A dominant win over New England on the road was an impressive first step in a grueling six-game stretch for San Diego
In the Chargers' locker room these days, a myopic view of the season is strictly enforced. On the schedule posted in the clubhouse last week the only one of the team's 13 remaining games that was visible was AT NEW ENGLAND. Coach Marty Schottenheimer had the rest covered so his players would focus on Sunday's matchup and not dwell on a brutal six-game stretch that, beginning with the date in Foxborough, includes three trips to the East Coast. The other games in that span: Pittsburgh, at Oakland, at Philadelphia, Kansas City, at the New York Jets. And in four of those matchups the Chargers' opponents will be well rested, coming off byes.
Schottenheimer bites his lip and mostly declines to comment about the schedule. He preaches that the only play that matters is the next play, the only game that matters is the next game. He won't give his team a chance to make excuses. But after one of the great wins in franchise history, a 41-17 rout of the Patriots in front of a shocked sellout crowd at Gillette Stadium, Schottenheimer took a deep breath and considered the hard road his team faces. "If we get to the playoffs," he said, "we will have gone through an absolute crucible of fire to get there."
Recent history bears him out. From 2001 through '04 only three of the 48 teams that made the playoffs had schedules that ranked among the 10 toughest in the NFL for their respective seasons. It's likely that San Diego's 2005 slate will end up falling into that category. But don't ask the players to take the long view. "I've been with Marty a long time," linebacker Donnie Edwards said after Sunday's win, "and all I know is the next game."
After the Chargers stuttered offensively and lost their first two games--to the Cowboys and the Broncos, leaving the impression that the defending AFC West champs' reign atop the division would be a short one--they couldn't wait to get to the next game: home against the Giants. San Diego unleashed All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson for 192 rushing yards and three touchdowns and routed New York 45-23.
Checking the schedule board, the Chargers then focused on the Patriots and handed them their first loss in Foxborough since December 2002. San Diego exposed the beat-up Pats' every weakness and played to its own strengths: running the ball 60% of the time, passing efficiently and defending the run. The Chargers rushed for 183 yards, including 134 by Tomlinson, while holding New England to 73. They clinched the game with a muscle-flexing scoring drive that ate up 8:55 of the fourth quarter. San Diego quarterback Drew Brees kept 2004 first-round pick Philip Rivers nailed to the bench with a 19-for-24 passing performance good for 248 yards, no interceptions and two pinpoint touchdown passes--an 11-yarder to Keenan McCardell and a 28-yarder to Reche Caldwell--of the variety usually thrown by the guy on the other side of the field, Tom Brady. But on this day the best quarterback was Brees, no contest.
The solid thumping of the three-time Super Bowl champs, who were coming off a great comeback win at Pittsburgh, was a little shocking even to the Chargers. "I'll probably believe it when I wake up in the morning," tackle Roman Oben said afterward. "I wish I could have watched this game from the stands. We give up no sacks, rush for 183--against the Patriots. Amazing."
Added Tomlinson, "I'm on the sideline in the fourth quarter looking up at the scoreboard, and I see 31-17, and I think to myself, This is really happening. We're beating New England at their place, really beating them."
Resplendent in a black pinstripe suit and purple shoes, Tomlinson walked briskly out of Gillette Stadium, pulling a suitcase on rollers with one hand and carrying a wrapped sandwich and a quart of Gatorade in the other. Though he had just played the physical Patriots, he looked surprisingly fresh, like a young executive striding through an airport to make a flight. For someone who takes a pounding each game--most defensive coordinators believe that if they stop Tomlinson, they stop the Chargers--he has shown remarkable durability, missing only one game to injury in four-plus seasons. He has scored 68 touchdowns in 68 career games, including the postseason. "When I get near the goal line," he says, "I smell the end zone."
San Diego won't continue to average 43 points a game, as they have over the last two weeks, but with Brees and Tomlinson at the top of their games, opponents can't key on one element of the offense. Four weeks into the season, which team is the toughest in the league on both sides of the ball? Indianapolis? Tampa? Cincinnati? You can't have that discussion without including the Chargers, even with their forbidding schedule.
Going South in The AFC South
In the wake of a 20-7 home loss to the Broncos on Sunday, which dropped them to 2-2, the Jaguars have to fix their offense and take full advantage of the mostly weak schedule that remains (two games with Tennessee, two with Houston and one each with Arizona, Cleveland and San Francisco) to contend for a playoff berth. Jacksonville has gone 54 straight games without scoring 30 points--Detroit currently has the second-longest such streak, at 19 games--and the Jaguars haven't gotten a bang for their buck from first-round pick Matt Jones.
A quarterback turned wide receiver out of Arkansas, Jones has only 117 combined receiving and rushing yards in four games, and in Sunday's loss he short-armed a throw from QB Byron Leftwich, enabling Denver's Nick Ferguson to pick it off. And though Leftwich has earned his reputation as a gutty player who withstands big hits, he takes many of those blows because he holds the ball too long in the pocket and can't escape the rush.
Even more disconcerting is Jacksonville's penchant for making mistakes. The Jaguars committed 15 penalties on Sunday--a stunning number for a home team presumably not bothered by the crowd--including six false starts. Said left guard Vince Manuwai, "How can you have six false starts playing at home?"
Jacksonville is still the second-best team in the AFC South, behind the Colts, but this team is regressing.
The Hard-Hat Commissioner
If one of Pete Rozelle's legacies as NFL commissioner was parity, successor Paul Tagliabue's just might be stadiums. Since 1992, 24 teams have built new stadiums, made significant renovations to existing facilities or contracted to construct new venues, and the man pushing for redevelopment has been Tagliabue. Three new stadiums were in the news over the last two weeks: The Colts broke ground on a $500 million home in Indianapolis, the Vikings presented plans for the financing and the site of a $675 million retractable-roof venue north of Minneapolis, and the Giants and the Jets agreed to split the $800 million cost and share another facility at the Meadowlands in northern New Jersey.
"The commissioner has really made stadium construction a priority," NFL senior vice president for corporate development Neil Glat said last week. When he interviewed to replace the retiring Rozelle as commissioner in 1989, Tagliabue cited stadium development in a memo to the search committee: "Stadium economics are changing dramatically, and the entertainment marketplace is rapidly being restructured."
When negotiations between the two New York teams stalled in September, Tagliabue stepped in to bring the two sides together; an agreement was reached on the day of a deadline imposed by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. In the drive for new facilities--and the revenue they generate--team owners have been only too happy to work from the commissioner's playbook.
The Jets are in a salary-cap pickle with quarterback Chad Pennington, who may undergo his second rotator-cuff surgery of 2005. His cap number next year is $15 million, and he is due a roster bonus of $3 million in March; even if New York were to cut him--a long shot, but not an impossibility--it would still take a $12 million hit on the '06 cap because of Pennington's prorated signing bonus. The only way for the Jets to get relief is to redo the contract, but Pennington's agent, Tom Condon, drives a hard bargain. Without that relief, the club won't be able to spend big on another quarterback.... The Patriots could end all the talk about a possible 2005 return by linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who is working out regularly and showing no ill effects from his minor stroke last February, if they put him on injured reserve. The fact that they haven't means there's still a chance Bruschi will play in the second half of the season.... Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers, 16 for 16 on field goal tries through Week 4, must average two field goals a game for the rest of the season to break the record of 39 in a season, shared by Olindo Mare (1999) and Jeff Wilkins (2003).... So much for the revival of the Kansas City defense. Quarterbacks are completing 65% of their passes against the Chiefs. For K.C., that's like facing Joe Montana every week.