San Diego Chargers: 5 Make or Break Games That Will Shape the 2011/2012 Season
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A post-mortem of San Diego’s 2010-11 season reveals too many off days in a campaign of wildly fluctuating standards that accumulated in their failure to make the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Few teams can match the Chargers attacking prowess (they topped the charts in offence and defence last year), but even fewer teams can match them for choking under pressure. The previous seasons have depressingly consistent themes; great expectations followed swiftly by self-implosion and disappointment. Head Coach Norv Turner has come in for a lot of criticism for his stubborn approach, and progress, preferably in the form of a Superbowl appearance, is now essential.
However, all is not bleak on the West Coast.
Yet again Philip Rivers turned in another spectacular year, throwing for 4,710 yards and 30 touchdowns. Incredible figures when you factor in the notable absence of his No.1 wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates for the majority of the season.
Rivers is edging towards towards the very top echelon of quarterbacks, and, although the absence of a Superbowl appearance is not yet a smear on his resume, a prolific postseason in 2011/2012 would go some way to confirming his induction into Messrs Manning, Brady and Bree's tight-knit circle.
Furthermore, by adding vital experience (free agents Spikes and Sanders), keeping hold of key players (re-signed Eric Weddle and Vincent Jackson) and looking to have resolved the special teams issues that haunted them last year, the Chargers are a team with a point to prove.
Nothing will have hurt them more than losing to the Oakland Raiders twice in one season.
Nothing will arouse greater motivation than bouncing back to reclaim an AFC West title which, until recently, the Chargers have rightfully called their own.
Yet again the Chargers are being picked by players and pundits alike as favorites to lift the Lombardi Trophy. Maybe, just maybe, this is the season that Rivers et al can finally relinquish their underachieving tag. In order to make that transition, here are five key games that will ultimately make or break San Diego's season.
Week 2: San Diego Chargers @ New England Patriots
Many will point towards the season opener against Minnesota Vikings as a perfect opportunity for the Chargers to send out a bold statement of intention. I agree. However, I cannot justify classifying a home game against a team that, without the likes of Brett Favre, Sidney Rice and a number of defensive starters, no longer possess a credible playoff threat, as a "make or break" tie.
Fast forward a week, and there are two different scenarios that make the trip to New England an intriguing prospect.
On the one hand, with a win under their belt in their first game, the Chargers take on the Patriots with a chance to start the season with an unheard of 2-0 record; banishing the "slow start" demon of the past and becoming the team to beat in the AFC West in the process.
BUT. Lose the first game and San Diego would travel to Foxborough accompanied with unwanted murmurs of discontent and caution, looking to avoid being taken apart by the most successful team of the past decade, led by a combination of Brady's lethal precision and productivity.
A huge amount hinges on this game. Will a "SuperBowl-worthy'" Chargers team emerge, full of early passion and hunger, or will last year's team rear its ugly head; a collection of individuals who have the talent, but failed to win the "must win" games?
Week 3: Kansas City Chiefs @ San Diego Chargers
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The first AFC West game of the season for the Chargers; surely a perfect chance to repeat last year's comfortable home victory against the Chiefs (31-0) and to regain the dominant home form that saw San Diego win six out of eight? Yes?
It's this complacency and nauseating arrogance that has plagued the Chargers over the past few seasons. When San Diego travelled to the Arrowhead Stadium last year, everyone believed they had already won. How could a team of such considerable quality lose to a team that finished last in the previous two seasons?
Outcome: The Chargers lost in a performance plagued by unnecessary mistakes. Kansas City went on to take the division.
Although many are already writing off Kansas City's chances of repeating last season's "upset," Norv Turner and the coaching staff need to reinforce the necessity of winning home games, especially against a team that San Diego, when performing to their greatest potential, should be beating comfortably.
If the game is approached correctly, and running backs Ryan Matthews and Mike Tolbert have begun to work in tandem and expand San Diego's attacking threat, a victory against the Chiefs, potentially proceeding a victory at New England, would put the Chargers in exactly the position they had envisaged preseason and see them gain crucial momentum early on.
Week 7: San Diego Chargers @ New York Jets
Once a Charger. Now a Jet: LaDanian Tomlinson is still turning heads, if not turning back the clock.
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What a mouthwatering matchup.
After five games, the season is entering the stage where the various leagues across the country are beginning to take shape. After five games, this is where you expect the Chargers to be in full flow.
Following four seasons of starting with a 2-3 record, the Bolts are usually forgiven for a sluggish start but last season came as a stark warning, losing two further games to reach 2-5 and failing to pip Kansas City to the AFC West title.
This time round, it's even tougher, having to face the Jets and Chiefs on the road in consecutive weeks, and then play host to the Superbowl champions Green Bay Packers.
It's crucial that the Chargers enter the middle section of the season with a winning record, but also get used to picking up wins against the teams that are going to be up there challenging at the end of the season.
Facing a New York Jets team that has one of the best secondaries in the NFL, the Chargers will have their hands full. However, with Vincent Jackson looking to again reassert himself as one of the game's leading wide receivers, don't be surprised to see Rivers continually look to go long down the field and utilize Jackson's size and strength.
A big game for the Chargers, and, one would hope, warrants a monumental performance. To beat the Jets in New York would not only notch up another victory, but again raise the eyebrows of the more sceptical pundits around the league.
Also nice to get one over Rex Ryan.
Week 10: Oakland Raiders @ San Diego Chargers
Bruised Egos: San Diego will look to turn the tables on their divisional rivals.
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Revenge is a dish best served cold.
And there is nothing like a long offseason to contemplate the implications of losing twice to your closest rival.
The Oakland Raiders were unbeaten in the AFC West last year, breaking a 14-game losing streak against the Chargers and showing real signs of improvement. Despite losing their best defensive player over the summer, the Raiders are keen to restore their image as the bully of the league and register their first winning record in over a decade.
After several seasons of one-sided affairs, it is crucial this season for the Chargers to respond. They have to exhibit a powerful performance that reinstates that they, and only they, are the only dominant force in this league.
Philip Rivers in particular will be eager to avenge last season's result, with the 13-28 defeat his first ever in December.
In addition to this tasty Week 10 matchup, the final game of the season again pits the Chargers against the Raiders, potentially doubling up as a decider for the league title.
Like this game needed any more spice.
Week 16: San Diego Chargers @ Detroit Lions
The Beast: Last year's NFL Rookie of the Year stands between Chargers and a potential playoff berth.
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The penultimate week of the NFL season. The drama of the playoffs await — this year, San Diego really ought to buy tickets for the show.
With 15 games played, the Chargers would, barring any special team mishaps, expect to sit atop the AFC West. Many would point out that the fixture in Week 15 against the Baltimore Ravens stands out as a tougher fixture, and on paper I agree — two equally aspiring teams coming together vying for momentum and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs.
However, the task of getting a victory on the road in Detroit is not an enviable proposition and represents a greater 'make or break' situation. Detroit have got all the right pieces in place and could be in for a great season. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is primed for a breakout year. Ndamukong Suh was truly dominant last year and is now matched up with Nick Fairley, an equally frightening prospect.
This is a huge task for the Chargers. It's the type of game that separates the good teams from the great teams. They've proved they have the talent from the previous four seasons. Now is the time, with three games remaining, to show the insatiable hunger for a championship ring after failing so miserably last year.
Season Prediction: 11-5
Chargers win the AFC title and reach the playoffs.
I daren't say anything more.