Source: USA TODAY
SAN DIEGO — This used to be the time of year when the San Diego Chargers kicked into gear.
Start slow, finish fast. It was part of the identity.
This happened more than a few times when Norv Turner was coach. And before that, it happened with Marty Schottenheimer at the helm.
December. Philip Rivers time.
Since 2006, no NFL quarterback has won as many games in December than Rivers, who is 26-5 during the month.
“That matters, but this team has never played a game together in December,” Rivers told USA TODAY Sports as he prepares for Sunday’s game at Qualcomm Stadium against the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals. “But I think we know that December is when teams either get it done or start heading into next year. That’s what December means.”
Rivers has a new boss in first-year coach Mike McCoy, and with a refashioned offensive system has rebounded from a couple of miserable seasons to produce a career year. With the scheme dictating more short and intermediate passes, and fewer shots downfield, Rivers leads the NFL with 70.8% completion rate. He is again consistently compiling the big passing games — including four of at 390 yards — that can make a difference.
And after last weekend’s heroics at Kansas City, where the Chargers won a shootout on Rivers’ 26-yard TD pass to Seyi Ajirotutu with 24 seconds on the clock, San Diego (5-6) is suddenly in the AFC playoff picture.
This will be another scramble of a stretch run. The Chargers are in a pack of a half dozen teams — with the Baltimore Ravens (6-6), New York Jets (5-6), Tennessee Titans (5-6), Miami Dolphins (5-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7) — clawing for what will likely be the final AFC playoff spot.
(The loser of Sunday’s AFC West clash pitting the Broncos and Chiefs will probably claim the first wild-card slot.)
That’s why the comeback win at Kansas City, which snapped a three-game losing streak, was so essential for San Diego. It probably saved the season. At least for now.
“We can’t get caught up in that,” Rivers said of weighing the playoff prospects. “We realize we’re in the pack, but we’re one week removed from being out of it. We’ve got to find a way to duplicate the focus, the energy, the way we played for each other last week, we’ve got to duplicate that this week.
“We’ve won one of our last four. Let’s see if we can win two in a row and let the dust settle.”
Of all the teams chasing that last playoff spot, why not the Chargers?
The schedule tilts in their favor with four of the final five games at home. And then there are the closes losses. The Chargers lost an overtime game at Washington after failing to score on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Two weeks after that, they blew a late lead in a loss at Miami. And there were three-point losses against the Houston Texans and Titans in September.
Of the Chargers’ six losses, four came by a total of 16 points.
“That makes you sick,” Rivers said. “Win those (close) games, and we’d be the leaders in that pack right now. But we can’t change it. Here’s where we are. What are we going to do about it?”
That’s life in the NFL, when more than half the games are determined by a touchdown or less. The Chargers are a young team (with a 28th-ranked defense) that is still learning how to win.
As Bill Parcells might put it, they are what the record says.
Still, Rivers’ record in December is real, too.
Sure, as Rivers pointed out, it’s a new team now. But there are still some familiar holdovers from previous teams that rallied down the stretch — including tight end Antonio Gates, center Nick Hardwick and safety Eric Weddle — who can help lead the way.
Rivers said that he senses a chippy, edgy mind-set with the team that showed with the fight exhibited in last weekend’s comeback win. He thinks the setbacks of recent weeks actually provided the foundation for the comeback at Kansas City.
But he also knows that it’s too early to label that effort as the turning point.
“You can have a tendency to think, ‘Oh, we’ll do that again this week,’ ” said Rivers, who will face a tough Bengals defense that has already scored victories this season against Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.
“It’s like, ‘Y’all remember how hard it was to win that game last week?’ It’s going to be like that again this week.”
At least they have a chance. And a reason to win in December.
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Other items to ponder as Week 13 rolls on:
THREE INTRIGUING STORYLINES
– Prime showdown. There is no shortage of subplots attached to the Monday night meeting that could determine the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. The New Orleans Saints (9-2) need a win against the risk of trying to come back to Seattle and score a win in January. The Seahawks (10-1) have never lost at home with Russell Wilson at quarterback, but there’s a huge stress point that looms. Drew Brees is triggering an offense that, according to ESPN Stats and Information, has produced the most completions of at least 15 yards (53) in the NFL this season. The Seahawks will match up with a secondary depleted by injury and suspension. Will Percy Harvin play? The receiver, on the mend from hip surgery, made his Seattle debut before the bye, but has missed practice time since and is considered day-to-day. His status adds to the intrigue of the huge matchup.
— Do it again. Since joining the Denver Broncos last season, Peyton Manning has yet to lose a division game. He’s 9-0 vs. AFC West opponents. But Sunday’s matchup against the Chiefs at Arrowhead, with first place on the line again, hardly looks routine. Much has changed since Denver’s convincing win against Kansas City just two weeks ago. Injuries have stung the Chiefs defense (Justin Houston, Tamba Hali), and the Broncos have health issues with running back Knowshown Moreno, and defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson (lost for the season) and Derek Wolfe. And with both teams coming off losses, they are more desperate. Kansas City was the NFL’s last unbeaten at 9-0 but is now staring at the prospect of a three-game losing streak. Denver blew its chance for a big win at New England, and the setback might cost it the chance to host the AFC title game. Even so, there was no time for the Broncos to wallow in self pity with a pivotal rematch looming. Maybe the difference comes with Manning and his receiving weapons — Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker among them — exploiting a Chiefs defense that lately has been burned in allowing huge chunks of yardage after the catch.
— Geno and the Jets. We’ve surely seen the worst of Geno Smith, who has steadily surpassed Eli Manning as the league’s most prolific turnover machine with an NFL-high 23 giveaways. But it’s not a lost cause, as New York and Miami, both 5-6, clash in a pivotal match to maintain relevance in the AFC wild-card race. The Jets are a different team at home, where they are 4-1. If Smith can protect the football, the game can be determined by a dominant Jets front seven — led by Muhammad Wilkerson (10 sacks) and big-time rookie Sheldon Richardson — poised to take advantage of a depleted offensive line that has allowed Ryan Tannehill to endure an NFL-high 44 sacks. Amid the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga, Miami’s offensive line has hung tough rather than collapse. Their stiffest test, though, might come Sunday at the Meadowlands.
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– Tom Brady. Maybe it would be better to describe the Patriots quarterback as icy-hot after he passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in sparking the franchise’s biggest comeback win ever against Denver on a frigid field last weekend. As he heads to Houston to take aim at the struggling Texans, Brady is seemingly warming up for another run at a championship. One thing for sure: With rallies against the Saints, Dolphins and Broncos in recent weeks, Brady has the comeback thing down pat again — even with the down-to-the-wire loss at Carolina. Most significant, though, is what has happened as surrounding pieces return to the offense in the persons of Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen. During the month of November, Brady has fired eight touchdown passes and just one pick. In October, it was two touchdowns, four picks. The GQ quarterback is trending.
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– Bears defense. Good luck, trying to prevent Adrian Peterson from notching his fourth consecutive 100-yard game against Chicago while smelling another personal milestone. A.D. is 154 yards shy of reaching 10,000 career rushing yards, and faces an injury-depleted unit that was shredded for 258 rushing yards last week at St. Louis. It’s apparent that losing Jay Cutler to a high ankle sprain hasn’t been the most crippling injury for Chicago (6-5) as it tries to stay in the NFC North race. Josh McCown has been a more-than-capable fill-in for Cutler. The worst injury has been to linebacker Lance Briggs, who hasn’t been played since suffering a shoulder injury in Week 7. Losing defensive tackle Henry Melton, cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker D.J. Williams were significant enough for the Bears defense, but Briggs’ setback was the one that seemingly broke their ack. Since Briggs went down, the Bears have allowed 6.1 yards per rush — and that the Rams had more than 200 rushing yards last week before contact was a telling indicator of the fundamental breakdowns in play. They are no longer the Monsters of the Midway. In allowing an NFL-high 34 points per game, it’s become Nightmare Alley for the Bears.
– Montee Ball. With the misfortune of Knowshon Moreno leaving Foxborough on crutches and a walking boot after rushing for a career-high 224 yards on Sunday night — the biggest rushing game in the NFL this season — the Broncos need Ball to help pick up the slack. Moreno is questionable for today’s game at Kansas City with a bone bruise in his lower right leg. Ball, however, brings ball-security issues — as exemplified with a fumble at New England that aided the Patriots’ big second-half rally. The second-round pick from Wisconsin has lost three fumbles this season on just 83 touches. This has fueled questions about whether Denver made a huge mistake in bypassing Eddie Lacy to select Ball with the 58th pick in the draft. Lacy, picked by Green Bay in the 61st slot, is on the short list of candidates for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Ball, who set an NCAA record with his 86 touchdowns for the Badgers, was supposed to have a bigger impact in Denver’s prolific offense. But he’s rushed for just 262 yards, and generated more buzz with his fumbles. Now what?
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STOMACH FOR AN UPSET
– Falcons vs. Bills, at Toronto. Despite all of the misery attached to the 2-9 debacle for a team that was supposed to compete for a Super Bowl crown this season, the Falcons have still played hard for coach Mike Smith. The last time out, they made the Saints sweat. Maybe they’re due for more than a moral victory this weekend against the Bills, and it’s just the Falcons luck that this game won’t be played in the outdoor wintry elements at Ralph Wilson Stadium. They get to play in a dome — inside the Rogers Centre in Toronto — which is usually an advantage for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Whether Ryan can avoid the turnovers that have plagued him lately (nine interceptions in his past five games) looms as a swing factor. Another factor might be the lack of an edge the Bills have demonstrated while playing some of their home games in nearby Toronto in recent years. Buffalo is just 1-4 in its previous five games in Toronto.
NEXT MAN UP
– Frank Zombo. Replacing Justin Houston, expected to miss 2-3 weeks with a dislocated right elbow, won’t be easy for the Chiefs as they gear up to face the quick release of Peyton Manning. Houston ranks third in the NFL with 11 sacks. Yet Zombo at least offers a bit of hope for a defense that has suddenly become vulnerable. The fourth-year vet has been perhaps Kansas City’s top special teams player, and he has surely been on the big stage. He started Super Bowl XLV for the Packers. Now he needs to step up and provide a consistent rush to affect blocking schemes. The Chiefs got some good news in that Houston won’t require surgery and that the other bookend rusher who went down last week, Tamba Hali, won’t miss Sunday’s game after suffering a sprained ankle. But there’s still a question of how effective Hali (9 sacks) will be. If the Chiefs can’t force offenses to worry about their double-team blocking, blitzing might not be the ticket. The Chargers burned Kansas City’s blitzes last week after Houston and Hali went down, and now comes a quarterback in Manning who is one of the best at exploiting weaknesses exposed by the blitz.
STAT’S THE FACT
Tampa Bay Bucs rookie quarterback Mike Glennon is surely backing up Greg Schiano’s early-season decision to move beyond the since-departed Josh Freeman. The Bucs take a three-game winning streak into Sunday’s game at Carolina, and in his past six games Glennon has a 10-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio. He’s the first rookie in NFL history to throw for a touchdown in each of his first eight games.
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