LaDainian Tomlinson served as the voice of the Chargers during the weeklong wildfire tragedy. Now, it is up to him to lift the spirits of downtrodden San Diegans by carrying his team to victory. Tomlinson re-entrenched himself as the best running back in football with his most recent performance, a 198-yard, two-touchdown masterpiece against the Oakland Raiders.
In addition to serving as the catalyst for the Chargers' two-game wining streak, Tomlinson is continuing his assault on the record books. He needs one score to break a tie with Jim Brown for fourth place on the all-time rushing touchdowns list. If he runs in four scores for a second consecutive week, he'll tie Walter Peyton for third place on the prestigious list.
Tomlinson will be hard pressed to rush for four scores against the Texans. For one thing, Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick will miss the game with a foot injury. His replacement, Cory Withrow, is a cagey eight-year veteran but lacks the strength and leverage that allow Hardwick to excel as the hub position.
Additionally, Tomlinson will be running against a talented defensive front. The Texans defensive line features first-round picks from each of the last three drafts: DT Travis Johnson (2005), DE Mario Williams (2006) and DT Amobi Okoye (2007). Twenty-year-old Okoye is the most impressive of the bunch and leads all AFC rookies with four sacks, leaving him one shy of setting a franchise rookie record.
The Texans defensive line will try to tie up the Chargers blockers and let reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year DeMeco Ryans flow to the ball. Ryans finished second in the league with 155 tackles as a rookie and is one pace for 137 this season.
Because of Ryans' presence in the middle, Tomlinson & Co. will attack the Texans around the edges. Outside linebackers Morlon Greenwood and Danny Clark are average at best and will be easy targets for road-grader Brandon Manumaleuna.
Philip Rivers' top priority is ball security. He has 10 turnovers this season (seven interceptions and three lost fumbles) after committing just 11 a season ago. He has developed a bad habit of forcing throws downfield instead of taking his check downs, which led to a pick-six by Thomas Howard in San Diego's last game.
This Sunday, Rivers will have an additional target opening things up downfield. Chris Chambers will make his Chargers debut against a team he has always fared well against. Chambers has scored three touchdowns in three career games against the Texans, including a 118-yard, two-touchdown beauty in the 2003 season opener.
Chambers faces a tough defensive matchup against Dunta Robinson, one of the top-five cover corners in the league. Robinson's 11 career interceptions are tied for first in franchise history. Robinson allowed the 46-yard completion to Roydell Williams that set up the Tennessee Titans' improbable comeback last week, so he will be playing with a chip on his shoulder.
Vincent Jackson has a 7-inch height advantage on DeMarcus Faggins on the other side, so he could still receive No. 1 receiver treatment. Malcom Floyd could also see some good looks as the No. 3 receiver, as Craig Davis is limited by an ankle injury and may be unable to go.
Antonio Gates should enjoy a monster day against the Texans as he continues his push towards a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. The Texans have undersized cornerbacks, slow-footed safeties and mediocre outside linebackers. Defensive coordinator Richard Smith will be forced to double-cover Gates and even that might not slow him.
Gates leads all tight ends with 43 catches, 547 yards and 17 receptions on third down. His only other meeting with the Texans came in 2003, when he caught eight balls for 123 yards. If he tops the century mark on Sunday, he will tie his career high for 100-yard games in a season (four). Also, a touchdown catch by Gates will move him into a tie with Wes Chandler for fourth on the team's all-time list (41).
Don't sleep on Ahman Green. The guy rushed for more than 1,000 yards in six of the last seven seasons and was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls (2002-05). In 2003, he was the league's second-leading rusher with 1,883 yards, 238 yards more than the third-leading rusher, Tomlinson.
Green has been limited in practice by a knee injury but will play on Sunday. Ron Dayne, a powerful north-and-south runner, is his top backup. Despite the talented backfield, the Texans have struggled to run the ball. Houston ranks No. 31 in the league and averages just 75.6 yards per game.
The Texans may get a break, depending on the availability of Jamal Williams. The anchor to the Chargers defense had his knees scoped over the bye week and is still iffy for Sunday's game. He has played through pain in the past and is determined to go against the Texans, but he will be limited to playing around 25 snaps if he goes.
Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky will play big roles on the edge. Green loves to bounce his runs outside, so the defensive end duo will have to win the line of scrimmage and funnel most of the running plays inside. Castillo and Olshansky have combined for 40 tackles this season.
If the defensive line can tie up blockers and force runs between the hashes, Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm will be right there to clean up. Cooper leads the team with 45 tackles, 15 more than the next closest defender. Wilhelm has been limited by a calf injury but averages five tackles per game when healthy, the second-best rate on the team.
David J. Phillip/AP
It remains unclear who the Texans will use to pass. Matt Schaub took first-string reps late in the week and it appears he will get the nod. However, he is battling an assortment of injuries, including a hip sprain that has left a noticeable hitch in his giddy-up. It is hard to imagine that spending three hours running from Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips is just what the doctor ordered.
If Schaub can't go, Sage Rosenfels will get the call. The career backup came in off the bench last week and tied an NFL record with four touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Additionally, his 249 yards in the final 15 minutes were the second-most in NFL history.
Whoever the quarterback is, Ted Cottrell is going to come after him. The defense recorded a season-best six sacks last time out and will try to top that feat against a team known for its inability to protect the quarterback.
Phillips and Merriman are tied for the team lead with 5.5 sacks apiece. Phillips has at least one sack in every home game this season and has picked up sacks in 13 of the last 20 games he's started. Merriman prefers to collect his in bunches and will be gunning for his third multi-sack game of the season.
The Chargers are catching the Texans at the right time as Andre Johnson, one of the two most talented receivers in the league, will miss Sunday's game with a knee sprain. He practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday and Thursday before sitting out Friday.
In Johnson's stead, Andre Davis takes over as the No.1 receiver. Davis leads the NFL is yards per catch (19.2) amongst receivers with at least a dozen receptions. Kevin Walter is the complementary, move-the-chains receiver. Of his 33 receptions, 64 percent of them have gone for first downs.
The Texans have a talented pair of pass-catching tight ends in Owen Daniels and Jeb Putzier. However, for a Chargers defense used to covering Gates in practice, this is nothing they can't handle.
The key for the secondary will be sure tackles and containment, as the Texans thrive off big plays. Antonio Cromartie will need a big week, one game after he recorded his first career interception. Starter Drayton Florence has been slowed by a knee injury; he will play but could be limited.
Another player seeking a big game is Marlon McCree, who spent two seasons with the Texans (2003-04). The Chargers had a tentative agreement in place with the Texans to swap McCree for Zeke Moreno prior to the 2004 season, but the Texans wanted to wait until the teams met in week two. The Chargers decided not to wait and the deal fell apart.
Nate Kaeding enters Sunday's game three points shy of 400 for his career. He has connected on 75 percent of his kicks this season, although one of his two misses was blocked. He has been doing solid work on kickoffs and is on pace to finish with 13 touchbacks this season, which would be a new career high.
Mike Scifres, on the other hand, is struggling. His net average (36.2) ranks No. 25 in the league and his seven punts placed inside the 20 have him ranked No. 22 in that category. Scifres is the highest paid punter in the league and will need to kick like it on Sunday.
The Chargers coverage teams will have their hands full. Jacoby Jones is an electrifying kick return specialist. He scored on punt returns of 80 and 91 yards in the preseason and has a long return of 74 yards in the regular season. However, the rookie third-round pick is battling a shoulder injury and lost a costly fumble while playing receiver last week. His role for Sunday's game has yet to be determined.
The Chargers have an explosive return man of their own in Darren Sproles, who is getting more and more comfortable as the season progresses. He has a 43-yard kickoff return and a 23-yard punt return to his credit. He has improved his return average in both areas since his impressive rookie season.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.