The lone Christmas Day NFL matchup this year features two teams firing on all cylinders: the San Diego Chargers, on a nine game winning streak, and the Tennessee Titans, who are currently riding a 7-1 run. The game has important implications for both teams: the Chargers are trying to secure a first round bye with a victory, and Tennessee has entered the AFC logjam, where a host of 7-7 teams are jostling for a wildcard berth.
While both resurgent teams have drawn considerable attention in recent weeks, it is the Chargers who have the blog sphere buzzing with their recent mercurial performance, particularly their passing attack spearheaded by Phillip Rivers and their quartet of Amazonian size receivers striding down the field. Articles abound along the moccasin telegraph exhorting the Chargers' prowess—articles varied enough but seemingly peddle one common theme: Beware of San Diego. The Chargers have the Colts' number. Watch out for San Diego.
And so on.
But really, are the Chargers that good?
But here are some cautionary red flags that Charger fans, some of whom are questionably looking past the last two regular season games and focussing on the playoffs, should not overlook.
Getting Off the Field on Third Down
The Bengals were 7-15 on third down conversions last Sunday, but of the eight non-conversions, two were field goals for Cincinnati, and three were over 3rd-and-20. That means that on 3rd-and-10 or less, the Bengals were 7-10. They moved down the field effectively and in the first half really only stopped themselves. In spite of their impressive overall record, the Chargers' third down defense is 23rd in the league.
The pass defense makes me nervous. I still feel that Cromartie plays too far off. Ellison is coming along but he does not have a lot of game experience, and Weddle has proven to be average. Cason is a decent nickel back, but it only took a millisecond for Carson Palmer to burn him when Jammer went out. During the nine game streak, the Chargers have given big numbers to Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer hit the 300-plus mark last Sunday. Against Cleveland, a team that had struggled on offense all year, they gave up 271 passing yards to Brady Quinn and three passing touchdowns. So don’t be fooled by the panoply: Vince Young threw three touchdown passes against Miami and ran for several first downs last Sunday against Miami with considerable aplomb.
The Darren Sproles of the 8-8 Chargers last year is better than the Darren Sproles of the 11-3 Chargers this year. As a change of pace back, Sproles is averaging 2.1 yards per carry less than a year ago. That is a huge drop. His punt return yardage is down four yards per attempt from 2008, and his kickoff yardage is down as well. Yes, Sproles is still dangerous and might pop one anytime. But what I see is a player whose performance has consistently declined.
The Chargers' run defense is 21st in the league, and they are giving up 4.4 yards per rush. Chris Johnson is the best running back in the league this year, with 1,730 rushing yards, and an almost 400-yard lead over his nearest rival. The Dolphins tried to make sure that Joey Porter and Jason Taylor did not get too deep in the Titans backfield last week, and they managed some success with that strategy. They held Johnson to 3.5 yards per carry, although he still managed 104 rushing yards and another 55 receiving yards. The Chargers would do well to match those numbers.
Protect Phillip Rivers
With the news that Scott Mruczkowski is out for the season, and with the injury to Jeromey Clary, the Chargers' makeshift offensive line needs to be extra vigilant in protecting Phillip Rivers this week. The Chargers get a bit of a break in that both Titan linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton now have season ending injuries, but the Chargers can expect pressure off the defensive line all evening. Although the Titans have given up a lot of passing yards, their secondary is now healthy, and they are sixth in the league in interceptions, so pressure on Rivers will create opportunities for a revitalized Titans secondary.
Stoke the Running Game Fire
The Chargers' running game has shown recent signs of a pulse during this winning streak, but it remains an area of red flag concern. Concern, not alarm. LT has shown some good outside running in the past few games using Dielman as a pulling guard, but they still have trouble up the middle. What I would give for Lorenzo Neal at the height of his powers. The other concern, of course, is injury. Even with the numbers he has, the Chargers do not need LT getting banged up against the extremely physical Titans. I still haven’t forgotten that it was against Tennessee that Gates got the turf toe and was ineffective in the playoffs.
Stop Looking Ahead
There is a lot of buzz on Twitter and in the blogs about Charger matchups for the playoffs. Even I have guilty of this, but not anymore. Here’s the deal: forget the playoffs. You have a very tough game against a 7-1 team on the road with four days rest.
Look no further.