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NFL Preview - Philadelphia (5-3) at San Diego (5-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The San Diego Chargers will set their sights on knocking off an NFC East member for a second consecutive week when the Philadelphia Eagles head to Qualcomm Stadium this Sunday for an interconference bout between teams with postseason aspirations.
The Chargers looked to be on the verge of being dealt a costly loss by the New York Giants in last weekend's battle at the Meadowlands, but a stout defensive stand and a late touchdown drive engineered by quarterback Philip Rivers lifted the Bolts to a thrilling and improbable 21-20 victory. The win was the third in a row for San Diego and brought the resilient club within one game of Denver's lead atop the AFC's West Division, with the Broncos losing to reigning world champion Pittsburgh this past Monday.
Down 17-14 with time winding down in the fourth quarter, the Chargers appeared doomed after New York's Terrell Thomas intercepted Rivers and returned the ball to the San Diego four-yard line with 3:14 left to play. However, the defense held the Giants to a field goal to keep it a one-possession game and allow Rivers enough time for a potential go-ahead drive.
The fiery field general would deliver, marching the Chargers 80 yards in under two minutes and connecting with standout wide receiver Vincent Jackson for the winning touchdown with only 21 seconds showing on the clock.
While San Diego seeks a return of its recent winning ways, the up-and-down Eagles will be aiming to avoid a repeat of their last visit to the West Coast. A heavily-favored Philadelphia squad entered the Oakland Coliseum back in Week 6 and left with a head-scratching 13-9 loss to the doormat Raiders, who were able to successfully pressure Donovan McNabb into an erratic 22-of-46 passing day and sack the veteran quarterback six times.
McNabb was off-target once again in the Eagles' most recent outing, a tough 20-16 home loss to the red-hot Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. The five-time Pro Bowl honoree completed a shaky 16-of-30 throws and was intercepted twice as he and his team failed to build off an impressive 40-17 thrashing of the rival Giants the previous week.
The setback put Philadelphia one game behind the Cowboys in the race for first place in the competitive NFC East.
The Eagles played last week's contest without running back Brian Westbrook, held out for a second straight game after sustaining a concussion in the team's 27-17 win at Washington on October 26. The oft-injured 30-year-old is no longer experiencing symptoms from that injury and is seemingly on track to return for Sunday's tilt, although he's also dealing with recurring soreness in a surgically-repaired right ankle that caused him to miss some practice time this week.
Philadelphia has not dropped back-to-back games since Weeks 4 and 5 of the 2008 season, when the Eagles followed up a road loss to Chicago with a home defeat to Washington.
San Diego has a 5-4 edge in its all-time series with Philadelphia, but has lost two in a row to the Eagles. Philly was a 20-17 home winner when the clubs last met, in 2005, and took a 24-14 decision in the previous matchup, at Veterans Stadium in 2001. The Chargers last posted a win in the series in 1998 at home, and have won four straight over the Eagles in San Diego since the Birds notched their only win there in 1974.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid is 2-0 versus the Chargers as a head coach. The Bolts' Norv Turner is 5-10 in his career against Philadelphia, including 5-9 while with the Redskins (1994-2000) and 0-1 while with the Raiders (2004-05). Turner is 2-3 head-to-head versus Reid.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Despite ranking a so-so 15th in total yards (338.5 ypg) and getting somewhat inconsistent play out of McNabb (1235 passing yards, 10 TD, 3 INT), the Eagles are still a dangerous offensive team due to their knack for the big play. Philadelphia leads the NFL with 13 gains of 40 or more yards this season, and explosive flanker DeSean Jackson's (26 receptions, 530 yards, 6 total TD) average of 20.4 yards per catch is the second-best mark among league receivers. Young wideout Jeremy Maclin (25 receptions, 3 TD) and running back and fellow rookie LeSean McCoy (348 rushing yards, 2 TD, 20 receptions) have also illustrated game-breaking ability in their brief tenures, with tight end Brent Celek (40 receptions, 4 TD) emerging as a trusted target and red-zone weapon in a breakthrough 2009 campaign. McCoy had a career-best 115 yards from scrimmage (54 rushing, 61 receiving) in the Dallas game and his effectiveness as both a runner and pass-catcher has allowed the Eagles to ease Westbrook (197 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 2 TD) back into action. A host of injuries have hampered the performance of a usually-solid front line that's surrendered 17 sacks over the past five weeks.
An overlooked aspect of San Diego's current win streak has been the greatly improved play of a defense that had made little impact during the team's slow start to the season. The outstanding outside linebacker duo of Shawne Merriman (28 tackles, 4 sacks) and Shaun Phillips (38 tackles, 5 sacks) has headed the charge, with the two pass rushers having racked up an eye-opening nine sacks over the past three weeks. The Chargers took down the Giants' Eli Manning five times overall last Sunday and allowed minimal damage through the air, with New York generating a rather harmless 188 net passing yards for the game. San Diego enters this week's matchup fifth in the league in pass defense (179.6 ypg) but has had its troubles containing the run, with opponents having averaged a healthy 130.1 rushing yards per game on a group that's competed most of the season without three-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams. The Bolts do anticipate inside linebacker Kevin Burnett (32 tackles, 1 sack) returning this week from an ankle sprain that's kept him out of the last three games. The offseason pickup will take his place alongside leading tackler Stephen Cooper (66 tackles, 2 forced fumbles), who came up with 13 stops versus the Giants.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivers (2245 passing yards, 14 TD, 6 INT) is starting to make a case for league MVP consideration, as the sixth-year pro has engineered a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks through the season's first half and continues to put up yards in spite of the absence of a viable running game. He hasn't done it alone, however, with Vincent Jackson (42 receptions, 722 yards, 7 TD) developing into one of the NFL's top all-around receivers and athletic tight end Antonio Gates (42 receptions, 590 yards, 2 TD) continuing to be a matchup nightmare for enemy defenses. The Chargers would still benefit from a little balance, though. The club ranks dead last in rushing offense (69.6 ypg) and mustered a paltry 34 yards on the ground in last week's victory, with LaDainian Tomlinson (289 rushing yards, 3 TD, 9 receptions) producing a mere 22 yards on 12 attempts. The declining running back is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry for the season and hasn't topped 71 yards in any of the games he's played. Tomlinson could get a boost this week from the possible return of center Nick Hardwick, a 2006 Pro Bowler who's close to getting back from ankle surgery that has sidelined him since Week 1.
Much like their offense, the Eagles boast a wealth of playmakers on the defensive side and have excelled at forcing the opposition into harmful mistakes for most of this season. Philadelphia tops the NFL with a plus-11 turnover margin, while its 15 interceptions and 22 takeaways are both the second-most in the league. Cornerbacks Asante Samuel (23 tackles, 5 INT, 8 PD) and Sheldon Brown (24 tackles, 4 INT, 9 PD) are both terrific ballhawks and accomplished cover men, while dynamic end Trent Cole (28 tackles, 7.5 sacks) has been one of the game's premier sack artists since becoming a full-time starter in 2006. The Eagles will be heading into Sunday's test with some injury issues along the back seven, however. Secondary depth is a concern after the team was forced to place nickel back Ellis Hobbs (11 tackles) on injured reserve Wednesday, the same day reserve corner Joselio Hanson (29 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) was handed a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, while weakside linebacker and leading tackler Akeem Jordan's (53 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) status is in doubt after suffering a hyperextended knee against the Cowboys. Philly should get back two regulars who sat out the Dallas game due to injury, however, in strongside linebacker Chris Gocong (26 tackles, 1 sack) and end Victor Abiamiri (11 tackles, 1 sack).
The Chargers possess three quality fantasy performers in Rivers, Vincent Jackson and Gates, all of whom are regarded as fixtures in weekly lineups. The same can no longer be said for Tomlinson, whose startling lack of production has now become a trend that downgrades the one-time NFL MVP to flex status at best. Celek has turned into a very reliable option on the Philadelphia side and DeSean Jackson also rates as a good play for the Eagles, with McNabb and Maclin viewed more as lukewarm choices who draw a tough assignment from a quality San Diego pass defense. With Westbrook possibly limited coming off a serious head injury and the Chargers having given up plenty of rushing yards this season, McCoy seems like a solid selection for another week. Look for the kickers to play a key role in Sunday's outcome, as the Eagles' David Akers and San Diego's Nate Kaeding rank third and fourth, respectively, in the league in field goals.
While the Eagles have shown in the past to be a strong bounce-back candidate, they've also had a history of coming up short in close games lately. Each of Philly's five wins this season have been by double digits, but the team is an alarming 1-8-1 over its past 10 contests decided by seven points or less. The Chargers are simply too talented to be blown out at home, and with a quarterback who's proven he can come through in crunch time and a Philadelphia defense that's banged up in several key spots, San Diego should have a good chance of extending its recent string of success.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 23, Eagles 20
11/12 17:01:56 ET
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