Chargers offensive matchup to watch: Antonio Gates vs. Darren Sharper
Gates is the Chargers' MVP. He makes Philip Rivers' job easier and opens up room for LaDainian Tomlinson to operate. He leads all tight ends in receptions (46) and yards (639); he is second in touchdowns (five) and first-down percentage among players with at least 15 receptions (71.7 percent); and his 90.9 percent completion rate on third-and-long is the second best in the NFL, regardless of position. His smooth routes and amazing agility allow him to play the position better than anyone else in the history of the NFL.
Sharper cannot stop Gates, but he can bait Rivers into making some bad throws. Sharper is a turnover machine with 51 career interceptions. He knows what to do once the ball is in his hands, as he has more career yards on interception returns than Gates accumulated all last season. Sharper will cede plenty of yards to Gates -- the key for the cagey 11-year veteran is to keep his wits and capitalize on any opportunities that come his way. If he gets even a single pick while covering Gates, consider it a win for the defense.
Chargers defensive matchup to watch: Jamal Williams vs. Matt Birk
Williams returns to the lineup after missing last week's game due to the lingering effects of cleanup surgery during the bye week. His importance to the defense cannot be overstated. The Chargers entered week eight allowing less than 85 rushing yards per game. With Williams out of the lineup, the Bolts allowed 115 yards to a Houston Texans rushing attack that ranks 30th in the league and was without leading rusher Ahman Green.
Williams, who has started the last two Pro Bowls for the AFC, is back this week and charged with commanding double-teams and breaking into the backfield to disrupt the many handoffs coming Adrian Peterson's way. Birk has as good a chance as any center at slowing Williams. Birk is a four-time Pro Bowler with terrific size (6 foot 4, 309 lbs.) and a sky-high football IQ. If the Vikings decide to double Williams with three-time All Pro guard Steve Hutchinson, that may be more than even Williams can overcome.
Vikings offensive matchup to watch: Bryant McKinnie and Ryan Cook vs. Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips
The Vikings have had issues with their offensive line since the current coaching staff took over. For a time, the offensive line struggled with the zone blocking schemes, but there have also been questions about the right side of the offensive line for the past two years. While Ryan Cook has started every game this year, his play has been up and down and people still question whether he is a legitimate tackle. Now he's got a sprained shoulder to compound the issue. Next to him is guard Anthony Herrera, who will be making just his third start since the end of the 2005 season.
On the other side of the offensive line is Bryant McKinnie, who has the talent to become a Pro Bowl tackle but hasn't had the consistency. The key to the game for the Vikings offense will be how well McKinnie and Cook are able to diagnose blitzes from the Chargers' leading sackmeisters – outside lienbackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, who are tied for the team lead with 5 ½ each. If the offensive line is able to read well and effectively hand off rushers on stunts and blitzes, the offense will have a chance to exploit the weaker part of San Diego's defense – the pass defense. If not, "Lights Outs" Merriman could knock a couple more Vikings quarterbacks from the game.
Vikings defensive matchup to watch: Chad Greenway vs. Tomlinson
In his first year as a starter, Greenway says he isn't concerned about making the big plays, he just wants to make the plays he is supposed to make. Last week, the elusive Brian Westbrook put a move on Greenway that left the linebacker weak in the knees and Westbrook gaining more yardage.
This week, per usual, the Vikings' defensive tackles should help limit the inside running game for the Chargers. But that will leave it up to players like Greenway and former Charger Ben Leber to help contain Tomlinson on the edge. It will certainly be a team effort to try to limit Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates, but the Chargers could look to exploit Greenway's limited starting experience.
The Chargers will win if… Rivers protects the football. The Chargers are undefeated when they win the turnover battle and that stat will stay in tact beyond this weekend. It is no secret that Rivers will air it out against a Vikings defense that ranks dead last against the pass, allowing 288.3 yards per game. Rivers will wing it to Gates, Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson – each of whom is far more talented than the man who will cover him, assuming Antoine Winfield sits or is hindered by his hamstring injury.
The Chargers will win going away if Rivers avoids careless turnovers. However, if the Vikings generate takeaways they can give their offense a short field and facilitate some easy scores. Additionally, mistakes by Rivers will only pump up what is sure to be a raucous crowd at the Metrodome.
The Chargers will lose if… they fail to slow Peterson. There is no question that Peterson will make his share of plays and rip off some healthy runs. The key is to make those bursts the exception, not the rule. The Chargers need to stop Peterson on early downs so that Merriman & Co. can go to work on third-and-long.
The Chargers will blitz more than usual against the Vikings. The objective is to fluster the inexperienced Jackson and to force Peterson to stay in to block. The dangerous part of attacking like this is that, if Peterson gets by the first wave of defenders, the second line of defense will be hard-pressed to stop him. The Chargers need sure tackles and ceaseless hustle to slow the league's leading rusher.
The Vikings will win if… they could ever find a consistent passing game. Between issues with protection, inaccurate passes, a carousel of quarterbacks and a few dropped passes, it hasn't been a good accounting put up by the passing offense. No doubt, the Chargers seventh-ranked rush defense will concentrate on stopping Adrian Peterson on the ground. That should leave some opportunities for the quarterback and receivers in the passing game. If they have the time and accuracy to get to the passing game going, that is their best chance to beat the Chargers. They will need to stick with the rushing game, but they will almost surely be forced to find some third-down success in the passing game.
The Vikings will lose if… Rivers is efficient. While the Vikings defense will focus on stopping Tomlinson, they likely will need to force turnovers in the passing game and be disruptive in the secondary and in the passing lanes. With Chris Chambers on the outside, Antonio Gates in the middle and Tomlinson coming out of the backfield, there are myriad ways in which the Chargers could cripple the Vikings via the passing game. It could be Rivers' decision-making that could produce double-digit explosive gains for the Chargers.
Lombardo's Prediction: Chargers 28, Vikings 13
Yotter's Prediction: Chargers 23, Vikings 13
Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers, Part III
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