Playoff Dominos Fall into Place

With each passing week, with each win added to a streak that has reached eight, it does seem more improbable that the Chargers were once 2-3.

After their big triumph Sunday on the road against the Cowboys, that record is now 10-3, and the Chargers are poised to clinch their fourth consecutive AFC West title and possibly the AFC's No. 2 seed for the playoffs.

A win Sunday over the visiting Bengals would help the postseason dominos to fall into place. And that is impressive considering the place the Chargers were after five games, in which they were already 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Broncos -- a team that now trails the Chargers by two games with three to play.

"The great thing with the Chargers and this group that I've been with the last three years is it may appear from the outside that it's collapsing or it may appear that we're in a bad way, but the organization from the start, from the ownership to A.J. (Smith) are unbelievable in their support," once embattled head coach Norv Turner said. "Then the players, they really don't waver."

There was some chirping in the locker room when the team looked primed to go toes up before the season reached the halfway point. But the remarks from the disgruntled were easily trumped by those from the team leaders.

"When you have 60 guys, there may be a comment here or there that looks like we are (in trouble), but the core group of these guys is amazing," Turner said. "I think they've got great belief in what we're doing. If you can show them that we're not as far off as it may appear and they trust that and keep working on the things that you're doing, then you have a chance to go out and play well."

So well, in fact, that chatter is increasing that Turner will soon be given a contract extension; his current deal expires after the 2010 season. That seemed as unlikely as the Chargers climbing off the mat and making this a season to remember.

"Once we got through the injuries we had and we got through the stretch where obviously we were struggling, our guys have been outstanding," Turner said.

Coach Norv Turner
Stephen Dunn/Getty
That said, this season will ultimately be remembered for how the Chargers do in the playoffs. A quick exit there and yet another dramatic comeback will make for a good 2009 highlight film and little else.

The Chargers have been down this path before, where a solid regular-season ended in disappointment. But that they are even this close to a playoff berth is amazing, considering how shaky they looked in the season's early stages.

"The great thing about what this group has done is that they've done a great job of week to week just preparing for the team at hand and preparing for what we have to do," Turner said. "A couple weeks ago, one of the young guys said, 'I didn't even know what our record was. I was just getting ready to go play.' That's a nice approach to have."


--QB Philip Rivers threw his first interception in five weeks against the Cowboys, but the defense bailed him out, as the pick didn't lead to any points. Rivers was 21 of 32 for 272 yards and a score -- good numbers for most, but a shade off what Rivers has been producing.

--WR Vincent Jackson had been being overlooked lately, but he bounced back with a great game. He collected his fifth 100-yard game of the season and is primed to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for a season for the second straight year. He finished with a game-high 120 yards on seven catches, one good for 39 yards.

--WR Malcom Floyd had another big day as he helped spread the defense with his downfield work. Floyd had three catches for 40 yards and a long of 24. But just as important is he picked up 38 yards on pass interference.

--TE Antonio Gates was quiet early but finished with four catches for 44 yards. None was bigger than his 14-yard catch for a touchdown that helped gave the Chargers their margin of victory. Gates was being double-teamed most of the game.

--RB Darren Sproles had just seven carries for 22 yards and one catch for 3. The Chargers are hoping he can get more involved down the stretch; he did add 60 return yards. Still, he's has been strangely quiet of late.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson got a heavy workload with 21 rushes, but he could manage but 50 yards -- although he did have a touchdown. Part of the problem is the run-blocking; part of the problem is Tomlinson is 30 years old and the rims are showing on his worn tires.

--SS Kevin Ellison continues to show his play is no fluke. The rookie turned in another consistent performance with six tackles and a pass defensed. The Chargers secondary has gotten considerably better since Ellison was inserted for Clinton Hart.

--DB Steve Gregory has been part of the rotation at safety, but he is really making his mark as the nickel back. Gregory had six tackles, with one of them being for a loss.

--FS Paul Oliver had his best day as a pro with a team-high seven tackles, and he added a pass defensed. Oliver helped his stock rise with a solid performance while filling in for starter Eric Weddle.

--ILB Brandon Siler was in the thick of things when the Chargers turned the Cowboys away from their 1-yard-line on three straight rushes. Siler also had the team's lone sack. He continues to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the season thanks to his physical play. He had five tackles and a quarterback hit as well.

--FS Eric Weddle is expected to return to practice Wednesday after missing the past two games with a sprained knee. Weddle could have played Sunday, but the Chargers are being cautious, wanting him for a playoff run.

--OLB Shawne Merriman returned to action after missing a game and playing sporadically in the previous outing. Merriman is being bothered by a foot injury and isn't showing the burst that helped him to three Pro Bowls. He had only two tackles in the game.

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