak before the final loss of the season. Anytime you can win that many games consecutively in the NFL it should be praised and the victory over Indy in the RCA Dome was more than impressive, but if you look at their last regular season loss it was to Jacksonville, a playoff team. The wins that followed were all against inferior opponents: Baltimore, Kansas City, Tennessee, Detroit, Denver and Oakland. Not really running the gauntlet of the best.
The injury situation is also a factor. Rivers claims his knee is completely healed and so does LT. Their greatest receiver over last year and for the last four years, Antonio Gates says he is only 60-75% on his toe. They need Gates healthy to be in the discussion for a championship run. Yes they beat Indy and came close against the Patriots with a gimpy Gates, but to overcome the barrier they need his presence. Many say that the post-season last year was a breakout opportunity for Vincent Jackson. They will need him to step up if Gates is hobbled in the beginning of the season. In the regular season of last year Jackson had 41 receptions for 623 yards, and 3 scores but his playoff stats were 18 receptions, 300 yards, and 2 touchdowns. If asked which Jackson will show up this year, it is usually wise to favor the longer stretch.
With all these questions, one finds it hard to place San Diego at the pinnacle of AFC elite. The one thing they have going for them is the fact that their division should be relatively weak. The Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos are clearly not top-level teams and should allow for another Division title. Their schedule is also favorable as they do have New England and Indianapolis on the schedule but face them both at home, and also get Miami, the Jets, and Atlanta on the schedule. A top 2 seed is so valuable in the AFC because of the toughness of the teams that if a wild card round game against a worthy adversary and an extra week off are almost vital to post-season success.
In the end, the Chargers could very well be in the AFC title hunt come January, but with all these questions and Norv Turner being the man to lead them, it is perhaps more prudent to say prove it before labeling them as a team to beat.
Saturday, July 26
Posted by Cleet at 1:30 PM