NFL Preview - San Diego (3-4) vs. New Orleans (3-4)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - American football makes its way across the Atlantic Ocean
for the second consecutive year this Sunday, with the San Diego Chargers and
New Orleans Saints set to spar at London's Wembley Stadium in the NFL's latest
international showcase game.
This contest is part of a league initiative to expand the NFL's appeal
worldwide by holding a series of games in foreign venues over a five-year
period. Wembley Stadium also played host to a regular-season matchup between
the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins last October, and the Buffalo Bills and
Pittsburgh Steelers competed in a preseason tilt at the Rogers Centre in
Toronto, Canada this past October.
The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers also squared off in a regular-
season showdown at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca in 2005, with the game drawing
a league-record crowd of 103,467.
Last year's battle between the Giants and Dolphins was a smashing success from
both a financial and publicity standpoint, as over 81,000 fans flocked to
London's most famous sporting facility to witness the historic event. The game
itself turned out to be less memorable, with New York winning a 13-10 snoozer
in soggy conditions caused by a steady rainstorm.
This game figures to be higher-scoring, with the Saints bringing the NFL's
No. 1 offense in terms of total yards and passing yards overseas and the
Chargers having put up 28 points or more in four of their seven games this
What it won't have, however, is one of the most marketable players among these
two participants, as New Orleans' Reggie Bush did not make the trip after
tearing the meniscus in his left knee during his team's 30-7 loss at Carolina
last weekend. The gifted running back underwent surgery on Monday and is
expected to be sidelined for up to a month.
Bush's absence puts the onus even more on quarterback Drew Brees, an ex-
Charger who enters this weekend's play having thrown for a league-best 2,224
yards in just seven games. The standout signal-caller spent his first five
professional seasons with San Diego and will be facing his former team for the
first time since the Chargers allowed him to walk via free agency following
the conclusion of the 2005 season.
Revenge will likely be well in the back of Brees' mind on Sunday, with the
Saints in dire need of a win to remain within striking distance in a well-
stocked NFC South. Last week's lopsided loss to the division-rival Panthers
dropped New Orleans two games back of Carolina and Tampa Bay in the standings
with a 3-4 overall record.
Like New Orleans, the two-time defending AFC West champion Chargers head to
London with a disappointing 3-4 mark and have been wrought by inconsistency.
After seemingly getting back on track with an impressive 30-10 home win over
New England in Week 6, the Bolts followed up with a sloppy performance in
Buffalo last Sunday that resulted in a 23-14 defeat.
Quarterback Philip Rivers completed 22-of-29 passes for 208 yards and a pair
of touchdowns for San Diego, but Brees' hand-picked successor also committed
three critical turnovers (2 fumbles, 1 interception) that the Bills turned
into 10 points.
San Diego holds a 7-2 lead in its all-time series against New Orleans,
including a 43-17 home rout when the teams last met, in 2004. The Saints won
the previous meeting, taking a 28-27 decision at Qualcomm Stadium in 2000.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner is 1-1 in his career against the Saints, with
the win coming while he was head coach of the Redskins (1994-2000) and the
defeat stemming from his time with the Raiders (2004-05). The Saints' Sean
Payton will be meeting both Turner and San Diego for the first time as a head
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
For years, the San Diego offense was centered around the dynamic talents of
running back LaDainian Tomlinson (446 rushing yards, 4 TD, 21 receptions), but
a lingering turf toe injury has made the 2006 NFL MVP far less of an impact
player ,and the Chargers have become a more pass-oriented team as a result.
Tomlinson has put up just 150 rushing yards over the last three weeks and
failed to reach the end zone in each of those contests, and he's averaging a
mediocre 3.6 yards per carry for the season. With its offensive star hobbling,
San Diego ranks only 26th in the NFL in rushing offense (94.7 ypg).
Tomlinson's dip in production has been offset by the sharp play of Rivers
(1697 passing yards, 5 INT), who has delivered a league-best 16 touchdown
throws thus far and also currently tops all quarterbacks with a splendid 108.5
passer rating. The former first-round pick has a number of quality targets at
his disposal for an offense that is averaging nearly 233 yards per game
through the air (9th overall). Fourth-year pro Vincent Jackson (26 receptions,
478 yards, 3 TD) is enjoying a breakthrough season as the team's No. 1
receiver, while fellow wideout Chris Chambers (11 receptions) hauled in five
touchdown passes in five games before missing the last two weeks with a high
ankle sprain. Although the Chargers are hopeful he'll be able to go on Sunday,
Malcolm Floyd (7 receptions, 2 TD) has shown to be a capable fill-in by
averaging 70 receiving yards and scoring twice in Chambers' place. Antonio
Gates (24 receptions, 4 TD) isn't putting up quite the numbers that had earned
him four straight Pro Bowl nods due to some nagging health issues, but the
talented tight end has still been a valued contributor to the passing game.
Rivers will have a chance to bomb away at a New Orleans secondary that has
been vulnerable to the big play, as the Saints have allowed 24 gains of 20 or
more yards via the air this year. Injuries have played a role in the team's
21st overall ranking in pass defense (222.4 ypg), as promising rookie
cornerback Tracy Porter underwent season-ending wrist surgery earlier this
month and veteran cover man Mike McKenzie (19 tackles, 1 INT) is just 10
months removed from a torn ACL. The defense does have proven pass rushers up
front, as ends Charles Grant (32 tackles, 3 sacks), Will Smith (20 tackles, 2
sacks) and Bobby McCray (9 tackles, 3 sacks) have all posted double-digit sack
seasons during the course of their careers. The trio failed to generate much
pressure on Carolina's Jake Delhomme a week ago, however, which was a
contributing factor in the Panthers' easy win.
Grant is also one of the Saints' better run-stoppers and will be called upon
along with middle linebacker and tackling machine Jonathan Vilma (63 tackles)
to help keep Tomlinson under wraps on Sunday. New Orleans has had its moments
against top running backs, including having held Minnesota star Adrian
Peterson to a mere 32 yards on 21 carries back in Week 5, but the defense
surrendered 143 rushing yards to the more physical Panthers in last Sunday's
loss. Rookie tackle Sedrick Ellis (9 tackles, 1 sack) appears set to return
from knee surgery that forced him out of the last three games, and the first-
round draftee's re-addition should help a unit that stands 16th in the league
versus the run (109.0 ypg).
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
New Orleans lives and dies by the pass, as evidenced by the way the offense
was rendered virtually obsolete when Carolina effectively harassed Brees (2224
passing yards, 12 TD, 7 INT) into a rare off day last week. The two-time Pro
Bowler entered the contest having completed a startling 71 percent of his
throws in 2008, but hit on only 21-of-39 attempts and failed to produce a
touchdown pass for the first time all season. However, games like that have
been few and far between for Brees, who directs a dangerous offense that is
putting up a gaudy 310.9 yards per game through the air. Bush (42 receptions,
3 TD) was a big reason for those prolific totals, and the Saints will have a
hard time replacing the six catches and more than 50 yards the former Heisman
Trophy winner averages out of the backfield. There's still plenty of strong
options available, though, as Marques Colston (3 receptions) is a proven
matchup problem for opposing cornerbacks, fellow wide receiver Devery
Henderson (15 receptions, 2 TD) is averaging a whopping 31 yards per catch,
and tight end Jeremy Shockey (21 receptions) has been to four Pro Bowls. The
ex-Giant had five receptions for 50 yards against Carolina after returning
from a sports hernia procedure, but complained of soreness afterwards and is a
question mark for Sunday. Colston also played for the first time last week
since missing five straight games with a torn ligament in his thumb, although
he failed to record a catch.
New Orleans' prolific aerial attack will be going up against a San Diego
defense that has permitted an NFL-worst 254.6 passing yards per game and was
successfully solved by the Bills' Trent Edwards a week ago, with the sophomore
quarterback completing 25-of-30 throws for 261 yards. The Chargers did not
sack Edwards at all in the game and have had trouble at times getting a
consistent pass rush from any player other than outside linebacker Shaun
Phillips (35 tackles, 3.5 sacks). The expected return of Phillips'
counterpart, Jyles Tucker (14 tackles, 3 sacks), from a hamstring strain that
has sidelined him since Week 5 should help in that area. San Diego does
possess plenty of skill on the corners, as veteran Quentin Jammer (37 tackles,
1 INT) ranks among the league leaders with 11 passes defensed and ballhawk
Antonio Cromartie (33 tackles, 2 INT, 7 PD) is coming off a 10-interception
season in 2007.
Bush's (294 rushing yards, 2 TD) absence shouldn't hurt as much in the running
game, as the Saints also have four-time 1,000-yard rusher Deuce McAllister
(208 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions). The oft-injured eighth-year pro has
performed well in a sporadic role this year, and an increased workload might
upgrade a New Orleans offense that is averaging a meager 91.4 rushing yards
per game (27th overall). So might the return of regular left guard Jamar
Nesbit from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's steroid policy,
although it's likely the Saints will be minus center Jonathan Goodwin on
Sunday after he sprained his knee in the Carolina game. McAllister will
probably share time with sophomore Pierre Thomas (96 rushing yards, 7
receptions), a smaller and quicker back who figures to be used more like Bush
was in the game plan.
San Diego has been ordinary against the run so far this year, having allowed
111.7 yards per game on the ground (18th overall) as well as 4.2 yards per
rush. The most active members of the defense have been inside linebacker
Stephen Cooper (29 tackles, 1 sack), and second-year free safety Eric Weddle
(59 tackles, 1 INT). Cooper led the Chargers with 11 tackles against Buffalo
last week, while Weddle is the club's overwhelming leader in stops for the
With Brees and Rivers each getting to take on defenses that have given up
passing yards in bunches throughout the season, there's obvious potential for
big games out of two of the better fantasy quarterbacks this week. Start both
with confidence. Jackson and Gates look like excellent plays as well on the
San Diego side, though New Orleans' enviable depth at the wide receiver
position makes players like Colston, Henderson and slot man Lance Moore more
risky alternatives. Shockey's health status is a concern, but the brash tight
end is certainly worth using as long as he's active. Tomlinson's injury woes
may be frustrating for those who made the Chargers' star their top choice in
preseason drafts, but it's foolish to even think of keeping the perennial Pro
Bowler out of lineups. McAllister gets a significant upgrade with Bush on the
shelf, while Thomas wouldn't make a bad flex play as well. Since neither
team's defense should even be owned at this point, it wouldn't be wise to use
either unit this week.
Assuming the weather cooperates this time around, Londoners should be treated
to an entertaining game featuring two evenly-matched teams that possess plenty
of firepower. Brees and Rivers, players that have been linked to one another
ever since the Chargers brought the latter in as a rookie in 2004, should find
plenty of success provided they've adapted to the time change, and it would be
no surprise if the last quarterback to have the ball in his possession winds
up as the victorious one. While the Saints will be forced to alter the game
plan with Bush on the shelf, a more balanced approach on offense could
actually wind up being to the team's benefit. We've all been waiting for weeks
for the Chargers to become the dominating outfit we all predicted they'd be
prior to the season, but San Diego isn't 3-4 purely by accident. It's hard to
keep New Orleans' offense down for two straight weeks, and it remains to be
seen if the Chargers have the personnel to do so.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Chargers 23
10/23 16:30:27 ET
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