My apologies for missing number five in my countdown, but I unfortunately had no access to the internet yesterday. That having been said, lets get this ball rolling again.
The San Diego Chargers lucked out this year, as they seem to have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. Outside of the AFC West games (Kansas City, Denver, and Oakland), the Chargers play Seattle, Jacksonville, Arizona, St. Louis, New England, Tennessee, Houston, Indianapolis, San Francisco, and Cincinnati.
Of those teams, only New England, Tennessee, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis pose serious threats. Here's a quick breakdown of why I excluded the other teams:
1. Kansas City: Rebuilding. What else is there to say.
2. Oakland: The Raiders have had a good off season, but they don't quite have all the pieces to put together a competitive team. They have a good quarterback in Jason Campbell, but they lack quality and depth in their receiving corp. They're on the rise though.
3. Denver: All their star players have been lost to injury. Without Dumervil, they have no defense. Without a running back and a star wide receiver, they have no offense.
4. Seattle: Rebuilding. They're getting there, but they don't have much offense.
5. Jacksonville: They don't have much to be happy about outside their running back.
6. Arizona: Without Kurt Warner and Karlos Dansby, these are not the Cardinals of 2009.
7. St. Louis: Sometime in the future the Rams will be good again. This is not that time.
8. Houston: A high powered offense can't make up for the Texans lack of a turnover producing defense.
9. San Francisco: The 49ers are on the verge, but uncertainty at quarterback and a lack of true defensive playmakers (outside of Patrick Willis) make this 49ers team a middle of the pack group.
Now, for the true countdown, here are the four truly meaningful games in the Chargers' regular season:
Week 7 vs New England: Tom Brady. Randy Moss. Wes Welker. Nothing like the most feared passing offense in the league to test out San Diegos new and improved passing defense.
A lot of Chargers' fans last year were disappointed with the lack of interceptions and general playmaking in the secondary, so it will be key in this Week Seven matchup for San Diego to amp up the pressure on Tom Brady and to come up with solid coverage against a fantastic core of receivers.
That having been said, this could also end up being a slugfest. San Diego has a high-powered passing attack of its own, and New Englands pass defense has been less than spectacular (considering their lack of pass rush, as well as an intelligent backfield).
Week 8 vs Tennessee: Once the Titans kicked it into gear last season, they were a scary team. The Chargers had an easy time subduing them late in the season, but that doesn't change the fact that Chris Johnson is the scariest runner in the league.
With the continued maturation of Vince Young and a promising receiving corp, the Titans have the offensive firepower to stay competitive with San Diego.
They also have things going on the other side of the ball. While the Titans may not have an excellent pass rush, they have a shut down corner in Cortlan Finnegan.
This game will be a true test of the solutions Ron Rivera has come up with for rush defense. Ideally this will be the time to shine for players like Cam Thomas and Ogemdi Nwagbuo. This game will make or break San Diego. If the Chargers' defense steps up and plays well, and if Philip Rivers can connect with Malcolm Floyd in Finnegans face, San Diego can move into the second half of the regular season with utmost confidence.
Week 12 at Indianapolis: On Week 12, the Chargers will enter one of the most hostile environments in Lucas Oil Stadium, and will go toe-to-toe with one of the best players to ever touch a football: Peyton Manning.
The Colts are a scary team. With a renewed offensive line and the threat of a rejuvenated running game, the Colts' offense seems nearly unstoppable. Add to that a constantly improving defense (that is also relatively young), and therein lies a recipe for a Super Bowl contending team.
If anything, San Diego can learn a few things from this team. If they can't make it past Manning, they will have excellent tape to go to to figure out what they need to do to make a run at the big stage.
If San Diego can win this game, they will have proved themselves as a well rounded team, and a group of players who can compete with the best.
Week 16 at Cincinnati: This is the last potentially difficult game on the Chargers' regular season schedule. Carson Palmer, Cedric Benson, Chad Ochocinco, and Terrell Owens lead a deadly offense, and Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph are the best cornerback tandem in the league.
The Bengals are a shoe-in to win their division for the second season in a row, and (barring another flop) could make a good post season run.
At this point, though, the Chargers should have a good head of steam, and should be looking to continue that into the playoffs. San Diego should have at least three wins under their belt when they come to this game, and should want more than anything to finish strong.
Losing to the Bengals in Week 16 could be crippling to the Chargers. They are a talented team, there's no denying that. Losing to them could provide meaningful experience. However, it could also be a crushing momentum changer.
(As a side note, the article that I intended to write for Tuesday was '5 Players San Diego Could Still Target'. If there is enough interest, I will post this article)
*Originally written for NFLTouchdown.com*