The 5-7 San Diego Chargers will host the 5-7 Buffalo Bills on Sunday in a game in which the winner will essentially destroy the loser's already-bleak playoff outlook. The winner, however, will live to fight another week.
Buffalo was one of the league's most surprising teams early in the season and was in the thick of the AFC East and AFC Wild Card race about a month ago. The Bills have fallen on hard times, however, in losing five straight games and suffering through a myriad of significant injuries.
The Chargers looked as if they would atone for last season's disappointing result as they burst out of the gates with a 4-1 record. San Diego went on a six-game slide of its own before beating the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday night, though.
San Diego is the NFL equivalent of a zombie. The Chargers have looked to be left for dead before only to make a late charge toward the postseason. While it looks as if that may happen again this season, the Bills will be desperate to return to the winning ways they enjoyed so much early in the year.
Where: Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif.
When: Sunday, Dec. 11 at 4:15 p.m. EDT
Watch: CBS; WIVB Channel 4 (Buffalo) and CBS 8 (San Diego)
Listen: WGRF 96.9 FM (Buffalo) and KIOZ 105.3 FM (San Diego); Sirius XM Satellite Radio: XM Internet 864 (Buffalo) and XM 233 (Internet 886, San Diego)
Live Streaming Audio: NFL.com Audio Pass ($29.99 for year, $27.99 team specific, $9.99 a month)
Betting Line: San Diego (-7)
What's at Stake?
While neither team's playoff prospects are overly promising, both teams still have an outside shot should they run the table. Buffalo is certainly in a more precarious spot since the AFC East is essentially out of reach with the New England Patriots at 9-3. That means the Bills will have to leapfrog several teams and catch the Cincinnati Bengals to qualify for the postseason.
It isn't as if things are much better for the Chargers, but they trail the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders by just two games in the AFC West, so catching up with them isn't an impossibility. It is very unlikely that they will make it with a record worse than 9-7, though, so beating Buffalo will be paramount.
Bills Injury Report
Questionable: TE Scott Chandler (ankle), DB George Wilson (neck), DB Aaron Williams (knee), K
Rian Lindell (shoulder)
Chargers Injury Report
Out: DL Luis Castillo (leg - IR)
Questionable: LB Na'il Diggs (chest)
Fantasy Start 'Em, Sit 'Em, Sleeper
Start: QB Philip Rivers (SD) - While the Bills may rank in the middle of the pack in terms of defending the pass, any avid fan knows that a team with a solid passing game can easily move the ball up and down the field on Buffalo through the air. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has had his struggles this season, but he was fantastic against Jacksonville and has another easy matchup on Sunday.
Sit: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (BUF) - Just as the Bills were one of the biggest surprise teams to begin the season, one of the ore surprising players was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. He ran Buffalo's spread offense to perfection early in the season, but has tailed off significantly since. While Fitzpatrick has been much better over the past two contests, the Bolts are very underrated against the pass and should hold up well.
Sleeper: RB C.J. Spiller (BUF) - When running back Fred Jackson was lost for the season, it was terrible news for Bills fans and fantasy owners alike. Some good has come of it, though, as second-year back C.J. Spiller has been afforded the chance to be a feature back. Spiller was particularly good last week with over 100 all-purpose yards and a score. San Diego ranks 26th against the run, so Spiller should be a factor once again this week.
What They're Saying
After beginning the season with a 5-2 record, it seemed as though the upstart Buffalo Bills might finally end their 11-year playoff drought. With five straight losses, however, those hopes are all but gone. Buffalo's latest lost to the Tennessee Titans was the fourth excruciatingly close one this season.
While the Bills were winning those close games early in the season, they seem to have forgotten how. Now, the frustration is beginning to mount for the Buffalo players, according to Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News.
"We're frustrated right now," Bills tight end Scott Chandler said. "I don't know if discouraged is the word. We're a team that's trying to find a way to win these close games. Turnovers this week...Last week we had bad penalties that really hurt us. Good football teams find ways to win close games, and we haven't done that the past two weeks."
Bills Player to Watch: RB C.J. Spiller
For the majority of the season, running back Fred Jackson was "Mr. Everything" for the Bills' offense. He was equally effective as a runner and a pass receiver, making him one of the more dangerous weapons in the NFL. That role now belongs to Spiller as Jackson is out for the remainder of the season with an injury.
Spiller has played wide receiver for much of the season, so he is perfectly capable of making an impact in the passing game. On top of that, his elite speed makes him a great outside runner. San Diego has certainly had some trouble stopping the run this season, so Spiller could be in for his best game as a pro.
Chargers Player to Watch: TE Antonio Gates
The 2011 season has been a pretty tough one for Chargers tight end Antonio Gates as he has dealt with injuries throughout the year. He has just over 500 receiving yards and four touchdowns, both of which are a far cry from his usual numbers. Gates has been much more effective in recent weeks, however.
On top of that, there are few teams in the league that struggle to cover athletic tight ends more than the Bills. That was apparent a couple weeks ago against the New York Jets' Dustin Keller and it has been an issue for several years. If Gates is going to have a monster game this season, then it is probably going to be against the Bills.
Key Matchup: QB Philip Rivers vs. Bills Secondary
While Rivers' overall numbers aren't too shabby, he has thrown far too many interceptions this season with 17. It is tough to explain why, but it would seem as though he has been pressing a bit as the losses have been mounting. It will be interesting to see how he fares against Buffalo;s secondary.
No team forced more turnovers over the first couple months of the season than the Bills. Most of those were via the interception, although that has cooled considerably in recent weeks. The Bills aren't going to put much pressure on Rivers, so unless the secondary can make big plays like it did early in the year, Rivers will have a field day.
On the Hot Seat: Head Coach Norv Turner
It certainly is no secret that Chargers head coach Norv Turner is firmly on the hot seat at this point. A very talented Chargers team failed to make the playoffs last season, and it looks as though that may be the case again in 2011 as the Bolts have squandered a promising 4-1 start.
Nothing is official, but reports have already surfaced that the front office is strongly considering firing Turner and general manager A.J. Smith at the end of the season. Perhaps the only way Turner can save is job is to make the postseason, however unlikely that may seem. In order for it to happen, though, the Chargers must beat the Bills.
Chargers 27, Bills 24