Post-break playoff push full of both promise and pitfalls

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Oct 14, 2005

Through fits and starts, the Chargers have survived to the NFL's final bye weekend of 2005.

"It has been a brutal first half of the season," cornerback Quentin Jammer said two weeks ago of the Chargers' schedule. "But we should, at the least, be 6-1."

Since the Chargers have won twice since Jammer made that claim, it stands to reason he believes they should be 8-1 now.

He is not alone.

But the Chargers believe the rigors already endured will serve them well.

2. Offensive firepower

Tight end Antonio Gates is the league's No. 4 receiver with 51 catches and is seventh with 707 yards.

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is the league's leading scorer (15 touchdowns) and leader in yards from scrimmage (835 rushing, 264 receiving).

Quarterback Drew Brees has completed 64.3 percent of his passes and is on pace to throw for more than 3,700 yards.

The Chargers' no-huddle attack is on track to score 448 points, which would be third-most in team history.

And they feel they should be better than they are. There has been an infuriating lack of steadiness.

"We haven't executed consistently the way we want to," coordinator Cam Cameron said yesterday. " . . . We're still evolving as an offense. We have a lot of room for improvement."

The team's difficult schedule and the close losses have been dissected and lamented the past nine weeks. Everyone knows what might have been.

Now, with seven games remaining, it is time to look ahead.

As they allow themselves a break, the Chargers are in a position to do so.

Their week of rest was preceded by an affirming act – a goal-line stand in the final minute at New York. And so, winners of two straight, the Chargers can look forward to the remainder of the season, believing a playoff push is about to begin.

"We're a team that has been through some tough losses," quarterback Drew Brees said. "We know what that feels like, and we don't want to go through that again. . . . This is kind of a point in the season where just like last year, where at the beginning of the season you're back and forth, back and forth and all of a sudden you just make a run. You start winning those close games at the end."

Players have been talking for weeks about getting on a roll like the one that saw them win eight straight last season after a 3-3 start.

In that they blew so many late leads early, they now are in a position where they practically have to put together a big run like last season.

To that end, there is rationale to view the Chargers' cup as half full and there is basis to see it as half empty.

Here are three reasons to be optimistic about the playoff push:

1. Easier going

The Chargers play four of their final seven games at home, three of those against 3-5 teams Oakland, Miami and Buffalo.

"We had a very tough first half of our schedule," free safety Bhawoh Jue said. "I'm not saying it's going to be easier, but there are going to be some winnable games, and we'll see what happens."

The good news: The next four games, three of which are at home against the aforementioned 3-5 teams, should be penciled in with a "W." The bad news: The final three games, back-to-back contests at Indianapolis and Kansas City and the finale at home against Denver, will be as difficult as anything in the first half.

3. Pass pressure

Remaining opponents

The Chargers play four of their last seven at home

vs. Buffalo
Nov. 20 1:15 p.m.

at Washington
Nov. 27 10 a.m.

vs. Oakland
Dec. 4 5:30 p.m.

vs. Miami
Dec. 11 1:15 p.m.

at Indianapolis
Dec. 18 10 a.m.

at Kansas City
Dec. 24 10 a.m.

vs. Denver
Dec. 31 1:30 p.m.
Due in large part to the infusion of young energy, the Chargers have 27 sacks, one fewer than league-leading Indianapolis and just two fewer than they had all last season.

The team's sack leaders are rookie linebacker Shawne Merriman with five and second-year linebacker Shaun Phillips with four. Half of the sacks have come from players in their first or second seasons.

"You've got to play with great enthusiasm and great effort," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "Those guys have that."

Given all that, here are three reasons to be concerned that push will get shoved:

1. Secondary

This group is improved, but it still has costly breakdowns.

In part because the Chargers' rushing defense ranks third in the league, teams flood them with passes. The 340 thrown against them this season are 33 more than any other defense in the league has seen.

So it's somewhat understandable why the Chargers have given up more plays of 20 yards or more than any team besides San Francisco.

But the Chargers know those big plays, which sometimes have come in succession as opponents have driven for quick scores, need to subside.

For all those passes being thrown their way, the Chargers have again been unable to capitalize. Their six interceptions are tied for eighth-fewest in the NFL.

2. Cover (your eyes)

It has happened way too often this season.

The Chargers will score a touchdown and the other team will return a kickoff near or beyond midfield to take back momentum.

The Chargers have allowed 29 of their 52 kickoffs to be returned 20 yards or more, 12 of those 29 yards or more and four 40 yards or more.

The average starting yard line for opponents after kickoffs is their 29, making the Chargers one of the five most-gracious teams in the league.

It's not all the coverage team's fault. Kicker Nate Kaeding, who is a fantastic 12-of-13 on field goals, is not kicking high or far enough.

3. Bumps, bruises, breaks

While it is believed the Chargers will get back almost all, if not all, of their injured players, it's already clear they can't count on the sensational health they enjoyed in 2004.

In their most recent game, the Chargers had six starters out with injuries. Another starter (Merriman) dislocated his wrist in the game and had surgery the next day.

The only players to be truly concerned about at this point are left tackle Roman Oben (foot) and linebacker Steve Foley (abdominal muscle). The severity and possible lingering effects of their injuries are a concern.

Even if the Chargers get back to full health, the wear and tear of the first nine games could mean players will be more fragile for the final seven.

Come Monday, when they return to practice, the Chargers will focus on their newfound health.

"The biggest thing is having guys healthy, having all the guys out there," Brees said. "We're 5-4, pretty much every game is that must-win mentality. Let's really make a run after this week. Get some guys healed up and so we have our complete team out there and be good to go."