Nate Kaeding is this year's Neil Rackers. He has had a storybook season with the Chargers, converting 24 of 27 field goal attempts and was recently voted to his first Pro Bowl. While he didn't set break any of Rackers' records this year, he's certainly a very reliable placement specialist on the best team in the AFC. Punter Mike Scifres has done well when actually asked to do his job (which is not often, given San Diego's potent offense), but isn't considerably better than Scott Player.
Bryant Johnson will most likely have to fill in for Troy Walters in the punt return game and Keenan McCardell might fill in for Eric Parker to field punts for the Chargers. Throw in Michael Turner or Antonio Cromartie for the Chargers and J.J. Arrington for the Cardinals in the kick return game, and it really amounts to a bunch of average players returning kicks against a couple of average coverage units.
While Kaeding alone gives the Chargers the edge in special teams, the real question will be whether or not the Cardinals can keep it close enough for a last second Rackers field goal. And, of course, whether or not he'll choke if that happens.
In order to keep it close enough to see, Arizona needs to play a nearly perfect game against a team that holds a sizeable advantage on both offense and defense.
The only serious advantage the Cardinals hold in this game is in the passing game. Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson represent a huge mismatch versus Quentin Jammer, Drayton Florence, and rookie Antonio Cromartie. If Kurt Warner is able to do what he does best (throw quickly and accurately, hitting his receivers in stride), he'll have a big day.
Unfortunately, San Diego also possesses the league's best pass rush (60 sacks) and the most lethal pair of outside rushers in the NFL in Pro Bowler Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. Add to that the fact that the Cardinals only seem to be able to pass protect against weak pass rushes, and Warner could be in for a long day. Even when they max protect, bringing Edgerrin James and Leonard Pope in to block, they might not even be able to contain Merriman and the defensive line (teams with better offensive lines certainly haven't).
The key to the game will be the pass rush on both sides. Protect Warner and keep him from getting shell shocked and turning the ball over on every other possession, and pressuring Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, forcing him into as many ill-advised throws and bad decisions as possible.
Rivers has struggled against the blitz this season and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is one of the best in the business at creating inventive blitzing schemes. Look for Adrian Wilson to be heavily involved in these schemes and for Pendergast to call them all game. Karlos Dansby will also be heavily involved, as he is Arizona's second best pass rusher (behind Wilson). And both men will be involved in attempting to shut down Antonio Gates.
The biggest challenge for the Cardinals, though, will be shutting down this year's MVP, LaDainian Tomlinson. He has the the most productive year of any tailback in history. He has a chance to score 30 rushing touchdowns and, with a particularly huge day, can reach 2,000 yards rushing for the season. Above all, especially given the fact that Rivers has struggled the past few games, Arizona needs to stop Tomlinson. They need to blitz Rivers to force turnovers (which is about the only way they'll have a chance to win), but they need to stop Tomlinson in order to keep the game remotely close. Once he gets on a roll, the Chargers are pretty well unstoppable, even if Rivers performs poorly.
In order to stop Tomlinson, Darnell Dockett and Kendrick Clancy need to clog up the middle, Chike Okeafor and Antonio Smith need to maintain their gaps, and the linebackers need to blitz into those gaps. Once the linebackers make into their lane, hopefully avoid lead blocker Lorenzo Neal, and get to Tomlinson, they need to wrap him up and bring him down. It's a lot to ask of Dansby, Orlando Huff, and Gerald Hayes (or back-up Monty Beisel), but that's what they're going to need to do to stop Tomlinson.
When the Cardinals run the ball, they simply need to hand the ball off and pray. The interior of San Diego's defense is among the best in the league. Nose tackle Jamal Williams is starting in the Pro Bowl for a reason, and Donnie Edwards and Randall Godrey are both exceptional run defenders. Ends Igor Olshansky and Luis Castillo (who might be replaced by the very capable Derreck Robinson) are like extra defensive tackles in this scheme, occupying blockers and allowing the linebackers to flow to the football.
Edge got his record last week. Hopefully, that will be enough for him.
It's just too much for the Cardinals to overcome. The fact that the Chargers have something to play for, the fact that they're at home, the fact that the Cardinals have nothing to play for, the fact that the Chargers are the most complete team in the league and have made a habit of slaughtering overmatched teams like the Cardinals all year.
Too much Tomlinson, too much Merriman, Phillips, Gates, and Williams. Too much talent on their side, too little talent on ours. There are ways that the Cardinals could conceivably compete with the Chargers in this game, but I just don't see it happening.
In the regular season, Marty Schottenheimer teams take care of business. They'll do that on Sunday. By a lot.
Chargers 34, Cardinals 14.