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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Are the Chargers a Threat To the Patriots' Playoff Aspirations? Maybe, But Not Really

rivers_sd_1204.jpg
AP Photo


Well, what happened here?

There’s a possible scenario unfolding this weekend that could ultimately pit the San Diego Chargers firmly in the AFC playoff picture with a win over the New England Patriots on Sunday evening at Qualcomm Stadium.

The Patriots, who currently hold the top spot in the conference thanks to their win over the Broncos last month, could fall to as far as fourth in the AFC with a loss in San Diego this weekend. If the Miami Dolphins beat the Baltimore Ravens, they would move to within a game of the Patriots with a showdown for the AFC East title set for Dec. 14 at Gillette Stadium.

Yikes.

Maybe that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves, but this weekend still could witness a shift in power in the AFC should the Chargers win their fourth in a row. It’s been a valiant recharge for San Diego. After starting out the year strong at 5-1, the Chargers came up short against the Kansas City Chiefs and Broncos before falling apart completely in a 37-0 nightmare in Miami on Nov. 2. The Chargers went into their bye with a 5-4 mark and seemed like also-rans by the time they suited up again to face the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 16.

It wasn’t the most impressive win over hapless Oakland, a 13-6 final in which quarterback Philip Rivers nearly went down with an injured leg. It took a Marcus Gilchrist interception of Shaun Hill in the final minute to bounce past the St. Louis Rams, and for damn well near everything to go right in the final six minutes of play in a 34-33 victory over the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday.

Still three consecutive wins is three consecutive wins, and history has shown this is the time of year when the Chargers traditionally get hot, or at least their quarterback does. Rivers’ career quarterback rating of 98.9 in December is the highest of any other month of the season with 66 touchdown passes.

In his career, Rivers is a remarkable 30-7 as the holidays approach. That’s a winning percentage of 81 percent, just a little shy of Tom Brady’s career percentage of 87 for the month (45-7). But on Sunday, those records will be overshadowed by Rivers’ 1-5 career record against the Patriots, his lone victory coming during the Matt Cassel season in 2008. He’s never beaten Brady, including a pair of playoff losses highlighted by the memorable January, 2007 comeback win in San Diego, where Troy Brown stripped Marlon McCree, LaDainian Tomlinson ranted about “class,” and the Patriots moved on to Indy for the AFC Championship game. Where…well, you know.

“A playoff atmosphere is what I compare it to,” linebacker Jarret Johnson told the San Diego Tribune. “You can say we’re in playoff mode. I don’t know if that’s what I should be saying, but it’s the reality.”

True. The Chargers have to close out the season with one of the more difficult remaining schedules in the NFL; home against New England and Denver the next two weeks, followed by end-of-the-season trips to San Francisco and Kansas City. The combined records of the Chargers’ final four foes: 32-16.

That’s an enormous test for a Chargers team that has a prime opportunity on Sunday to prove it’s a little more than a team that was able to beat the Raiders twice and ride a 6-4 record otherwise. As the San Diego Tribune’s Nick Canepa noted, “the teams the Chargers beat this year, including 1-11 Oakland twice, have a combined record of 31-58 (and Seattle, Buffalo and Baltimore account for 22 of those wins).”

In fact, the Ravens were the first team with a current .500 or better record that the Chargers managed to beat since the Bills on Sept. 21. The Seahawks, Bills, and Ravens are the only three wins over .500 clubs they’ve had all season (the Patriots have five, most recently against the 8-4 Detroit Lions).

Still, Rivers remains a force over any lingering doubt that anyone might have that the Chargers can beat good teams. He was a monster on Sunday in Baltimore, which coincided with the reemergence of tight end Antonio Gates, who had cooled off after a hot start to the season. Rivers was 34-of-45 for 383 yards and two touchdowns, finding Gates and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd with efficient frequency. Down 33-27, he drove the Chargers 80 yards for the win on a one-yard pass to Eddie Royal, with less than two minutes remaining on the clock.

That’s nails against a team just outside of the playoff picture. And that’s only because the Chargers put them there, a factor that has New England on high alert this weekend, when San Diego can put the AFC seeding all out of whack.

“I think Philip has been one of the best in the business for a long time,” Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said. “You love the way he works – his preparation week-in and week-out has been outstanding. He’s a winner. He’s great to have as the face of your franchise. Having a franchise quarterback like who he is, he goes out and earns everything he gets. It’s great to have him on our football team. He’s been very efficient. He’s done a great job of leading not only the team, but the offense week-in and week-out."

On the other hand, the schizophrenic defense also allowed 33 points to an OK Baltimore offense. They allowed the Broncos and Dolphins to score a combined 72 points on them in back-to-back Weeks 8 and 9.

According to FiveThirtyEight.com, “without Rivers’s clutch drive, the Chargers would have been 7-5 with just an eight percent chance of making the playoffs. Instead, San Diego has a 36 percent probability and — with its 8-4 record — a claim on the top AFC wild card seed.” That’s some swing.

However…”The Chargers’ schedule is so difficult that there are three 7-5 AFC teams — the Miami Dolphins, Ravens and Chiefs — with a better shot at making the playoffs despite being a game behind San Diego.”

But this is nothing new, and is really more of the pattern for the Chargers, who won their final four games in 2013 and, with a lot of help from the likes of the Ravens and Dolphins, made the postseason as a wild card with a 9-7 record.

“They have a very good group of players,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “It starts with Rivers; really good skill players, backs – they have a lot of depth in their backfield. All those guys are healthy running the ball; a lot of options in the passing game. It’s tough to defend. They have a good scheme and do a good job attacking the weakness of the defense. We’ll have to do a great job of coaching and playing. Everybody will have to do a good job. There are really no weaknesses in that offense.”

The Chargers are only 16th in the league in passing with 346.2 yards per game, a paltry 28th when they run the ball (87.3 yards per game), mostly thanks to Ryan Matthews missing the bulk of the season with a sprained knee. Defensively, San Diego is in the middle of the pack against the run (110.2 yards per game, 15th), and is eighth against the pass (331.8 yards per game). But if Brady can try to insist that the Packers terrible run defense is a misleading stat, it also might be similar with the Chargers’ pass protection in that the last elite quarterback - and for that matter, only - San Diego has faced was Peyton Manning on Oct. 23. They did limit Manning to 286 yards that night, but with three touchdowns.

If the Patriots can get that kind of production out of Brady, they’ll walk in San Diego, leaving the Chargers as the flavor of the week instead of a true threat to what New England hopes to accomplish over the next four weeks.

“We’re trying to be a Super Bowl-caliber team, and it starts with this Sunday going in and facing this good Patriots team, which we’ve struggled to beat in the past,” Gates said. “We’ve got our hands full and our work cut out for us. They understand that in order to control this kind of game we have to be fundamentally sound and we have to play at a high level.”

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