The San Diego Chargers watched a near perfect weekend unfold with regards to their playoff positioning. They defeated Dallas to climb to a 10-3 record, while at the same time witnessing two key games align just as the Chargers would wish them.
The Cincinnati Bengals fell to the Minnesota Vikings 30-10 and the Denver Broncos comeback bid failed in losing to the Indianapolis Colts 28-16. Both losses were as beneficial to San Diego as any game of their own.
The Bengals and Chargers had been separated by only the tie—breaker in determining the second seed. Watching the Bengals lose, San Diego is now in sole possession of that first—round bye with an upcoming head—to—head with Cincinnati.
They are also a full two games ahead of Denver now, allowing for some divisional breathing room. With the rebirth of Tennessee, and Washington playing much better football, the final schedule is far more difficult than it had appeared at midseason. The game gained could prove extremely valuable.
San Diego also took advantage of the weekend to complete a sweep of the NFC East bigs, having already defeated the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants in the early stages of their eight—game winning streak (a win against washington sweeps the entire division). While not the Saints or Vikings, it still constitutes three playoff—caliber teams who legitimize the Charger’s current hot stretch.
San Diego still has concerns to address prior to the playoffs. They gave up 109 yards rushing to the three Dallas running backs, including a 5.1 yards per carry average to Felix Jones and a 5.5 yard per carry average to Tashard Choice (albeit on only two runs).
This has been a weakness of the team ever since Jamal Williams went onto IR while his backup Ryon Bingham already was out for the year. They will need the run defense to tighten once January football begins.
The pass rush also has shown some difficulty finishing. After a brief streak where Shawne Merriman looked to be regaining form, securing four sacks in two games, he has been shut down in the last four games (five if you include one missed due to injury).
Like Merriman, the team itself has dipped in this area, garnering eight sacks in that five game span after posting fifteen in the three games prior. Billed as an attacking defense, they have been able to put pressure on quarterbacks, just not with enough consistency (or finish) to be comfortable.
The team’s offense is much less concerning. Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson are continuing a tag—team year as teams have proven unable to stop both players in the same game. The array of passing threats makes this team capable of putting up points on any defense.
What they still cannot do is run the ball effectively. Through these thirteen games, they have only had two where the lead rusher has averaged four yards or better per carry, week one against Oakland and week 10 against the Eagles.
This team is a highly effective unit on a roll. They have a fearsome offense that has never been held below 20 points this year, and have gone unbeaten in December. All this has been accomplished despite battling offensive line injuries and a reduced ground game.
The defense has been sufficient, allowing yardage but keeping the damage from those yards to a minimum. If the patchwork array of nose tackles can continue their admirable substitute play, and the other positions along the defense can get itself healthy for the playoffs, this team should be able to keep any offense bogged down while Philip Rivers continues to dissect opposing offenses.
This weekend has taken a portion of the regular season pressure away, giving the team some room should they err in the final three games. With that the team can now commence preparing for the playoffs, looking to where they can improve, trying to get and stay healthy, as well as focusing on a first round bye instead of a mere divisional victory.
The team has overcome much this year, and continues to impress despite a lessened running game and two key starters having yet to play since week one. One is already on IR, the other quite likely to find himself going the full year without taking a snap.
Instead of waiting to get healthy (as with the late run in last year’s 8-8 near debacle) the team has persevered, and now looks more dangerous than they have since going 14-2 in 2006. Going into the playoffs this is a good state to be in, and may just be the fuel needed to get San Diego past the mid—playoff wall they have been slammed against for so long. Whether they can go the distance or not, San Diego should make for an exciting playoff run this year. Good luck and go Chargers!