Schedule-Makers Have it in for Browns

Reeling to the finish line, the Browns now have to contend with the red-hot San Diego Chargers

Nothing has gone right for the Browns.

Even the schedule-makers seem to have something against them.

Instead of getting to play San Diego early in the season, when the Chargers always seem to struggle, the Browns are getting them late in the year, when San Diego always seems to be rolling. That will come Sunday when the teams meet at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The clubs are the polar opposites of one another. The Browns are one of the poorest – and coldest – teams in the NFL, standing 1-10, tied for the worst record in the league, and having lost six straight, firmly entrenching themselves in last place in the AFC North.

At 8-3 and with a six-game winning streak, the Chargers are one of the best – and hottest – teams around. They're tied for the third-best record in the league and have outscored their last three opponents by a whopping 106-40, including a 32-3 decision two weeks ago over the once red-hot Denver Broncos, who are 7-4 and now trail them by a game in the AFC West.

But it was a much different situation earlier in the year. The Chargers started 2-3, and one of the victories, a narrow 24-20 decision in the opener, shouldn't really have counted since it came against the woebegone, dysfunctional Oakland Raiders.

"We had a lot of injuries early," Chargers head coach Norv Turner said in a conference call with the Cleveland media on Wednesday. "We had a makeshift group out there. The benefit to that happening is that if you can survive that, it will help you because you will have more players you can use. "

Plus it helped that this group of veteran Chargers has been together for a while, and has been through this type of thing in three of the previous four seasons. Only in 2006, when they started 4-2 on the way to a 14-2 finish in their last season under former Browns head coach Marty Schottenheimer, have the Chargers not come close to burying themselves almost before the year began.

In 2005, San Diego lost its first two, three of its first five and four of seven before winning five in a row and finishing 9-7.

In 2007, the Chargers won their opener and then lost three straight before going 10-2 the rest of the year for an 11-5 finish and a division crown. They advanced to the AFC Championship Game before losing 21-12 to the unbeaten New England Patriots.

Last year, Turner, in his second season on the job, watched in horror as the Chargers lost their first two games by a combined total of three points. The struggles continued way into the season as the Chargers were 4-8, but they then saved themselves by winning their last four, including a 52-21 pounding of the Broncos in the finale, to finish 8-8 and win the division, just as the Browns did in 1985 in the AFC Central.

The Chargers stunned Indianapolis 23-17 in overtime in the first round of the playoffs before losing a 35-24 decision to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round.

Turner laughed when it was suggested to him that the Chargers ought to lobby to have the first part of every season canceled. While he gave no excuses for the other years, he offered the aforementioned injury situation for what happened this season.

But, as the Chargers have proven – over and over and over again, it seems – it's not how you start the year but rather how you finish it.

"Defensively, we've been able to put pressure on the quarterback, and if you can do that, you can be successful," Turner said.

Led by two outside linebackers with the same-sounding first name, Shaun Phillips with six and Shawne Merriman with four, the Chargers have 28 sacks.

Though he is averaging just 3.4 yards per rush for 497 yards overall and seems to be near the end of what has been an outstanding career, LaDainian Tomlinson is still a real threat, especially against a run-porous defense like that of the Browns, which could be even more susceptible because of a plethora of injuries suffered in last Sunday's 16-7 loss at Cincinnati.

The San Diego passing game is rolling, ranking ninth in the NFL. Phillip Rivers is looking like Dan Fouts and John Hadl by completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,938 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions for a 101.6 rating.

His favorite targets are tight end Antonio Gates with 59 catches for 827 yards (14.0) and four TDs, and wide receiver Vincent Jackson with 49 receptions for 815 yards (16.6) and seven scores.

So, with everything going the Chargers' way, is this the best team they've had in recent years? Is this the club that will finally kick in the door to the Super Bowl, where the Chargers haven't been since following the 1994 season?

"All that kind of stuff is premature," Turner said. "Two years ago, we had three or four starters go down the week of the AFC Championship Game (or else the Chargers might have beaten the Patriots).

"We just want to keep getting better and stay healthy, and if you do that, you have a chance."

Since it's the latter portion of the season, the Chargers have better than just "a chance," which is not good news for the Browns.

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