NFL Team Report - San Diego Chargers - INSIDE SLANT
Few are giving the San Diego Chargers a chance on Sunday when they face the Denver Broncos in an AFC Divisional Game.
Beating the Broncos at Denver is a tall task -- doing it twice in one month is taller.
So the Chargers, among the hottest teams still remaining, take their mojo and loose attitude a mile high, hoping to upend another rival.
"Well, we have been the underdog all year," Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. "I have been the underdog my whole life, so it is no different."
The undersized Weddle did make the Pro Bowl again, and he typifies this year's edition of the Chargers. Instead of the team focusing on what it couldn't do, it zeroed in on what it could: be smart in the passing game and be tough against the run. All the while, keeping the faith that the roster as a whole was better than its individual parts.
"We are out to continue to believe in ourselves," Weddle said, as the Chargers won their final four regular-season games to qualify for the playoffs, then knocked off the host Bengals in the opening round.
"The great thing about this team is the struggles and the ups and downs have really molded us into what we are right now, which is a confident belief in each other. We are going to stick by each other."
But others continue to stick it to the Chargers. Despite them winning in Denver last month, the Broncos, the AFC's top seed, is a 10-point favorite.
It's easy to see why, as the Chargers, the sixth seed, must tame Denver's record-setting quarterback, Peyton Manning, and Denver's ghost of last year's playoffs when it was shocked by the Ravens in double overtime.
The doubters, though, to the Chargers are just like so much background noise.
"We really have a sense and a belief that we are us and we could care less what the outside thinks of us," Weddle said. "It's great to be a part of, because we know everyone is focused on each other and getting better and ultimately to play the best we can. When you are worried about the outside your play suffers and it clouds your mind a little bit."
The Chargers are riding on Cloud 9, and can you blame them? They were given up for dead when falling to 5-7 behind a rookie head coach in Mike McCoy. The narrative had been cast that this was step one in a rebuilding process that would take time as the depleted roster was restocked.
Instead, the Chargers went from missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year to being four quarters shy of the AFC Championship Game.
"It has been a joy to be a part of this team and to see our growth," Weddle said. "We have an ultimate challenge this week, but we are excited for it."
Just maybe the underdogs get under the Broncos' skin one more time.
SERIES HISTORY: 109th meeting. Broncos lead series, 58-49-1, and this is the first playoff meeting ever. The teams split their season series this year, with the Broncos winning in San Diego, 28-20 in October and the Chargers prevailed last month in Denver, 27-20. It's interesting to note that the Chargers have faced Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning twice in the postseason, when he was with the Colts. On both occasions, the Chargers eliminated the Colts, once in Indianapolis and once at San Diego.
NFL Team Report - San Diego Chargers - NOTES, QUOTES
--Few believed outside linebacker Melvin Ingram's promise to return this season after he tore his ACL in a May workout. But there was Ingram on Sunday in Cincinnati making a key interception in a critical juncture in the game, his fifth since coming back.
Ingram said, "It's very satisfying because you know you put the blood, sweat and tears in and when you get to go out and make a play to help the team move forward, it's always a blessing."
--This time last year, Chargers coach Mike McCoy was directing the Broncos' offense. While he wears lightning bolts now, he's appreciative of the education he received working under Broncos coach John Fox and others on his staff.
"A lot of what we do here, the way I kind of run things, I learned from John and the rest of the coaches I have been around," McCoy said. "I have coached a lot of great players and have been fortunate to work around some good players and good coaches. I am very close with some coaches on that staff. I am here because of them."
--Most everyone in San Diego is talking about the Chargers' wins and ties. Make that one tie as quarterback Philip Rivers has started a fashion craze by wearing a bolo tie at away games. That's his look when he takes the podium after Chargers' road outings.
"We went to coat and tie this year for travel attire," said Rivers, an Alabama native. "It was always slacks and shirt as the minimum, and I was always just slacks and a shirt. So we had to go to a coat and a tie this year, so that was my way to not have a neck tie. It is a tie. It is officially a tie."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 - Number of consecutive wins the Chargers have since the return of three injured players: outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram and left tackle King Dunlap.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everyone has their own style." -- Chargers coach Mike McCoy on quarterback Philip Rivers' preference for bolo ties.
NFL Team Report - San Diego Chargers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Chargers could carry an extra offensive lineman, with center Nick Hardwick having a neck injury and the tackles, King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker, nursing sore ankles.
That could mean guard-tackle Steve Schilling is active come Sunday.
--RB Ronnie Brown could see extended playing time with Ryan Mathews hobbling. Brown responded with a 58-yard scoring run in the win over the Bengals; it was the Chargers' longest rush of the season.
--C Rich Ohrnberger received praise for his play after stepping in for an injured Nick Hardwick. The versatile Ohrnberger has started three games at right guard this year and one at center.
--CB Shareece Wright was the 76th-ranked cornerback at one point this season. But his game has made strides the last month and he had a big interception in Cincinnati.
--C Nick Hardwick (neck/concussion) has yet to practice this week and it is looking less likely he will go on Sunday.
--RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) didn't practice Thursday, but it is believed he will play on Sunday. But how long he might last is a concern.
--WR Eddie Royal (toe) didn't practice Thursday but he will be available on Sunday.
--G Jeromey Clary (shoulder) didn't practice Thursday after being limited on Wednesday. Indications are he will start on Sunday.
--LT D.J. Fluker (ankle) was limited Thursday after not working on Wednesday.
--DT Sean Lissemore (shoulder) was limited for the second day.
--RT King Dunlap (ankle) was a full participant.
--DE Kendall Reyes (ankle) was a full participant.
--S Eric Weddle (hamstring) was a full participant after being limited on Wednesday.
It's not unique or innovative. Pretty basic really: keep the ball away from Peyton Manning. In both games this year against the Broncos, the Chargers have been sensational in the ball-control game. That will be the plan again on Sunday, with the Chargers looking to prove their knack for 10-play drives is no fluke. While Manning seeks to stretch the field with his downfield and more riskier passes, the Chargers are content to give the ball to any of their running backs and lean on the more risk-adverse underneath routes.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Chargers running game, led by RB Ryan Mathews vs. Broncos run defense, which showed leaks against the run when facing the Chargers -- Mathews has five 100-yard games in seven outings against the Broncos. The Chargers would be ecstatic if he made it six in eight. A big key, though, will be how his ankle holds up. No matter, the Chargers will also be keen to pointing Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown toward the line of scrimmage; the Chargers ran for a season-high 196 yards last week. But the Broncos have some talented linebackers, especially Danny Trevathan as he leads the team with 124 tackles. The Broncos were ninth against the run, allowing 105 yards per game. But that stat speaks more to teams being forced to ditch their running game in trying to keep pace with the Broncos' scoring onslaught.
Chargers pass protection vs. Broncos pass rush -- Keeping Philip Rivers' uniform clean is always Job No. 1 for the offensive line. And it will be interesting to see how it does in Denver, with the noise level often forcing blockers to wait that extra spilt second before getting into their back-pedal. There are some concerns, too, about the health of the edge protectors. Both tackles, King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker, are getting around on sore ankles. It's nothing serious, but sometimes a sprain can get aggravated during a game. The Broncos will point former Charger Shaun Phillips and his 10 sacks at Rivers. Don't overlook Malik Jackson with his six sacks; he got into a pushing match with Rivers as well last month in Denver. What the Chargers' pass-protectors won't have to worry about is an injured Von Miller, and that's big.