San Diego won its seventh game in a row en route to a 9-3 record, maintaining pace over the Cincinnati Bengals for the second seed (same records, Chargers hold the tie-breaker) and the Denver Broncos for the division (a one game edge). They also saw the New England Patriots drop two games back in the race for a bye, and Ladainian Tomlinson surpass Jim Brown for eighth on the all-time rushing list. All in all it was a good week.
With that said, one must be grounded for a moment. San Diego defeated arguably the worst team in the NFL and by only a touchdown. This was a victory to be happy for, but not one to hang their hat on. They must remained focus if they look to take down the other titans of the league right now.
Looking at the game a few factors present themselves that will become interesting to observe. First, on offense was the second consecutive monster game by Antonio Gates. What this team is proving is that you can focus on Vincent Jackson or Antonio Gates, but not both. They also showed some good passing diversity, putting the ball in the hands of six different receivers with only eighteen total receptions.
What they still are having trouble doing is running the ball. A Cleveland team that is the fourth-worst run defense in the NFL, and without its best defensive player, still held all runners under four yards carry. Tomlinson broke a few decent runs, but still only managed 3.2 per carry with 64 runs.
I love the loyalty/faith the team shows in Tomlinson, but once he had topped Jim Brown they should have return to mixing other backs into the rotation. Mike Tolbert has been having a great last few weeks and should have earned some non-garbage carries. His sixty-six yard rumbling reception should have highlighted his abilities. Not throwing on 3rd-and-goal from the five was also a case of loyalty outweighing good strategy.
This team has proven one glaring weakness on offense time and time again. They cannot move the chains trying to pound the ball into short yardage. Whether it be an LT eye for the endzone or a Hester fourth down dive, this team has no push. Against a Chiefs or Browns this doesn’t matter. In the playoffs it could.
I am starting to reach dead-horse levels but I still contend they need to try Tolbert in short yardage. He has twenty pounds on Tomlinson or Hester, and moves tacklers backwards. Granted he only has 14 attempts, all in garbage play. But with 6.3 yards per carry one would think one game to try out an expanded role is justified, especially when even Sproles has been pretty effectively contained running the ball this year.
On defense it is hard to say much about the team. They played without Weddle, Merriman, and Castillo. They also gave significant time to younger players and backups in the second half. When the patchwork starting unit played they mostly held the Browns throughout the evening, despite much improved play by Quinn (some young mistakes but he has finally started to look like an actual quarterback). That first touchdown drive had me very nervous, but they spent the next forty minutes bottling them up well.
A little too much youth and a team shutting it down a little too early gave rise to a sudden frightening comeback, with 16 unanswered Cleveland points in the fourth quarter. This, alongside the short-yardage woes, is the big concern for the playoffs. Whether it be to start the game or end the game, the Chargers are a team fond of taking a quarter off. The Eagles and Browns nearly made them pay. If they do this at the wrong time they will pay.
Ultimately a win is a win, and a 9-3 record would give them at least a two game edge in any other division. But unlike the Giants or Eagles, Cleveland should not be a close match, even if it took a little fourth quarter magic to make it anything besides a 30-7 blowout.
This team needs to balance its loyalty to Tomlinson with its aim to win games. The best way they can do that is to find out if Hester or Tolbert can help the team into a platoon system.
Give someone else the rock a few times and see what happens. I love what he has meant to San Diego, but that’s the biggest lesson I take away from this Cleveland game. He is not a threat to average four yards per carry any night (let alone season), figure out if you have someone to share the load with on the team, or if that will be something to look at in the offseason.
It can’t do the team any harm to see someone else get a handful of carries, it would not be costing them yards. Find out what pieces you have, give the guy 15 instead of 20 carries, it may even keep him less dinged up for the playoffs and give a little more spark. Good luck and Go Chargers!