San Diego is a team on the rise.
They closed the year with 11 straight wins en route to the second best record in football.
They found ways to win despite injury depletion across nearly every position at some point.
They watched the team’s characteristic ground game become an offensive adjunct as LaDainian Tomlinson turned in his first sub-1,000 yard year.
No matter what has come San Diego’s way, they have found ways to win. They defeated playoff teams in Dallas, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. They also took wins from scrapping teams fighting for their playoff lives in New York (Giants), Denver, and Tennessee.
In a season where San Diego has been able to turn most of the on-field bounces their way, the Chargers must be increasingly vigilant now that the playoffs are upon them.
Each of the three remaining AFC threats provides a unique matchup challenge that San Diego will need to find an answer for if they are to earn their way to Miami for a Super Bowl bid.
The team’s first matchup, the New York Jets, are the least likely playoff entry from among the twelve teams in this year’s postseason.
They went 1-6 across a midseason slump to hit a down-and-out 4-6 overall. They also field a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez who threw 20 interceptions and would have led the league were it not for Jay Cutler’s colossal disappointment in his Bears debut.
In spite of all that, the Jets are still a team not to be overlooked. They match the best overall and passing defense against San Diego’s air-centric offensive attack.
The Jets also run the football quite effectively, leading the league with 172.2 yards per game on the ground.
San Diego’s defense improved from its early season struggles, but is still vulnerable to a power running game without Jamal Williams in the lineup. They will need to devote themselves to stuffing Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones if they are to win the football game.
More of a threat are the pair of teams competing for the other spot in the AFC Championship game. Indianapolis and Baltimore will face each other Saturday, with the winner able to watch San Diego play New York the following afternoon.
San Diego has held Indianapolis’ number repeatedly. They ousted the Colts in two consecutive playoffs (once with Rivers, Gates, and Tomlinson forced to the sidelines, the other as an 8-8 team not expected to do anything) while also faring well against Peyton Manning’s team in the regular season.
That historical dominance the past few years is something San Diego will need to put out of their minds.
Peyton Manning is having a monster of a year. The Colts have yet to lose this year when Manning plays in the fourth quarter. They have overcome a host of injuries just like San Diego, watching defensive MVP Bob Sanders go down for the year among others.
The Colts resemble San Diego in other ways as well, utilizing a multi-weapon passing attack to achieve great success despite a cellar dwelling running attack. Both quarterbacks are big pocket passers, not likely to do damage with their feet, while using big arms and quick releases to post great numbers and receive MVP votes.
San Diego will need to go all out to harass Manning, as the Colts signal caller was sacked the least of any starting quarterback. If they can penetrate and dirty up Manning’s jersey, then the Chargers have proven in the past they can force him into costly mistakes.
The Baltimore Ravens, in some ways, offer San Diego their greatest threat. San Diego already played them early in the year in one of San Diego’s three losing efforts.
They are another strong running team, led by pro bowl running back Ray Rice and 14-touchdown back Willis McGahee. Though he is young, second year quarterback Joe Flacco already has four playoff games under his belt (behind a 3-1 record).
The Ravens defense is strong and physical. They are used to playing in the postseason and already proved capable of taking one elite quarterback off his game in these playoffs.
To take on Baltimore, San Diego will need to get rid of the ball quickly, taking advantage of Baltimore’s attacking defense and turning it against them.
They should be able to keep Flacco’s effect on the game at a minimum and will need to key on stopping Ray Rice and his hard to find 5'8" frame.
San Diego should be more than capable of coming away with the win against any one of these three teams. In a "best of" situation, I would take San Diego unequivocally.
The NFL is a one-game per round system, however, and funny things can happen when two teams get together in the playoffs.
San Diego needs to stay on its guard and forget all notions of regular season success when it comes to facing these teams. If they can do so, and execute as they have across the bulk of this season, there is no reason the team shouldn’t be there when the postseason’s big game airs.
Now it just comes down to fighting for that chance to compete on the field for the Vince Lombardi trophy.
Good luck and go Chargers.