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NFL Preview - San Diego (11-3) at Tennessee (7-7)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Tennessee Titans will head into their Christmas night spectacular at LP Field hoping against hope that the visiting San Diego Chargers are in a giving mood.
Unfortunately for Jeff Fisher's squad, the Chargers have not been in the mood for charitable works of late, whether of the holiday variety or otherwise.
San Diego travels to Nashville having won nine in a row since a 2-3 start, the second-longest current winning streak in the NFL behind only that of the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts. Norv Turner's club wrapped up its fourth consecutive AFC West title, and fifth in the last six years, with last week's thrilling 27-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, a game won on a 52-yard field goal by kicker Nate Kaeding in the closing seconds.
The victory continued a streak of incredible December success for the Chargers, a run they will be hoping to maintain in their final contest of the month on Friday night. San Diego is a stunning 17-0 in December with Philip Rivers at quarterback, and hasn't lost in the calendar's 12th month since falling to the Broncos at home on Dec. 31, 2005.
A win on Friday would continue that streak, and would also hand the Bolts the No. 2 seed and the all-important first-round playoff bye it would bring. San Diego currently owns a two-game lead over New England (9-5) for the second slot in the AFC.
The Titans, meanwhile, have resigned themselves to playing for the wild card, but given where the team has come from, their status as a thriving member of the playoff race is amazing indeed.
Tennessee is 7-1 since starting the season at 0-6, pulling to .500 by outlasting the Miami Dolphins, 27-24 in overtime, last Sunday. The Titans allowed a 24-6 lead to slip away in the contest, but a key interception by safety Michael Griffin in the extra session helped set up kicker Rob Bironas for a game-winning 46-yard field goal.
Quarterback Vince Young, who has opened all seven Tennessee wins this season, was 14-of-27 for 236 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in the triumph, following a week in which he was limited in practice due to a hamstring problem.
Young, who had a 103.3 passer rating in the win, has posted a number of 90.0 or better in six of his eight starts this year.
The Chargers have a 22-13-1 lead in the all-time regular season series against the Titans, including wins in the last five head-to-head matchups. San Diego was a 23-17 road overtime winner when the teams met in Week 14 of the 2007 regular season, rebounding from a 17-3 fourth-quarter deficit to earn the triumph. The Titans/Oilers last defeated San Diego in 1992, when they blanked the Chargers by a 27-0 count in Houston.
Tennessee has a 3-1 advantage in the all-time postseason series with San Diego, though the Chargers won the only such matchup of recent vintage, a 17-6 triumph in a 2007 AFC First-Round Playoff. The then-Houston Oilers defeated the Chargers for the AFL Championship in 1960 and 1961, and also won an AFL Divisional Playoff in San Diego in 1979.
Turner is 2-4 in his career against the Titans, going 0-2 while with Washington (1994-2000) and 0-2 while with Oakland (2004-05). Tennessee's Fisher is 0-5 in his career against San Diego, but is 4-2 head-to-head with Turner.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivers (3891 passing yards, 25 TD, 9 INT) has been outstanding all season, carrying a team that has largely struggled in rushing the football by airing it out most effectively. The former first-rounder was 24-of-38 for 308 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions against a good Bengals defense last week, marking the third time in the last four games he's gone over 300. Tight end Antonio Gates (75 receptions, 6 TD) and wideout Vincent Jackson (63 receptions, 9 TD) have been Rivers' top targets by a wide stretch. Gates continued what is certain to be another Pro Bowl season by catching four balls for 33 yards and a touchdown last week, while Jackson built on his career year with five grabs for 108 yards and a pair of scores. Malcom Floyd (33 receptions, 1 TD) has been a third receiving option. The rushing attack, led by LaDainian Tomlinson (670 rushing yards, 10 TD, 16 receptions) and Darren Sproles (287 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 4 TD), has largely been a disappointment this year, ranking a distant 30th in the league in rushing offense (86.2 yards per game) behind an offensive line that has missed injured center Nick Hardwick. Tomlinson had over 100 combined rushing-receiving yards last week but hasn't hit triple-digits since last October and is almost certain to see his string of 100-yard seasons end at eight. The San Diego o-line has surrendered 24 sacks of Rivers on the year.
Given their general struggles to rush the passer this year, the Titans' ability to score a win over the Chargers on Christmas night will largely depend on the ability of the Tennessee secondary to cover Gates, Jackson, and the other San Diego targets. The Titans have been solid in the defensive backfield since a harrowing first six weeks, as cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (53 tackles, 5 INT) and Nick Harper (77 tackles, 1 INT) have been strong playmakers, with safeties Michael Griffin (66 tackles, 1 INT) and Vincent Fuller (32 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) working well in support. Harper, Griffin, and safety Chris Hope (68 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) all had INTs of the Dolphins' Chad Henne last week. End Jacob Ford (19 tackles, 4.5 sacks) had the team's only sack of Henne last week, and is now just behind tackle Tony Brown (37 tackles, 5 sacks) for the team lead in that category. Meanwhile, a run-stopping group that ranks a solid ninth in the league against the rush (100.4 yards per game) could have its hands full this week, as linebackers Keith Bulluck (knee) and David Thornton (pectoral/shoulder) were both ruled out for the year due to injuries earlier this week. Middle backer Stephen Tulloch (102 tackles, 2 sacks) will now lead the charge to slow Tomlinson, and rookie LB Gerald McRath (33 tackles) should play a central role now as well.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Though Young (1619 passing yards, 10 TD, 4 INT, 243 rushing yards) has received a number of plaudits, and deservedly so, for his work as Tennessee's starting quarterback, it is running back Chris Johnson (1730 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 13 TD) who the Chargers defense will be paying the greatest deal of attention to on Friday. Johnson has reeled off nine consecutive 100- yard games, five off of Barry Sanders' NFL record, and must average 135 yards per game over his final two contests to break the 2,000-yard barrier for the year. Johnson was "held" to 104 yards on 29 carries last week, his lowest showing since mid-October, but is still averaging a healthy 5.7 yards per carry. For his part, Young will be attempting to wash away some of the residue of his only playoff start, a 17-6 loss to the Chargers following the 2007 season in which he threw for just 138 yards with an interception. Young's three-touchdown effort last week included a pair of TD strikes to wideout Justin Gage (24 receptions, 3 TD), his second and third touchdowns of the season, and one to leading Titans TD-catcher Nate Washington (37 receptions, 6 TD). Elsewhere among the receiving corps, rookie Kenny Britt (40 receptions, 3 TD) leads the club in receiving yards (674), and tight end Bo Scaife (43 receptions, 1 TD) is just one behind Johnson for the team lead in receptions. A top-notch Titans o-line has allowed just 14 sacks all year.
Johnson will be going up against a San Diego run-stopping group that ranks just 20th in the league (116.9 yards per game) and has been inconsistent in the near-season-long absence of nose tackle Jamal Williams. End Luis Castillo (22 tackles, 2 sacks) has been the team's most effective player in the trenches, but inside linebackers Brandon Siler (62 tackles, 2 sacks) and Stephen Cooper (96 tackles) have not made a ton of big plays behind him. San Diego comes off a week in which it surrendered 88 yards on 19 combined carries for Bengals running backs Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson. Meanwhile, the Chargers allowed Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer to have a rare 300-yard passing day, sacking the less-than-mobile signal-caller only twice. Outside linebackers Shaun Phillips (56 tackles, 7 sacks) and Shawne Merriman (33 tackles, 4 sacks) have been the top pass rushers for a club that ranks just outside the NFL top 10 in sacks with 33 on the year. On the back end, cornerbacks Antoine Cason (31 tackles, 2 INT) and Quentin Jammer (54 tackles, 3 INT) will be among those looking to corral the Titans' wideouts, with safeties Eric Weddle (78 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Steve Gregory (59 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) important figures against Tennessee's group of tight ends.
Rivers, who appears headed to his first Pro Bowl, has been outstanding from a fantasy perspective all year and is in line for another big game. The same goes for Jackson and Gates, his two favorite targets, who come off a week in which they combined for three touchdown catches. Tomlinson is not the fantasy cinch that he was in his heyday, but he did combine for over 100 yards last week and scored touchdowns in five straight games before that, so he remains a great flex option. Kaeding, who is tied for the league lead in made field goals, is an automatic fantasy choice, but the San Diego defense probably won't greatly enhance your total this week.
Johnson has been a fantasy stud all season, and several championship games around fantasy nation will hinge on his showing here. Young has been great of late but it's hard to count on him for fantasy production given the team's preference for running the football. Gage is probably going to warrant consideration after his two-touchdown day last week, but it's important to remember that his two TDs were his only two catches all day. Other Titans worth considering include Bironas, but the Tennessee defense should probably take a seat here against a solid Chargers attack.
The way the Chargers have played over the past two-plus-months, and the way they've played in December historically, makes picking against them here difficult. What's more, a team that many feel has real Super Bowl title potential will be led by a quarterback, Rivers, who will be playing roughly 100 miles from his native Athens, AL. That figures to bring out the best in the QB, but it's also difficult to ignore the signs pointing to a Tennessee victory here. First, the Chargers will be traveling a long distance on a short week, a circumstance that never benefits the visitor. Next, the Titans are simply more in need of this win than is San Diego, which is likely to hold down the No. 2 spot in the AFC no matter what happens on Christmas night. Finally, it's impossible to ignore that Tennessee has also been outstanding over the past two months, and Young and Johnson should provide enough big plays for the Titans attack for the team to score a crucial victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 23, Chargers 17
12/23 15:02:02 ET
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