Behind enemy lines: San Diego

Welcome to the playoffs. OK, it's a bit of a stretch with the tied-for-first-place Chargers facing the mediocre 49ers on Sunday in San Francisco. But linebacker Shaun Phillips promises the game will feature a playoff-like intensity. That's how the Chargers are approaching this and every other game, according to Phillips, who has taken over for Steve Foley and climbed among the AFC's sack leaders.

He promises they will forget about their big Sunday night win over the Steelers, zero in on the 49ers and avoid any traps the NFL schedule-makers might have in store for them.

"Just go out there and practice every day as if we are playing the world champs," Phillips said. "For us, we're playing for the playoffs. And (the 49ers) are in our way to get to the playoffs."

The Chargers have reached the postseason just once since 1995. And among the reasons they haven't been invited to the playoff party is they stumble against teams they should beat.

Like 2-3 San Francisco, which won but four times last year.

"We got to go out there - we have no choice - and play out hearts out," Phillips said. "We are practicing as if we are practicing for the playoffs. I can tell you right now our tempo is going to be a playoff-tempo. We know how important it is to us to get to the next level, so that is why we are going to play with that intensity."

The play of Phillips, fellow outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and the rest of the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense has kept the Chargers performing at top level since the season began. San Diego ranks first in six defensive categories recorded by the NFL, including sacks per play, an area where Phillips and Merriman have been doing most of the damage.

Merriman ranks second in the AFC with 4.5 sacks - just half a sack out of the conference lead - and Phillips is right behind with four sacks of his own. Defensive end Luis Castillo has contributed three sacks. Nose tackle Jamal Williams has two.

Phillips is starting in place of Foley, who is on injured reserve and recently was charged with two misdemeanor counts of driving under the influence. Foley was shot three times by an off-duty police officer in the incident.

Like the Chargers, The 49ers are coming off a win too. But theirs came at the expense of the woeful Raiders and not the world champion Steelers. But Phillips stresses that the mindset in the locker room is such that the Chargers won't overlook the 49ers.

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It was a rumble that turned into a roar, courtesy of coach Marty Schottenheimer.

The Chargers were done with Wednesday's practice - the most important practice of any week - with their thoughts during to Sunday's game with the 49ers. It's a game the Chargers should breeze through. They are coming off the win over the Steelers and the 49ers are, well, the 49ers - winners of five games in their past 20 attempts.

Apparently, the Chargers players were thinking the same thing and their effort in the practice revealed just that.

Schottenheimer laid into the players like a drill instructor working over new recruits. He yelled, he cursed, he shook his body in a demonstrative way.

The players took notice. Or at least they said they did. One won't know, really, until early Sunday evening when the Chargers are either smiling with a 5-1 record or have their chins on their chests at 4-2.

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson knows Schottenheimer's meltdown wasn't just for show. He's been on too many Chargers teams that started fast then had their nose pressed against the outside of the postseason window come January.

"We got to be focused on our opponent and just make sure that we are ready to play. We can't overlook anybody we got to really concentrate, like Marty said, each game and that is very important."

Easily said, not so easily done.

The Chargers have been the toast of the town - and around NFL circles - for their stunning comeback before a national TV audience in defeating the Steelers. The back slaps have been numerous. Everyone has picked the Chargers again as being among the serious AFC contenders to reach the Super Bowl.

So Schottenheimer was trying to bring them down to earth. And if had to blow a gasket to get his point across, so be it.

Tomlinson has heard Mt. Marty erupt before. So have some of the other tenured Chargers. So possibly Schottenheimer was trying to get the message out to the fresh Chargers.

"Most of us veteran guys have been here long enough to know that," Tomlinson said of Schottenheimer's theme. "And so hopefully it carries over to some of our young guys."

In reality, the Chargers' guys should have little problem with the 49ers' guys. But Schottenheimer, and many of the key players, have been around the NFL to know anything can happen.

Even a 10-point home underdog like the 49ers upending a team which many predict will be a party to the Super Bowl.

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Despite his outburst on Wednesday, Schottenheimer doesn't expect a letdown.

Never mind the 49ers are up next, which is quite a step down after whipping the Super Bowl champions at home before a Sunday night national TV audience.

Games just like the one coming up this week gave the 2005 Chargers fits. Among the losses that just kept them out of the playoffs were pratfalls to the Dolphins and Chiefs last year.

But Schottenheimer said whatever potential trap there might be in playing the 49ers, his team won't fall into it.

"They are 2-1 at home, they are batting 66 percent at home, and we will not be lured into the trap, I promise you," Schottenheimer said.

The Chargers have completed their first quarter of the season, and at 3-1 they feel good about their chances of seeing the playoffs for the second time since 1995. But to do so, the team knows it can't take any opponent lightly, including the 49ers.

"We have an opportunity to win one game this week, and it is the only one we play," Schottenheimer stressed. "And it is going to be imperative that we have the focus and attention that was evident last Wednesday - we talked about the quality of that practice - and again on Thursday.

"Believe me -- when you practice that way, you play that way."

Added quarterback Philip Rivers: "We will be ready."

Schottenheimer doesn't want to hear the talk of the Chargers being 3-1. Instead, he looks at every week as if it presents a fresh canvas.

"From our perspective, we are looking at it that they are 0-0 and we are 0-0," he said. "And that is the way we approach every game, quite frankly."

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Williams was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after his big game against the Steelers, when he had six tackles and a sack.

Williams isn't much of a talker, but Tomlinson summed it up: "I'm really glad I don't have to play that guy," he said. "He is getting better. It seems like he is just becoming more and more dominant. The way he played on Sunday night I think showed the world he is the best nose tackle in the game, bar none."

After Williams' sensational performance last week, Schottenheimer said, "If I hadn't seen it so much before, I would say remarkable. But it was very typical for him. There is nobody in this league that can block him one-on-one. If you were going to find a guy and say this is the prototype for the nose tackle position, it clearly would be Jamal Williams."

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Rivers says this about the 49ers' defense: "San Francisco doesn't pressure quite a much as Pittsburgh and Baltimore (the previous opponents), but they line up in every front and play every coverage known to man. So I think it is key to us to know what we are doing and play, because they have a lot of different stuff that they do and they've done it differently throughout different games so you really don't know what they will show against us."

Much has been made of Rivers' emergence; he'll be making his fifth NFL start this week.

Among the key plays in last week's win was Rivers scampering 12 yards for a first down in the fourth quarter. Before he went down, he wrapped up the football with two hands, as if he could hear Schottenheimer harping in his ear about ball security.

"I could hear footsteps behind me, too," Rivers said. "I knew they were going to get there at some point."

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Another first-year starter making an impact on the San Diego offense is rookie Marcus McNeill. He's been a big reason why the Chargers pass rush has given up but five sacks.

"He is extremely bright and he understands football," Schottenheimer said. "When you tell him something, he gets it. And he is able to pick it up and apply it down the road. So what you see in him is a young man that is gathering information and processing it and applying it on a very consistent basis and those are the kind of guys, given talent, that have a chance to really be good players."

McNeill is starting at left tackle in place of Roman Oben, who was placed on PUP before the season, but now is showing considering progress. The team is encouraged Oben can be added to the roster later this month.

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Schottenheimer, with a win on Sunday, will tie Dan Reeves for sixth place on the all-time list with 190 regular season wins.

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The trading deadline comes next week, and inside linebacker Donnie Edwards is still on the market. But there has been little talk about moving the man who leads the team in tackles with 34. Edwards has been the team's top tackler in each of the four years he has been in San Diego.

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When the Chargers are in the red zone, one automatically thinks of All-Pro TE Antonio Gates as the prime target. And that is still a good bet.

But don't overlook 6-foot-5 WR Malcom Floyd. More and more the Chargers are zeroing in on Floyd. Philip Rivers threw him a beautiful jump ball along the side of the end zone and he plucked it from the air against Pittsburgh for a touchdown.

Floyd is a real threat in the red zone. He has two touchdown catches this year, which ties for the team high. Floyd has caught three of Rivers' six NFL touchdown passes.

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The Chargers defense has allowed just 818 yards, the lowest total through the first four games of a season in franchise history.


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