Coming Up Short

Despite their recent loss to the heavily-favored Colts, the Chargers remain arguably the most consistent team in the National Football League. While this statement may seem blasphemous following a game in which they blew a 15 point fourth quarter lead, it can easily be confirmed by a quick review of the Chargers' letdown games from this season.

The Chargers have played only three teams who currently have 10 or more wins, the Jets, the Falcons and the Colts. They are 0-3 against these teams. The Chargers have played only three others games against teams that have winning records as of now. Two of those games were against the division-rival Broncos, and the other was a home game against the Jaguars. The Chargers are an impressive 2-1 in those games. More impressive, however, is the Chargers 9-0 mark against teams with losing records.

This quick synopsis reveals a lot about the true identity of the Chargers. They are consistently good enough to beat lower-quality opponents, and even good enough to hang with some of the league's better teams. However, when it comes to battling the league's elite, the Chargers just do not have enough talent.

There is an old football adage that says winning is the cure for whatever ails a team. With the Chargers though, their problems have not been cured through winning, only masked.

One example is at free safety, where Jerry Wilson simply does not possess the burst to make an explosive break on the ball. When the Chargers' cornerbacks rely on safety help over the top in zone coverage, Wilson is usually there in time to make the tackle, but not fast enough to make a play on the ball.

The Chargers' secondary is left suspect without a ball-hawking free safety, because that puts more pressure on youngsters Quentin Jammer, Terrence Kiel, Drayton Florence and Sammy Davis. It has been Wilson's knowledge and leadership that have kept him on the field, but with younger and faster players such as Clinton Hart and Hanik Milligan behind him, those qualities may not keep him there much longer.

Another example is on the Chargers' much heralded offensive line. While many have raved about the solid play of Shane Olivea, the rookie right tackle the Chargers stole in the seventh round of this year's draft, he was exposed Sunday by Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney.

After Freeney was handled well by left tackle Roman Oben for most of the game, Freeney switched over to the left defensive end position to take on Olivea, where he immediately blew past the rookie to record a sack that knocked the Chargers out of field goal range. This in essence took three points off of the board for the Chargers that may have been the difference between victory and defeat.

While Olivea is a diligent worker and a natural leader, his footwork needs improvement and he is undersized for the right tackle position. While he is still young and developing, the Chargers have fellow youngsters Courtney Van Buren, Leander Jordan and Carlos Joseph under contract for next season. So while Olivea is still learning the position, he had better hope his curve is a steep one.

Wilson and Olivea are not the only culprits who deserve blame after Sunday's game. Quentin Jammer was called for yet another pass interference penalty, and Drayton Florence was beaten on a fourth down play which he could have easily defended had he read the receivers eyes and looked back for the ball in time.

Also, despite the big game by Eric Parker, the Chargers trio of Parker, Kassim Osgood and Bobby Shaw just simply do not have the speed and discipline of the Colts trio of thousand-yard receivers. Even when Keenan McCardell returns from his hamstring injury, the Chargers' receiving corps does not have enough play-makers to compare with more explosive units like those of the Colts and Steelers. So while the Chargers overtime loss was demoralizing to some, fans should be more impressed with the fact that the Chargers handled the Colts as well as they did.

The Chargers play hard every week, and should be respected for that. So while their shortcomings in the talent department may be exposed by the league's elite come playoff time, the heart that the showed in overcoming those deficiencies all season long will be on display as well. That may not be enough to get the team deep into the playoffs, but as a fan, it is all I can ask for.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@sportsnet.com

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