San Diego Chargers (3-3) at Carolina Panthers (1-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Gus Johnson, Brent Jones
SERIES: 3rd meeting. The Panthers are the only NFL team the Chargers have never defeated. They lost to them 30-22 in 2000, the year the Chargers went 1-15. In that game, the Chargers outgained the Panthers 358-169, and 100-11 on the ground and still lost. The only bright spot from that trip was that team president Dean Spanos addressed the club and confirmed that coach Mike Riley would return in 2001. After going 5-11 that year, he was fired.
2004 RANKINGS: Chargers: offense 16th (10th rush, 20th pass); defense 23rd (2nd rush, 30th pass). Panthers: offense 18th (24th rush, 16th pass); defense 10th (30th rush, 5th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: How many carries can RB Stephen Davis handle? His knee is still bothering him and with DeShaun Foster out, FB Brad Hoover is expected to be the main ballcarrier when Davis is out. If Carolina doesn't run the ball better, it has little chance of protecting QB Jake Delhomme better than it has recently. The Chargers don't have great pass rushers, but they do have a 3-4 defensive front that will tax the blocking assignments of the Panthers' struggling offensive line. The Chargers don't expect newly-acquired WR Keenan McCardell to play much of a role Sunday, leaving QB Drew Brees with few options downfield. This might be the game San Diego needs a breakout game from RB LaDainian Tomlinson going against a Panthers defense allowing 143.4 yards per game on the ground.
FAST FACTS: Chargers: Brees has a 121.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter and a 110.1 rating on third down. ... Are 3-7 in their past 10 road games. Panthers: Won both previous meetings. ... Have not allowed a 300-yard passer in 21 consecutive games. ... Delhomme has had three passes returned for touchdowns this season.
-- It looks as if DE Jacques Cesaire will start again instead of Adrian Dingle.
--RB Jesse Chatman (toe) practiced and is fine for Sunday.
--WR/PR Tim Dwight (toe) didn't practice again. But he'll go on Sunday.
--LB Steve Foley (hip flexor) returned to practice and is ready for Sunday.
--C Nick Hardwick (knee) took his full turn and will start for the first time in three weeks.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (groin) practiced, which is the first time he's done that on Thursday in three weeks.
--LB Mark Fields said he will play this week after missing the last two games and almost all of a third. Fields will bring more speed to the defense.
--RB Stephen Davis did not practice again Thursday and remains questionable of this week's game. It appears Davis may sit this one out.
--RB Joey Harris should get some carries this week if Stephen Davis isn't able to suit up.
--FB Brad Hoover could see the bulk of the carries for Carolina this week if Stephen Davis can't play.
--DE Al Wallace was added to the injury report with a back problem but should play this week.
--OT Matt Willig has a virus and did not practice on Thursday. He should play on Sunday.
--DT Omari Jordan was upgraded to probable with an ankle injury. If he's activated that likely means Jordan Carstens will not be.
--LB Vinny Ciurciu, a backup, was upgraded to probable for this week and should play. He plays mostly on special teams.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Marty Schottenheimer is playing his cards -- as usual -- close to his vest.
The Chargers' coach won't commit on his starting right cornerback for Sunday's game with the Panthers. His choices are Sammy Davis, Jamar Fletcher or Drayton Florence.
"That's probably going to be a game-time decision," he said.
Davis was the starter this year and last season. But he has been getting burnt on a regular basis, and has lost his confidence.
Fletcher had a sensational interception two weeks ago. But he was also beat for the game-winning touchdown on Sunday in Atlanta.
Florence has had two interceptions in as many weeks. But his consistency has been a problem.
The three players are rotating in practice, so it's difficult to get a read from there. The thinking, though, is that he will probably go with Fletcher. If nothing else, Schottenheimer would deliver a message to Davis, a former first-round pick, needs to pick up his game.
Panthers outside linebacker Mark Fields, who has missed the last 11 quarters with a bulging disc in his back, said he expects to play Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
Fields has been upgraded from questionable to probable for Sunday's game, according to coach John Fox.
In his first interview in three weeks, Fields admitted he rushed back too early for the Denver game two weeks ago.
Fields might have been able to play against Philadelphia, but the coaches wanted to make sure he was completely healthy and held him out.
"The coaches were like, 'You know what Mark, if you play and re-injure it, it could mean surgery,'" Fields said. "And that would have been eight to 10 weeks. So I think they took the right approach, the smart approach. We are gradually easing back into it."
Fields said his back felt great after getting two epidural shots - the same thing given to pregnant women in labor - and attempted to practice the following day in preparation for the Broncos.
In hindsight he said that was a mistake.
"I screwed up the first time," Fields said. "I was feeling good and, of course, I missed all of last year, so you try not to miss any more time. So coach slowed me down and that was a good thing.
"But it's tough. Your team is losing and you're not out there and you can help them. It's tough."
Fields put an end to any rumors that his injury might be in anyway related to the Hodgkin's Disease that sidelined him last season.
"No. No. No. It has nothing to do with that at all. I can see (people asking) that, but no, it has nothing to do with that. This is a football injury," he said.
In other news, running back Stephen Davis was held out of practice again Thursday with a sore knee, putting his availability for this week's game in serious jeopardy.
Right now it appears Brad Hoover would be the odds-on favorite to get the start at tailback if Davis can't go. Also, look for rookie back Joey Harris to get some carries for the Panthers.
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