San Diego fans may view their team like a child does a shiny new bike. A new head coach and quarterback represent firm and steady steering. A slick chain is personified in the NFL's second-leading rushing attack (160.0 yards per game), and treaded tires are the defense, devouring offenses like pavement to allow an AFC-low 16.3 points per game.
The Oakland Raiders (4-1), also winning with a new head coach, are bold and treat teams cold. Their cannon fire is touchdowns (NFL-best 35.0 points per game) which pound holes into opposing defenses. Oakland's quicksand defense – third in the NFL in rush yards per game (79.2) – sinks running attacks, and throwing over it is only partly successful.
San Diego's offense is built upon two 23-year-olds: running back LA DAINIAN TOMLINSON and quarterback DREW BREES. Tomlinson is the NFL's second-leading rusher (632 yards) while Brees has won five of his first six NFL starts. Brees had his first 300-yard game last week in a 35-34 comeback victory over Kansas City with 21 fourth-quarter points.
"If you do your job and get LaDainian beyond the first level of the defense, he can go all the way," says Chargers tackle VAUGHN PARKER, a nine-year veteran and elder statesman of San Diego's offense. "Secondly, he doesn't go down with arm tackles. The play doesn't necessarily have to be totally clean for him to make a play."
Meanwhile, the strong-chinned warrior pictured on the Raiders' helmets ought to ditch his eye patch – the Oakland offense deserves an unobstructed view.
Earlier this season, Oakland quarterback RICH GANNON, 36, who played for San Diego head coach MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER for four seasons (1995-98) in Kansas City, became the sixth passer in NFL history to throw for at least 350 yards in three consecutive games. His primary targets, JERRY RICE (40), CHARLIE GARNER (30) and TIM BROWN (36), have 31, 25 and 24 receptions, respectively, on the season. Rice leads the NFL's highest-scoring offense in receptions and receiving yardage (473). Garner tops the NFL in yards per touch among running backs (9.2), and Brown has caught at least three passes in every game this season.
"We put an incredible amount of responsibility on Rich," says Raiders head coach BILL CALLAHAN of his quarterback. "He accepts responsibility for all the switches – all the audibles, checks, the whole package.
"With what (wide receiver) JERRY PORTER has accomplished (19 catches for 280 yards and three touchdowns), it gives us another dimension. It takes the pressure off Jerry and Tim. And, of course, Charlie gives you that dimension of a receiver out of the backfield. You have more weapons, more downfield weapons."
Schottenheimer, in his first year at the Chargers' helm, is a sterling 19-5 all-time against Oakland. Tied with Pro Football Hall of Fame coach BUD GRANT for ninth all-time with 158 career wins, he believes the San Diego defense may be his best-ever unit.
"Our front seven is probably as good as any that I've had," says Schottenheimer. "The thing that is most pleasing to me about the secondary is that we really have true professionals back there. Cornerbacks ALEX MOLDEN and RYAN MC NEIL have done an outstanding job this year. They set a great example for the young players."
San Diego leads the AFC in sacks (19) and points allowed per game (16.3). Chargers defensive linemen RAYLEE JOHNSON (4.0 sacks), ADRIAN DINGLE (3.0) and MARCELLUS WILEY (3.0) place heat on opposing quarterbacks.
Oakland counters with a pair of veteran run-stuffing defensive tackles in SAM ADAMS and former Charger JOHN PARRELLA. The center of Oakland's highly-touted run defense welcomes the challenge of a back like Tomlinson.
"We're just two guys who love playing the run and we go into every game approaching it that way," says Adams. "It's a work ethic that we embrace."