There's a mantra in the NFL that says that you don't point fingers at your teammates. If the offense puts up 30 points, but the defense allows 35, you don't hear the quarterback throwing the defensive linemen under the bus in post-game interviews.
However, if there was ever a team that could make such an argument, it would be the San Diego Chargers. In a league that rates quarterbacks on a convoluted scale with a perfect score of 158.6, it ranks offenses and defenses strictly by the yardage gained or allowed. Under that system, San Diego was the best team in football – pulling off the rare double-whammy of being the top-rated offense and defense. Yet, the Chargers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs, primarily because of dismal play from its special teams.
The gaffes were pronounced and directly resulted in at least two losses last year. Of their nine wins, five of them were blowouts of 22 points or more. Of their seven losses, five of them were by eight points or fewer, including a pair of three-point losses. San Diego outscored its opponents 441-322 and outgained opponents by almost 125 yards a game (6,329-4,345). Teams that have displayed similar dominance have consistently won Super Bowls. The Chargers didn't even make the playoffs. Why? Their special teams allowed five blocked kicks (four punts and one field goal) and four kick returns for touchdowns (three on kickoffs, one on punts).
The Chargers pose problems to the Vikings on both sides of the ball. On offense, Philip Rivers may not have a prototype throwing motion, but he has become one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in the league. He completed two-thirds of his passes and threw for 4,710 yards and 30 touchdowns last year. Those are impressive numbers by any standard, but considering he did it without his primary receiver, Vincent Jackson, and a hobbled Antonio Gates, his numbers bordered on the absurd. Without Jackson for almost the entire season, 10 different Chargers caught 20 or more passes – the most of any team in the NFL in 2010.
Why so many different targets? Because Rivers is adept at reading defenses, finds the open receiver and delivers the ball on target.
"He is a phenomenal quarterback," linebacker Erin Henderson said of Rivers. "He can make any throw that is needed and puts it on target. He reads his progressions well, so you always have to be aware. If he gets time to pass, he can pick you apart, so we're going to have to put the pressure on him."
While the offensive stars of the Chargers are pretty well known to NFL fans (Rivers, Gates, Jackson and running backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert), their defensive players are largely anonymous in terms of individual stars, but, as a unit, are as good as any in the league.
The Chargers run a 3-4 defense that is predicated on getting production up front, and they have a formidable front line unit. Luis Castillo and rookie Corey Liuget are both able to collapse the pocket on passing downs and funnel runs inside, where RBs find the waiting arms of mammoth nose tackle Antonio Garay. An active 6-4, 320-pounder, Garay can split double-teams and rarely gets moved off the line following the snap.
The Chargers have talent at all three levels of the defense, including OLB Shaun Phillips, who led the team with 11 sacks last year, veteran CB Quentin Jammer and new acquisition Bob Sanders, who, when healthy, has been one of the most dominant playmaking safeties in the league during his time with Indianapolis.
In many ways, the 2011 Chargers have the look of the New England Patriots teams of earlier this decade. The team outshines the sum of its parts and the Chargers have role players that know what their job is – great or small – and effectively fill those roles. They may not have a star-studded roster like the Vikings have had over the last few seasons, but they are a team capable of winning it all this year.
The best thing the Vikings may have going for them is the historic slow starts the Chargers have got off to in recent years. No top team has been as notorious a slow starter as San Diego. Last year, they lost four of their first six games. In 2009 and 2008, they started 2-3. In 2007, they started 1-3. In the first three of the last four years, they were able to right the ship by midseason and roared into the playoffs each year. Last year, they weren't able to overcome the early deficit to get into the playoffs. If the Chargers ever get off to a strong start, they could get on the kind of roll that Super Bowl champions of years past credit for their championship seasons.
If the Vikings are going to beat San Diego, they are going to have to play a near-perfect game – offensively, defensively and on special teams. They likely won't be able to count on Adrian Peterson setting an NFL rushing record again, but are expected to give the Chargers a steady diet of A.P. The Vikings are nine-point underdogs for a reason – not because the Vikings are that bad, but because the Chargers are that good.
Vikings fans remember what happened following a season-opening loss to New Orleans on the road in 2010. A season with Super Bowl aspirations quickly spiraled downward. The team can't afford to dig themselves a similar hole this year and they have an opportunity if they get ahead early, put the pressure on and continue the trend of San Diego's September swoons.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Chargers simply good all-around
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