Behind Enemy Lines: SD vs. KC I

The Bolts and Chiefs will meet twice over the next six weeks. The first collision comes Sunday and our team experts have you covered. In the first segment of this Q&A series, we discuss Philip Rivers' bounce-back season, Mike McCoy's debut campaign and the playoff race in the AFC.

Michael Lombardo is the publisher of Nick Athan is the publisher of Warpaint Illustrated.

Nick Athan: Everyone has touted Philip Rivers as the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Though the Chargers are on a modest losing streak, he's seems to be rejuvenated in San Diego. What's been the biggest difference in his resurrection as an elite NFL quarterback?

Michael Lombardo: There are a few factors in Rivers' increased productivity. The new coaching staff deserves the lion's share of the credit. Head coach Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator/playcaller Ken Whisenhunt and QBs coach Frank Reich have designed an offense that allows Rivers to get to the line early, read the defense and then get the ball out of his hands quickly. The result is a high-efficiency short passing game that has Rivers leading the NFL with a completion percentage of 70.9.

Another factor is improved play by the offensive line, although injuries have halted that progress recently. First-round pick D.J. Fluker has been dominant from the get-go and second-year guard Johnnie Troutman (who missed his rookie season with a pectoral injury) has also been a find. Also, former RT Jeromey Clary has been rejuvenated by his move inside to guard and his silenced most of his critics.

NA: When Mike McCoy became San Diego's head coach, some around the league felt he wasn't quite ready to run his own team. Granted, the Chargers have a losing season to date, but how has he progressed in your eyes from hot-shot offensive coordinator to head coach?

ML: I prefer to analyze McCoy's performance in two categories: teacher and game-manager. As a teacher, he has exceeded every expectation. His team is competitive every week while deploying one of the league's youngest rosters. Several young players have made huge strides -- Troutman, Ladarius Green, Andrew Gachkar, Thomas Keiser, etc. -- and the team has established a tangible identity.

As a game-manager, he has been a massive disappointment. Conservative late-game play-calling cost the team a Week 3 game against the Tennessee Titans. More "soft" play-calling cost San Diego another win three weeks ago in Washington. And there have been other examples where McCoy played things too safe, which is a huge no-no when you a coaching an underdog.

RB Ryan Mathews
Donald Miralle/Getty
NA: One of the NFL's biggest mysteries has always been RB Ryan Mathews. At times he's been electric while other times he's been pedestrian at best. What is the one item that's kept him from becoming an elite running back in the NFL?

ML: It is hard to simplify his struggles into one issue, but if I had to, I would say that issue is consistency. There are certainly holes in Mathews game -- he struggles as a pass protector, he puts the ball on the ground too much and he lacks big-play ability. He also has a history of being derailed by nagging injuries, which have prevented him from hitting his full stride.

Another issue is a lack of commitment from the coaching staff, which is especially true now that the new regime has no ties to him. For example, after posting consecutive 100-yard games in Weeks 6 and 7, he got only seven attempts the following game. Additionally, the Chargers rely on change-of-pace back Danny Woodhead a lot -- not just in the passing game -- so Mathews does not have a chance to be a true workhorse back.

NA: When the Kansas City Chiefs made the decision to draft Eric Fisher with the first overall pick they had hoped he'd bolster their offensive line in short order. While he's progressing and getting better, the Chargers used their first-round pick on Alabama RT DJ Fluker. To date, their rookie seasons appear headed to the same conclusion. But I argue as of this writing, Fluker's start has been better than Fisher's. What's been his secret to his success thus far in a Chargers uniform?

ML: Fluker has many outstanding physical attributes: size (6 foot 5, 339 lbs.), power and underrated movement skills. But what has keyed his success is old-fashioned hustle. He finishes blocks with authority and gets out to the second and third levels, destroying players in space and sparking a lot of big plays. His enthusiasm in the huddle is contagious and he has lifted the play of the entire line.

The biggest surprise has been Fluker's ability to hold up at left tackle, where he has been pressed into action due to injuries to King Dunlap (head) and Mike Harris (ankle/injured-reserve). Fluker has shown impressive agility and technique while protecting Rivers' blindside. While Fluker is still better suited for the right side, his versatility certainly increases his value.

NA: With four of San Diego's last five games at home and the final AFC wildcard team likely going to an 8-8 or 7-9 team, do the Chargers have a legitimate shot at a postseason berth?

ML: In a word, no. The Chargers had a legitimate shot coming out of their bye at 4-3, but three straight losses have submarined those efforts. I believe the Chargers would have to go 5-1, at worst, to sneak into the tournament. And with two games remaining against the Chiefs, one road contest against the Broncos and a tough one versus the Bengals, it is tough to envision that happening.

It also does not help that the Chargers have lost to the Titans and Dolphins, two teams who are also in the mix for that final playoff position.

Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 16 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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