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NFL Preview - San Diego (3-5) at Houston (4-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The San Diego Chargers will be a bit lighter in weight when they head to the Lone Star State this weekend for a showdown with the Houston Texans from Reliant Stadium.
The Chargers cut ties with former All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman this week after a myriad of injuries limited his ability to play. Merriman missed all of 2008 with a knee ailment and was limited last year because of foot and groin issues. The problems became a burden for one of the NFL's stingiest defenses this season, so now the Buffalo Bills will take a chance with Merriman after claiming him off waivers on Wednesday.
San Diego obviously didn't want any part of Merriman and feels comfortable with the linebackers it already has. Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett leads the team in tackles and is second in sacks, while outside rusher Shaun Phillips has a team-best seven sacks through eight games for the 3-5 Chargers, who were able to halt a three-game losing streak with last Sunday's 33-25 victory over the Tennessee Titans. The win kept San Diego still within striking distance in the AFC West and head coach Norv Turner in good spirits.
"I honestly thought [Tennessee] was the best team we've played to this point. They're the most complete team," Turner said after the Chargers erased a 12- point deficit and improved to 3-1 at home. "It makes this win that much more special to me. I loved the resiliency of our football team. This team has great character. They believe in what we're doing."
Turner gave an inspirational speech at halftime, resulting in 13 straight points for San Diego in the second half.
Quarterback Philip Rivers has been lighting up the opposition this season and finished with 305 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception. He leads the NFL with 2,649 passing yards and has thrown for more yards through the first eight games than any quarterback in NFL history, breaking former Charger Dan Fouts' record. What's also impressive is that Rivers was able to slice through Tennessee's secondary without wide receivers Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis. All three were injured and in street clothes on Sunday.
It didn't matter, because Rivers still has tight end Antonio Gates and was able to record his fifth 300-yard passing game this season.
Rivers will be anxious to get this game going with the Texans, since Houston is last in the NFL in pass defense, allowing almost 300 yards per game (299.4).
Houston is also fighting to stay alive in the playoff hunt and fell to 4-3 following Monday night's 30-17 loss to the AFC South-rival Indianapolis Colts.
The Texans' offense was dreadful, committing a pair of turnovers, converting just 3-of-11 third-down chances and possessing the ball less than 24 minutes. That's the same group that has scored at least 30 points in all four of Houston's wins this season.
Houston trailed 17-3 at halftime and got a subpar performance from quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw for only 201 yards with a touchdown and an interception and was sacked three times. Protecting Schaub has been an issue for head coach Gary Kubiak, as the Texans have permitted 19 sacks already in 2010 after allowing 25 the entire 2009 campaign.
"Last year, we protected the quarterback pretty darn well," Kubiak said. "This year, we've protected in spurts. We've got too many sacks. We need to cut those down. The best way to cut them down is how you run the football and how you control the line of scrimmage."
Converting just three third downs, including going 0-for-6 in those situations during the first 30 minutes, will not help any running game at any level of football. Texans back Arian Foster, who posted a team-record 231 yards in a 34-24 Houston victory over the Colts in Week 1, was able to break the century mark again on Monday with 102 yards and a score on 15 touches. He also helped Schaub in the passing game with a game-high nine catches for 65 yards, but it still wasn't enough to keep Houston from falling to third place in the division standings behind Indianapolis (5-2) and Tennessee (5-3).
Houston's talented wide receiver Andre Johnson had his usual 100-yard game, finishing with 106 yards and a touchdown on seven catches against the Colts. However, the Texans' top offensive weapon left in the fourth quarter with pain in his sprained right ankle.
Kubiak said Johnson just tweaked it a bit and that the trainers will keep an eye on it for the remainder of the season.
San Diego has won all three head-to-head meetings with Houston, the most recent being a 35-10 victory at Qualcomm Stadium in 2007. The Chargers also dealt the Texans a 27-20 loss in their lone lifetime visit to Reliant Stadium, which took place in 2004, and registered a 24-3 home win in 2002.
Turner is 1-1 in his career against the Texans, with that loss coming when he was the helm of the Oakland Raiders in 2004. Kubiak is 0-1 against both Turner and the Chargers as a head man.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
With a 3-5 record, it's still hard to imagine that San Diego has one of the best offenses and defenses in the game. The Chargers are first in passing and total yards and 15th in rushing, but running the ball hasn't been a priority this season now that LaDainian Tomlinson is gone and both Mike Tolbert and Ryan Matthews are sharing the carries. Rivers (2,649 passing yards, 15 TD, 7 INT) has been the star of the show with his passing prowess and is on the verge of breaking some old records if he keeps it up. He hopes to bring San Diego its sixth consecutive win in November and is aiming for his 22nd straight game with a touchdown pass, the longest active streak in the league. Rivers could on track to throw for another 300-yard game, since Houston is rated dead last in pass defense with an allowance of 299.4 yards per game. Rivers won't have Davis (21 receptions, 1 TD) to throw to after he was placed on injured reserve with a groin problem. He'll still have his top target in Gates (40 receptions, 663 yards), who leads the team in catches and receiving yards and tops the NFL with nine touchdown catches this season. The All-Pro has a scoring grab in 11 of his last 12 games. Bothered by a toe problem the past few weeks, Gates still has three 100-yard games this season and collected his 41st career touchdown strike from Rivers last week, tying Fouts' and Kellen Winslow's team record for scoring connections between a quarterback and a tight end.
In order to stop the Chargers, the Texans must stop Rivers. Defensive end Mark Anderson (4 tackles, 1 sack) posted the only sack of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on Monday night. Rivers isn't the most mobile signal-caller in the league, so applying pressure up front will make it tough for the former N.C. State star to continue his success. End Mario Williams (14 tackles, 5 sacks) hasn't gotten to the quarterback in his last three games and is due for one this week. While the Chargers don't necessarily rely on the run as much as the pass, Houston linebackers Zac Diles (55 tackles) and Brian Cushing (22 tackles) must be prepared no matter what. Cushing has filled in nicely for injured starter DeMeco Ryans, who's out for the season, in the middle. Texans end Antonio Smith (16 tackles, 3 sacks) had a meeting with the defense to sort some things out prior to the Indianapolis game and the unit responded in a big way, holding Manning to 268 yards passing that was far less than the 433 yards he attained in Week 1. Houston can only hope it can keep Rivers from tearing the defensive backfield apart. Cornerbacks Kareem Jackson (38 tackles, 1 INT) and Glover Quin (34 tackles) should try and work on jamming San Diego's receivers at the line, while safety and leading tackler Bernard Pollard (65 tackles) must make sure Gates doesn't get behind the secondary.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The Texans intended on Foster running the show against the Colts on Monday, but the emerging star didn't get near the 231 rushing yards and three scores on 33 carries he had in a Week 1 victory. Foster was able to hit the 100-yard mark in the second meeting, recording 102 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, but it wasn't enough as Indianapolis contained both Houston's ground and aerial attacks. Foster hopes the Texans won't fall behind early again where Houston is forced to air it out, as he will be facing San Diego's second-rated run defense. Striking out on all six third down tries in the first half against Indianapolis led to a 17-3 deficit which the Texans never got out of. Schaub (1,739 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT) was sacked three times and had an interception returned 25 yards for a score by Colts defensive back Kelvin Hayden on Monday. He'll be looking to get the Texans their fourth straight win at home versus an AFC foe and needs just 174 passing yards for 13,000 in his career. The former Atlanta Falcons signal-caller will be aiming for Johnson (39 receptions, 594 yards) most of the afternoon, and who could blame him. Johnson has only three touchdown catches this season, but his presence on the field opens avenues for the offense. He is seeking his third straight game with at least 100 yards receiving and a touchdown. Foster can also catch passes, as he is tied for first in the AFC and fourth in the NFL among running backs with 28 receptions.
Chargers linebacker Burnett (45 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) said the team must not get complacent and stay hungry for another win after beating the potent Titans last Sunday. He finished with seven tackles and was part of a stop unit that held arguably the best running back in the NFL, Chris Johnson, to 59 yards on 15 touches. San Diego will be in for another strong ground attack this week, led by Foster, but is second in the league against the rush, allowing 83.1 yards per game. San Diego has held opponents to less than 100 rushing yards five times in eight games. The Chargers will try to keep the Texans one-dimensional, forcing the secondary to be ready for Houston's inconsistent pass offense. Getting to Schaub will be very important, with Phillips (28 tackles, 7 sacks), who leads the team in sacks with Burnett right behind with five, in charge of those duties. Cornerbacks Antoine Cason (29 tackles, 2 INT) and Quentin Jammer (17 tackles, INT) have a tough task ahead in containing Andre Johnson because stopping him is nearly impossible. The Houston receiver is nursing a balky ankle, however, which could make it easier on San Diego's defense. Tennessee's Nate Washington eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark last week against a Chargers' stop unit rated No. 1 against the pass and in yards allowed.
The Texans have some banged-up fantasy playmakers heading into this matchup, as Andre Johnson is battling an ankle injury that he said shouldn't keep him from playing on Sunday. Tight end Owen Daniels is questionable with both hamstring and knee issues and isn't worth starting. Foster and Schaub are both studs.
Rivers, Gates and Tolbert have been San Diego's top fantasy stars. However, Rivers may not have receivers Floyd and Naanee down in Texas, as they are both listed as doubtful with hamstring injuries.
This is a must-win situation for both teams, but it means more for the Chargers, who put themselves in a big hole after a slow start and own just three wins. The AFC West is still up for grabs, however, and another loss would put a black cloud over San Diego's somewhat clear skies. Rivers knows the goal of a fifth straight division title will be even more difficult to achieve with the team's sixth loss in nine games, so heading into the bye with two straight wins is crucial. Taking it week-by-week seems to be the Chargers' mantra for the remainder of the season, while Rivers moving closer to Dan Marino's single-season passing record seems intriguing. He needs to average more than 300 yards per game the rest of the season to do that, and will get started against a Texans team coming off a short week and that is shaky on defense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 31, Texans 27
11/04 16:34:03 ET
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