Matthew Postins: Break down QB Philip Rivers' stats in the first 55 minutes of his last two games versus the final five minutes of those games. Why has he been so ineffective early and so effective late?
Michael Lombardo: Two weeks ago against the Oakland Raiders, Rivers had it easy during the final five minutes as the Chargers sat on a 34-7 lead. Rivers didn't throw a pass in the final five minutes of that game and finished 10-of-22 for 214 yards and three touchdowns.
The contrast you are alluding to was clearer in last week's game against the Kansas City Chiefs. During the first 55 minutes, Rivers was 21-of-31 (67.7 percent) for 202 yards and one interception. In the final five minutes, he went 13-of-17 (76.5 percent) for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Of course, the Chargers were forced to pass during that stretch as they rallied from an 11-point deficit.
Rivers is known for finishing better than he starts. His fourth-quarter passer rating (106.3) is nearly 20 points better than his first-quarter rating (87.2). Some of that is because he comes out of the gates too excited and calms down as the game goes on. However, the Chargers need Rivers on the mark from the get-go on Sunday if they are to deliver a legitimate upset bid.
MP: It is obvious LaDainian Tomlinson isn't his dominant self this season. How much of it is him, his supporting cast and opposing defenses?
RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Nonetheless, the most glaring difference is Tomlinson not playing up to his previous superstar plateau. Part of that was due to the toe injury he played through during the first half of the season, but even now he looks significantly less explosive. He is also getting a reputation as a soft player, often diving down or stepping out of bounds to avoid contact.
MP: Tell me about Vincent Jackson. It seems this young, swift wide receiver is coming into his own. Is he the future?
ML: Yes, Jackson is absolutely the future for the Chargers. Look for San Diego to lock up both Jackson and Rivers with long-term deals as early as this offseason -- they are both scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the 2009 season -- and allow them to grow as a tandem over the next five years.
Jackson has supplanted Antonio Gates as the team's No. 1 receiver and is 60 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season. He is a big-play receiver, as evidenced by his 18.8-yard average, and is a huge target in the red zone (6-foot-5, 230 pounds). He runs his routes with incredible smoothness and drops his hips like a player half his size. His combination of size, speed and physicality is nearly unparalleled. He has all the skills to become the next Terrell Owens, except not a selfish jackass.
MP: Why has the Chargers' pass defense been so awful this year? Did the injury to LB Shawne Merriman make that much of a difference?
LB Shaun Phillips
In the secondary, Antonio Cromartie has regressed substantially since his breakout season in 2007. Part of that is due to a lingering hip injury he's played with all season, but the bigger culprit is his lack of focus and execution. Clinton Hart is another player who has fallen off the map; after intercepting five passes last season, he's yet to pick off one in 2008. Finally, I don't think people appreciate how much the Chargers miss CB Drayton Florence. Although Florence was inconsistent, he brought a swagger and a knack for timely plays that have yet to be replaced.
MP: How realistic are the Chargers' playoff hopes? What has to happen the next two weeks? Is this an elimination game for them?
ML: This is an elimination game for the Chargers. In order for San Diego to make the playoffs, three things must happen: 1) the Chargers must beat the Buccaneers; 2) the Buffalo Bills must upset the Denver Broncos in Denver; and 3) the Chargers must beat the Broncos in San Diego in the season finale. If any of those three conditions is not met, the Broncos win the AFC West and the Chargers are staying home for the playoffs.
Let's look at this from a statistical standpoint. Let's say the Chargers have a 35 percent chance of beating the Bucs and the Bills have a 35 percent chance of beating the Broncos. Then let's assume that if the Chargers-Broncos game in Week 17 is for the division title, the Chargers have a 65 percent chance of winning, since they'd be at home with all the momentum. That means the Chargers have about an 8 percent chance of making the playoffs. I don't know if you'd call that realistic or not, but it's not out of the realm of possibilities.
MP: Speaking of underachieving, is Norv Turner's job on the line?
ML: Turner is likely safe this offseason. General Manager A.J. Smith and President Dean Spanos have already come forward and assured that Turner will be back in 2009. That actually makes sense, despite the fact the Bolts have underperformed more so than any team outside of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Chargers are built to contend through the 2009 season, after which several core players become free agents, so it doesn't make sense to make any major changes before then.
However, Turner still has reason to sweat this offseason. It's arguable that no coach has done less with more than Turner, and several marquee coaches could become available. I know for a fact that A.J. Smith likes former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and that the organization is also fascinated by USC coach Pete Carroll. The Chargers could make a change if either of those two expresses interest in coming to San Diego, but the most likely scenario remains another year under Coach Turner.
Click here to read Part I, where Postins talks about the health of Jeff Garcia, the readiness of Cadillac Williams and the vulnerability of Tampa's run defense.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.