Five to Watch: Chargers Clash with Titans

The Chargers are leaping a lot of hurdles this holiday season: playing on Christmas, fielding a beat-up team vs. a physical opponent, etc. But a win in Tennessee and the assurance of a first-round bye would make it all worthwhile. Here is a look at the five players who must spearhead the effort.

1. QB Philip Rivers -- Tennessee's game plan is no secret. The Titans want to pound the ball, control the clock and keep the Chargers' offense off the field. It will be up to Rivers to run an efficient offense, complete a high percentage of his passes and prevent time-of-possession from getting out of control. Rivers seems up to the task. He's completed at least 60 percent of his passes in 10 straight games while topping 70 percent in four of the last six.

If San Diego isn't able to control the ball on offense, Chris Johnson and the Titans will wear down the Chargers' banged-up defensive front seven and run away with the game -- literally.

2. TE Antonio Gates -- Perhaps Gates' Christmas present came early when the Titans placed linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton on injured-reserve earlier this week. Tennessee has essentially been stripped of any veteran presence at linebacker and -- with its safeties worried about the Chargers attacking the deep -- is now woefully ill-equipped to slow one of the NFL's elite tight ends.

Gates is enjoying arguably the finest season of his seven-year career. He is 30 yards away from matching his career-high of 1,101, which was set back in 2005. Also, if he catches 15 passes during the final two games, he will reach the 90-catch plateau for the first time in his career.

DE Luis Castillo
Kevin Terrell/Getty
3. DE Luis Castillo -- With the Titans committed to the ground game, it is vital the Chargers force some negative plays and put Vince Young in obvious passing situations. Castillo must lead the charge by getting penetration while still keeping Young in the pocket. It will also help if he can get to Johnson in the backfield before he builds up a head of steam. Castillo has just two tackles for loss this season, a number he may need to match on Friday for the Chargers to be successful.

4. LB Stephen Cooper -- The Chargers have not faced on offense like Tennessee's yet this season, and as the quarterback of the defense, it's up to Cooper to make sure each defender knows his responsibility on every snap. Because all it will take is one blown assignment for Johnson to turn a second-and-10 into an 80-yard touchdown.

Cooper will also spend time spying Young, a difficult task for any defender. Young averages better than 5 yards per rushing attempt and moves the chains on more than one-third of his carries. Cooper must find a way to stymie both of those numbers if the Chargers defense is going to get off the field.

5. SS Kevin Ellison -- The rookie from USC will be the proverbial sixth man in the box against the Titans' vaunted running attack. Ellison has 48 tackles this season, which amazingly is only the ninth-best total on the team. Most of his action comes near the line of scrimmage, though, as he prefers to play downhill and attack running lanes.

Ellison also recorded his first career sack last week against the Cincinnati Bengals and will be a part of Ron Rivera's blitz package again this week.

Which players are you excited to see in action? Discuss in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the 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. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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