Chargers-Lions Gameday Primer

The Chargers look to tie up the AFC West title and eliminate the Detroit Lions from the postseason picture when the teams collide on Sunday. The Chargers are riding a three-game winning streak, but will be without some key players who made that possible. Do the Chargers have enough to clinch another division crown?

WHEN THE CHARGERS RUN

LaDainian Tomlinson loves December football. He averages more than 107 yards rushing in 30 career games during the calendar's final month. He got things started right last week with a 26-carry, 146-yard masterpiece against the Tennessee Titans.

Tomlinson is at his best when the stakes are highest. He has played in two games where the AFC West title was up for grabs -- in ‘04 against the Cleveland Browns and ‘06 against the Denver Broncos -– and combined for 214 yards rushing and five touchdowns in those games.

LT will have a new escort clearing holes for him, as FB Andrew Pinnock makes his first career start in place of Lorenzo Neal (fibula). Neal's snapped bone snaps his streak of consecutive games played at 221.

Pinnock is not as punishing a blocker as Neal, but he is far more dangerous with the ball in his hands. He may see some short-yardage carries and throws out in the flat -- plays that netted poor results with Neal toting the rock.

The Lions rank No. 16 against the run, giving up 104.4 yards per game. Their best run stuffer, DT Shaun Rogers, is struggling through a knee injury and poor conditioning. Norv Turner will run at Rogers early and often, hoping to wear the big man down and render him ineffective late in the game.

Behind Rogers is OLB Ernie Sims, the NFL's second-leading tackler with more than nine tackles per game. Brandon Manumaleuna will look to seal him off and prevent him from chasing down stretch plays. Look for the Chargers to run to the right more than usual, as right guard Mike Goff (foot) will struggle to pull left with much success.


QB Philip Rivers
Donald Miralle/Getty

WHEN THE CHARGERS PASS

Two key cogs in San Diego's passing attack, QB Philip Rivers (knee) and TE Antonio Gates (back), are questionable for Sunday's game. Both practiced on a limited basis on Friday, giving optimism that they will be ready for Sunday.

Rivers is still seeking his first 300-yard game at Qualcomm Stadium. His chances look good against a Lions team that ranks No. 31 against the pass.

The key for Rivers will be protecting the football. The Lions don't boast a big-time interception threat –- no Lions player has more than three picks –- but they league the league in fumbles forced (37) and recovered (17). Rivers has lost five fumbles this year to go along with 15 interceptions.

If Gates is healthy, he will be in for a big day. The Lions' linebackers are slow in coverage, which allowed Jason Witten to catch 15 balls against them last week. If Gates tops 100 yards, it will match his career-high for 100-yard games in a season (four). If he catches a touchdown, it will give him 10 on the season, which would make him to first tight end in NFL history with three seasons of 10-plus touchdowns.

The Chargers are getting solid play from their wide receivers. Chris Chambers hit the 90-yard mark for the second time as a Charger last week; Vincent Jackson leads the receivers in yards per catch (16.2) and touchdowns (3); and Craig Davis is building confidence out of the slot. Davis will play this week after injuring his Achilles tendon on Thursday –- he could replace Darren Sproles on punt returns.

The skill players are counting on solid protection from the offensive line. Marcus McNeill gave up a career-high three sacks last week and is determined to rebound against Detroit. The Lions defense ranks No. 9 in the league with 32 sacks, although DeWayne White paces the team with a modest 6.5.


NT Brandon McKinney
Otto Greule Jr./Getty

WHEN THE LIONS RUN

The Lions run the ball less than any other team in the NFL, with only 266 attempts on the season. However, offensive coordinator Mike Martz showed a renewed commitment to the run last week when Kevin Jones matched his season-high in carries (23) and T.J. Duckett received his most carries since 2005 (nine).

Jones is a threat when given the opportunity. He has 20 or more carries in three games this season, and averaged 97 rushing yards in those contests. He averages 3.9 yards per carry.

Jones will face a San Diego front-seven that could be without its best player, as NT Jamal Williams will be a game-time decision with an ankle injury. Williams was unable to finish the last two games because of the injury, so second-year man Brandon McKinney will log plenty of snaps regardless. If Williams is out, the Chargers are left with only four healthy defensive linemen –- DE Luis Castillo is still a week away with an ankle injury of his own.

The Chargers will continue to funnel running backs to their young inside linebackers. Stephen Cooper leads the team with 87 tackles. However, Matt Wilhelm leads the team in tackles per game (seven). Wilhelm will see some time at outside linebacker if any of the three healthy players at that spot go down.

The matchup on the right side of the Chargers' defense will be a classic, as Igor Olshansky faces off with LG Edwin Mulitalo and LT Jeff Backus. Olshansky has 16 tackles and 1.5 sacks over the last three games.


CB Antonio Cromartie
Donald Miralle/Getty

WHEN THE LIONS PASS

Jon Kitna will get his yards. He has thrown for 200 or more yards in 26 of his last 29 starts, the most in the league during that span. He ranks sixth in the league in passing yards (3,405).

The Lions have some potent weapons in Shaun McDonald (800 yards receiving), Calvin Johnson (14.9 yards per catch) and Mike Furrey (one year removed from a 98-catch season). One weapon they won't have, though, is former first-round pick Roy Williams, who is out with a knee injury.

The Chargers could be hurting for a pass rush, with Shawne Merriman sidelined by a sprained knee. Marques Harris will start in his place, although rookie Jyles Tucker will see the most extended playing time of his rookie season. Harris has 1.5 sacks on the season, while Tucker has half a sack.

The Lions have allow the most sacks in the league this season (52), allowing a sack every 9.1 attempts. That could mean a big day for Shaun Phillips, who is matched up against converted right tackle Damien Woody. Woody spent his entire nine-year career as an interior lineman before switching to tackle a couple of weeks ago.

The Chargers' second will look to add to Kitna's season total of 12 interceptions. Leading the way is Antonio Cromartie, who paces the entire league with nine interceptions. Cromartie has three games this season with multiple interceptions and is one pick shy of setting a new team record.

San Diego's pass defense has been stout at home this season. The Chargers have allowed only seven passing touchdowns at Qualcomm Stadium, the sixth-fewest by a team at home.


WR Kassim Osgood
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty

JUST FOR KICKS

Kassim Osgood makes a strong case for another Pro Bowl invite, strengthened by the two punts he downed inside the 2-yard line in last week's win. Osgood is tied for the team lead with 14 tackles on special teams.

Osgood's excellence gives Mike Scifres' a shot to join him in Hawaii. Scifres is the NFL's third-leading punter in terms of net average (39.6). Five times this season, opponents have had either zero or negative punt returns yards against the Chargers.

Nate Kaeding has connected on 83 percent of his field goals this season and looks to begin his career with four consecutive years with a conversion rate of 80 percent or higher. He has improved on kickoffs, too, allowing a career-best 20.4 yards per return.

The Lions and Chargers share a commonality in that their longest tenured player is on special teams. For San Diego, that is LS David Binn (220 games). For Detroit, it is PK Jason Hanson, who holds the franchise record for seasons played (16). Hanson has connected on 80 percent of his kicks this season.

Lions' punter Nick Harris is a placement specialist much like Scifres. Since 2004, he has landed 103 punts inside the 20-yard line, the third-most in the league during that span.

Although Sproles is healthy, Harris will probably punt to Craig Davis, who averaged more than 14 yards on three returns last week. Norv Turner could use Michael Turner on kickoff returns and deactivate Sproles, which would allow the Chargers to activate another defender to spell Marques Harris on special teams.

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.


SD Super Chargers Top Stories