With the AFC West race coming down to the wire almost every season, the San Diego Chargers have to win 10 key games to reserve their place in the playoffs.
Obviously, it's important that the Chargers try and get a "W" against every one of their AFC opponents, but that's a challenge in itself to accomplish. Just winning every AFC West matchup is going to be difficult.
I won't sit here and tell you that I think San Diego is going to win every single one of these games because this isn't a piece on predictions. Instead, these are 10 of the most important games on the schedule that will only make the playoffs even more of a reality in 2012.
To put it quite simply, the Chargers will have to win 10 of their 12 games against AFC opponents to make themselves a unanimous favorite to make it to the playoffs. Winning within the conference is going to be the most efficient route to the playoffs, and dominating within the AFC West would be the icing on the cake.
Here are 10 games the Chargers have to win to make it to the playoffs.
Starting off the 2012 season on the right foot is a must for the Chargers, but stealing a win in Oakland against the Raiders won't be easy.
The last time the Chargers visited the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Philip Rivers had his way with the Raiders' secondary, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Carson Palmer, who was playing in just his 10th game for the Raiders, was right on the heels of his counterpart, throwing for 417 yards and two touchdowns.
This time around, the Chargers and Raiders will meet in a season opener on Monday Night Football in Oakland. Aside from the heated rivalry between these two teams, this contest is also a divisional matchup.
Not only does a win against the Raiders help steer the Chargers in the right direction, but it helps build confidence in the team as they battle the rest of the AFC West.
After their Monday night showdown with Oakland, the Chargers will return home to face the Tennessee Titans in another AFC matchup.
The Chargers have yet to face the Titans under the direction of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. In fact, the last time San Diego faced Tennessee was in 2010 when Vince Young was still a Titan. In that 2010 meeting, the Chargers were trailing the Titans by five points before coming back to steal the win at home 33-25.
The Chargers don't have this win in the bag, but I like their chances against a young Titans squad. Yet, another win against AFC competition only helps their chances at making it into the postseason.
For the Chargers, this will be their first look at Manning in a Broncos uniform and the first of two matchups against the Broncos this season. I can't stress enough how important it is to get a win at home against Manning and Co.
First of all, this is another huge rivalry/divisional meeting for San Diego. A win here would further aid their cause for a potential run into the playoffs. Secondly, a win against Manning would squash any fears of Denver being the new powerhouse in the AFC West.
Coming out of their bye week, the Chargers will head to Cleveland to play the Browns. Not only is this a must-win game against an AFC opponent, but the core of Cleveland's offense will potentially be under the command of a rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden.
Cleveland's running game will also be on the shoulders of a rookie in former Alabama standout Trent Richardson. When the core of your offense is in the hands of rookies, things can go bad fast against an aggressive defense, which is just what the Chargers have.
I won't go so far as to say this will be a one-sided beating, but the Chargers stack up well on both sides of the ball.
The Chargers' last meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs is probably one they haven't forgotten. In a Halloween night thriller, the Chiefs managed to pull off a 23-20 victory in overtime after a horrific meltdown on the part of Philip Rivers.
Revenge is a word that comes to mind when the Chiefs come to Qualcomm, and I'm sure Rivers will have a better outing than he did a year ago. The Chiefs have loaded up in the offseason through the draft and free agency, but we'll have to wait and see if they can translate all that depth into wins.
The Chargers should have an easier time handling the Chiefs at home rather than Arrowhead Stadium, but this is still going to be a gritty, all-out war between AFC West rivals.
The Chargers will have already faced the Broncos earlier in the season before heading into their second matchup, but this time, these AFC West rivals will throw down in Denver. After seeing what Manning can do once before, I'd hope that the Chargers know what they were in for in this second game, but winning on the road is a tough task for any team.
With just six games left at this point, the Chargers will have to be thinking about getting ahead in the divisional standings. I realize that getting a win on the road against one of the best quarterbacks ever is a tall order, but the road to the playoffs goes through the AFC West, no matter how you spin it.
The Baltimore Ravens have really gotten hot the past couple seasons. Everything really seems to be clicking on offense with Ray Rice and Joe Flacco, and the defense is still one of the best with veterans like Ray Lewis at the helm.
In terms of talent, the Ravens are one of the top teams in the AFC with a perfect mix of veterans and young guns. Let's be honest—the Chargers are definite underdogs here. Getting a win against one of last year's playoff contenders will be no cakewalk, but San Diego does have the advantage of being at home for this one.
Let's not forget, too, that the Chargers handed the Ravens a 34-14 beatdown last season, so this isn't an impossible feat.
Andy Dalton led the Cincinnati Bengals all the way to the playoffs in his rookie season last year, but can he avoid the sophomore slump?
The Chargers haven't had the pleasure of playing against the new-look Bengals, but I'm not so sure the youth movement in Cincinnati is enough to stop San Diego in this one. This will be the Chargers' first encounter with the red-haired youngster, and their first meeting with the Bengals since a 34-20 loss in 2010.
Down the stretch, every AFC game is huge, and this run in with Cincinnati is no different.
Right now, we really don't know if the Jets will be able to pull it together next season and be a contender in the AFC, but the Chargers have to get this win either way. Going into hostile territory in New York, the Chargers will have to find some way to get points up on the board and stay on the heels of the Jets.
Last season, the Chargers held a 21-10 lead at halftime on the Jets but suffered a total collapse that allowed New York to come from behind and get the 27-21 victory. Needless to say, San Diego will have to prevent another collapse from ruining their postseason hopes.
I know, I know. Saying that the Chargers have to go 2-of-2 against the Broncos and Raiders seems absolutely absurd. But what do you expect when you're playing in the AFC West?
Every year, the AFC West race gets closer and closer, and the only way to ensure a berth in the playoffs is to take care of your divisional games and conference games.
This is no knock on Oakland at all. The Raiders aren't going to just lay down and let the Chargers take this one, it's going to be a dogfight for sure.