Earning a first-round bye with the second seed, San Diego will be sitting out the first round of the playoffs. This does not mean they won’t have a stake in what happens in that round. Depending on how the games play out, they could potentially face three of the four teams that will be playing in that wild card round.
Ironically, the lone team they cannot face in the divisional round, sixth seeded Baltimore, is the only team in the playoffs to have defeated the Chargers. The other potential opponents would be New England (automatic if they win), Cincinnati (if they and Baltimore are the victors), or the New York Jets (if they and Baltimore win).
Which outcome best benefits San Diego? They presently have the confidence to face any team. The Chargers were a different team when they lost a close fought match to Baltimore; they already defeated Cincinnati; and New England looks much tamer without star wideout Wes Welker.
The biggest question mark for San Diego would be the most unlikely team to have secured a playoff berth. The Jets were considered virtually out of the hunt when they fell to 4-6 in Week 11. The team that had started 3-0 looked dead in the water, and were starting to fight for respectability.
Somewhere along the way New York found itself again, closing the year 5-1 to earn the fifth seed, thanks to a tiebreaker advantage over Baltimore (and over the 9-7 Steelers and Texans, who both missed the playoffs).
The Jets have are extremely suspect in the passing game, with rookie Mark Sanchez throwing 20 interceptions (while missing some time to injury).
He has shown flashes that he can evolve into a great quarterback, but is still very much a rookie and would have led the league in turnovers were it not for Jay Cutler’s unceremonious Chicago debut. Around him, the Jets have an extremely solid team to support their young quarterback.
Thomas Jones leads a power-running game that led the league this year at 172.2 yards per game. That is potentially dangerous to a San Diego team still suspect against the run, especially stronger "up-the-gut" types of running games.
For example, when playing the New York Giants, oversized battering ram Brandon Jacobs put up 6.1 yards per carry against the Chargers, whereas smaller, shiftier Ahmad Bradshaw was held to 2.8 yards.
The defensive line is fast and athletic, but undersized and vulnerable thanks to the injury to Jamal Williams that led to a round-robin approach at the nose tackle position.
The subs have filled in admirably, considering none were even second on any team’s depth chart going into the year. A little extra time for the team’s hardest hitting middle linebacker Brandon Siler could help to stuff Jones and the Jets' running attack.
The Jets defense is far scarier than their offense. They led the league both in pass defense (153.7 yards per game) and overall defense (252.3 ypg).
This is especially impressive considering the extra time they spent on the field from turnovers and some significant opposition (playing Tom Brady twice, Houston’s league-leading passing game, New Orleans’ high powered offense, and the Indianapolis Colts).
They were also a solid eighth against the run.
To combat this San Diego would need to utilize a mid-range passing game over too much use of the deep ball. The Jets harassing, hard-blitzing defense is unlikely to allow Philip Rivers enough time to utilize the team’s longball game.
Instead, extensive use of matchup nightmare Antonio Gates and shifty Darren Sproles in the passing game would likely be more effective than an emphasis on Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd.
Ultimately, San Diego’s offense should be able to put up enough against the New York Jets defense; they have never been held below twenty points this year while playing several solid defenses.
The biggest factor in how dangerous New York can be would be how Sanchez develops for the playoffs, and whether or not San Diego can stuff the Jones-led running attack.
While the Jets are the biggest question mark team, Cincinnati has to rate as the most known. They are the only one of the three that San Diego has faced in the regular season, after defeating the Bengals in San Diego 27-24 in Week 15.
The Bengals are likely to be the team San Diego would most like to face in the divisional round, not only because it would mean New England’s elimination, but also because the Bengals are looking shaky as a team right now.
The Bengals looked to be a powerhouse early, going 7-2 to start the year while working their way into "that other team" status as the most talked about team behind the big three (Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Minnesota, who had one loss between the three teams at that point).
They dominated their own tough division, and were starting to earn some Super Bowl buzz.
Somewhere along the way they faltered and the Bengals have closed the year with a mediocre 3-4 record. This includes a 1-3 final quarter that saw the team look vulnerable in several aspects. The midseason lock for second seed, Cincinnati is now the lowest seeded division champ in the AFC.
Cincinnati ranks as another run-first, physical defense type of team. On offense, Cedric Benson racked up 1251 yards despite missing time to injury. Against the Bengals in week 15, San Diego was largely effective in slowing Benson, holding him to 53 yards on 3.5 yards per carry.
The Chargers fared worse against Carson Palmer, who had one of his best days of a statistically mediocre year, going 27 for 40 with 314 yards and two touchdowns. San Diego especially had difficulty covering tight end Jay Foschi, who caught seven balls for 82 yards.
Ultimately, San Diego’s best chance will be to try to repeat Week 15 and focus on slowing Benson and making Palmer beat the Chargers through the air.
The Chargers can be vulnerable to a physical running game, and Palmer will be forced to continue to deal with the tragic loss of deep threat Chris Henry, while also playing a dinged up Chad Johnson.
Palmer is a seasoned vet, but also put up only two other games with more than 250 yards passing on the entire year.
Defense is Cincinnati’s strength. They gave up 27 points to San Diego when they last met, but held the Chargers to 70 yards rushing as a team, while picking off Phillip Rivers twice, a telling number for a quarterback with nine interceptions on the entire year.
The team will lean heavily on their passing game, as they have done all year. Last time the two teams met the Chargers got big games from their wideouts, with Jackson and Floyd combining for 171 yards on just nine catches.
Against the big, physical Bengals defense the team will be best served spreading it out, forcing the Bengals into a guessing game of who to cover and utilizing the Chargers' vertical passing game to expose the Bengals' safeties.
New England stands as a historical blockade to San Diego; a historical thorn in the team’s side. Unlike the Charger’s unprecedented success against Indianapolis (success in the playoffs and regular season, even when forced to play Billy Volek and Darren Sproles), New England doesn’t appear to simply have San Diego’s number.
The Patriots have been a dominant team throughout the decade, and San Diego has run into them at inopportune times. The Patriots also look considerably different this year.
For the first time, chinks in the Bill Bellichick mythos have appeared. This year’s Patriots posted a 10-6 record that was a game behind the playoff-missing 2008 team led by Matt Cassel.
The veteran-led defense of years past is young and developing. They have put together both good and poor performances, and the fourth down call against Indianapolis proved Bellichick’s limited confidence in the unit. The Patriots do not boast one specific weak point on defense, ranking 12th against the pass and 13th against the run.
San Diego will fare best trying to promote a balanced attack with an emphasis on their passing game. When running, the Chargers are best served taking the ball outside and avoiding the core of the Patriots defense with Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo policing the middle of the field.
On offense New England is still dangerous as long as Tom Brady is on the field, especially in the postseason. That said, this New England offense is suffering. They will be without leading receiver Welker, whose leg self-destructed in week 17 against Buffalo. This outlet frees up room to give extra help against Randy Moss.
This could possibly mean Steve Gregory seeing extra time, as he is more of a coverage guy than hard hitting safeties Eric Weddle and Kevin Ellison. The Patriots' run game is not terrible (12th in the league), but San Diego definitely wants to force New England to beat them on the ground rather than the air.
Keeping that extra safety back instead of in the box should help with this, especially without those underneath routes by Welker to worry about.
Ultimately, San Diego has reason to feel confident against any opponent. The Jets are vulnerable at the quarterback position, Cincinnati has been playing its worst football of the year as of late, and New England lacks both its usual championship defense and its best receiver.
However, the best scenario for San Diego would be for Baltimore and Cincinnati to win.
Cincinnati is the least concerning team because of the historical clutch play of New England, and the uncertain threat of a New York team where a good game by Sanchez can render Jets as complete a team as any in the playoffs).
The battle should be great no matter who they play, but ultimately it should come down to another Chargers/Colts matchup, this time to see who will earn the right to battle for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Super Bowl.