Chargers Carry Hot Streak into Icy Cleveland

The Chargers have been building up Sunday's game with the Browns as if they had a tough opponent. No, really.

The Chargers are among the NFL's hottest teams, in the AFC West penthouse and winners of six straight.

The Browns are among the NFL's sorriest teams, in the AFC North basement.

But listen closely to the Chargers, and it sounds as if the 1967 Packers are up next.

"The thing that when I look at the score -- I got to see a little of the (Sunday) game on TV -- when you look at the score and it's 16-7 against a real good Cincinnati team, that gets your attention," coach Norv Turner said of the 1-10 Browns. "I know they can run the ball extremely well or have run the ball well. They've played awfully good defense when they're playing at their best. Obviously on the road, handling the elements, all those things will come into it."

But as a certain pre-game show says in one of its segments: "Come on, man."

That said, the NFL is loaded with trap doors and false footing. Ask the Steelers, who lost to the Chiefs. Ask the Eagles, who lost to the Raiders. Ask the Bengals, who fell to the Raiders. Ask ... you get the idea.

"I've never used the word 'trap game' because I really don't know what it means," Turner said, and he did so without his nose growing like Pinocchio.

"A week where you're traveling on Friday always concerns me. I think we've traveled a lot better this year than we have in the past. We're playing better on the road than we have in the past.

"To me the strength of our football team, and it's what you want as a coach, is how you practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I think that's the best thing we've done. Even early when we were struggling I talked about it in here and sometimes I don't think you believe me, but I thought we were getting better each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We've had the best Friday practices we've ever had over the last six games. That's what we need to do this week. Then the things you're talking about won't be issues."

Quarterback Philip Rivers, who has been carving up secondaries much more talented than the Browns, is also toeing the company line.

"We got a tough road trip; this one is a tough one in Cleveland and we haven't been in any weather this year and have to manage that," he said. "We are playing a Cleveland team -- and I'm not trying to make up anything. But you look at the record and you think one thing and you watch them play and this team the last few weeks has really played better and they can give you some problems."

Anyone buying that? The Chargers should win by at least two touchdowns, unless they lose interest. And when you're up only one game on the team chasing you in the AFC West, that really isn't an option.

"We are going to go in there and have to play efficient to get a win," Rivers said.

Turner said his film study has him concerned -- no, really.

"I looked at a lot of Cleveland's cut ups and different things they did this offseason so I've seen more of (Josh) Cribbs than I would like to," Turner said. "He is an elusive, explosive player and he can change a game."

We'll agree there, but that's one man out of 53.

Look for the Chargers to roll Sunday, unless they are looking ahead to the following week's road trip to Dallas.

More than likely, they will have more than enough giddy-up to thump the Browns.

"They usually have a loud crowd and we have to go in there and play our best," LaDainian Tomlinson said.

SERIES HISTORY: 22nd regular-season meeting. Browns lead series 13-7-1. The Chargers have won three in a row, including two straight in Ohio. The Chargers have a warm feeling from their 2004 visit to Cleveland, despite the wind-chill registering at minus-10 for kickoffs. It was on that December day when then-coordinator Wade Phillips' unit registered a shutout in a 21-0 win that clinched the Chargers' first of four AFC West titles this decade.

NOTES, QUOTES


QB Philip Rivers
Donald Miralle/Getty
--QB Philip Rivers said the Chargers are hot at the right time.

"That is when you want to be at your best," he said. "Rather than start fast and fizzle out late. You want to be peaking in December, and I think the teams that make the playoff runs usually are playing their best ball in December. And now that we got on a roll in November and got here, hopefully we got the right mind-set throughout December."

--The Chargers who were there when the team clinched the AFC West back in 2004 will never forget. "I remember us clinching the division at that time and the big celebration in the locker room," LaDainian Tomlinson said.

--A win Sunday clinches the Chargers' fifth winning season in the past six years.

--Tomlinson's old buddy and teammate, Drew Brees, continues to play at a high level for the Saints.

"He is playing out of his mind and it's no surprise,'' he said. "The way he prepares and how hard he works it is no surprise he is having an unbelievable season. He puts in the time, man, and I tell you, nobody wants to win more than he does."

--TE Antonio Gates is coming off his best game of the season as he continues to play at a high level.

"I think it's a combination of things," Gates said, when asked for a reason. "For one, the other skill position players around me created opportunities for myself. Teams at this point have to decide what they are going to give up and what they will do to stop the San Diego Chargers or not. There is no one guy individually that runs this offense and that is what makes it unique."

--The Chargers have plenty of stars, but Turner said to not overlook the role players. In particular, ILB Brandon Siler, DBs Steve Gregory and Paul Oliver have been playing well.

"We're getting such great team contributions," Turner said. "You see Antonio Gates go do what he does, you expect that. But I think the strength of our team right now is we're getting great contributions from a lot of different areas."

Siler led the team in tackles last week in his third NFL start.

"Brandon Siler has brought great focus and energy to our defense," Turner said.

--Chargers assistant Rod Chudzinski is a native of Toledo, Ohio, and was the Browns' tight ends coach and interim offensive coordinator in 2004, and their outright O.C. from 2007-08.

--Special teams coach Steve Crosby coached running backs in Cleveland in 1985 and from 1991-94; he coached quarterbacks in 1995, and was the Browns' offensive coordinator from '94-95.

--Offensive line coach Mike Sullivan was the Browns' assistant OL coach from 2001-04 and '07-08.

--Chargers director of pro scouting Dennis Abraham played football and graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.

--TE Antonio Gates played basketball at Kent State.

--Browns running backs coach Gary Brown was a Chargers running back in 1997.

--Browns assistant director of college and pro personnel Jim Jauch was a college scout for the Chargers from 1992-03.

BY THE NUMBERS: 14 -- Number of consecutive wins in December by the Chargers.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it's great. The worst part about it is you get home a lot later than you normally would, but playing at 4:00 I think does help the traveling team." -- Coach Norv Turner on Sunday's kickoff being at 4:05 p.m. local time, 1:05 p.m. Pacific, when the Chargers usually play their home games.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Some new faces could see the field on Sunday.

The team is eager to get T Jon Runyan some work and he could get a sniff at right tackle.

The defensive line and outside linebacker positions could also be in flux. Defensive end Luis Castillo could be out, and two more linemen, Travis Johnson and Ogemdi Nwagbuo, are also ailing. Marques Harris could be in the mix on passing downs at outside linebacker and Alfonso Boone could have extended time at end if Castillo is down.

PLAYER NOTES

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson could pass two players Sunday as he climbs the NFL's all-time rushing chart. He needs 22 yards to catch Marshall Faulk at No. 9 and 55 yards to draw equal with the great Jim Brown.

--QB Philip Rivers has been stellar during the team's six-game winning streak. Rivers has completed 69.9 percent of his passes over that run, throwing 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

--T Jon Runyan, who was signed last week but wasn't active for the game, could suit up Sunday. He won't start, but he could get his feet wet.

--OLB Marques Harris was brought back, after getting cut in the offseason; he was picked up by the 49ers and cut after four games. Harris, who played four years for the Chargers, has a decent burst off the edge and he could come in handy if Shawne Merriman isn't able to go.

--OLB Shaun Phillips leads the team with six sacks. All six sacks have come during the six-game winning streak.

GAME PLAN: The Chargers have to stay interested. Look, it's clear they have a much superior team and they could beat the Browns in any number of ways. Look for them to start off running the ball, as there will be less chances of turning the ball over, which may be the only way the Browns stay in this game. If the running game fails -- and that's unlikely with the Browns missing Pro Bowl NT Shaun Rogers -- they will turn to Philip Rivers and the passing attack.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Chargers run defense vs. Browns RB Josh Cribbs.

The Chargers have been stouter in the middle but are still capable of giving up big plays; they allowed 114 rushing yards in the win over the Chiefs. Brandon Siler has done well at inside linebacker, but the key is the interior linemen -- Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Travis Johnson and Ian Scott -- getting off their blocks. DE Luis Castillo could be down this week, so it is imperative the role players do a bit more. Cribbs sometimes lines up in the Wildcat and can score from anywhere on the field with his shifty moves. Jamal Lewis remains the top rusher, but he's out Sunday, which could make the Chargers more concerned about Cribbs.

Chargers kick and punt coverage units vs. Browns KR Cribbs.

There's that name again. If the Browns are going to somehow be competitive, they must do it through their special teams, and Cribbs is one of the best in the business. The Chargers' kick return teams have been spotty this year, ranked 27th in allowing 23 yards per game, which includes a long of 91 for a touchdown. The punt coverage teams have been better - 17th at 11.3 yards per return -- but it has also been hit for a long of 71 for a score. Cribbs is averaging 26 yards per kick return and 13.2 yards on punt returns, each with a touchdown return.

Chargers running game vs. Browns running defense.

The Chargers have been leaning on the run more with so-so success -- it had 94 yards last week and two rushing scores. LaDainian Tomlinson is as healthy as he has been all year, which means he gets a large workload Sunday. But the Chargers could also decide to be careful with him to keep him fresh for stiffer opponents. Look for Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester to possibly get more carries than usual. Ahtyba Rubin fills in for Rogers, and that is a huge drop off. The Chargers' blockers need to keep an eye on ILB David Bowens, and the team's leading tackler, S Abram Elam. But Elam will have to worry about the deep stuff over the top, so that might keep him out of the box.

INJURY IMPACT: OLB Shawne Merriman (foot) did not work Wednesday and could be out Sunday. If he does go, it won't be for long. DE Luis Castillo (calf) didn't work and could be out Sunday. DL Travis Johnson (groin) didn't work but he should go Sunday. DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo (ankle) didn't practice and he could be a game-time decision on Sunday. RB Jacob Hester (knee) was a limited participant; he remains questionable for Sunday. ILB Kevin Burnett (concussion) was a full participant and will play Sunday. P Mike Scifres (groin) worked the practice and is fine. S Eric Weddle (knee) won't play for at least two weeks.


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