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NFL Preview - San Diego (2-2) at Oakland (1-3)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Oakland Raiders can't be quite sure exactly what San Diego Chargers team they'll be seeing on Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum.
Will they get the Chargers who destroyed the Jaguars and Cardinals by a combined 56 points in their first two home games of 2010? Or will they get the San Diego club that couldn't manage to get by the underdog Chiefs or Seahawks in deflating road losses?
Whatever Bolts the Raiders see in Week 5, the goal for Tom Cable's club will be to play well enough to end a vexing 13-game losing streak to their longtime division rival, as well as to boost its standing in a seemingly wide-open AFC West.
Heading into Sunday, the Silver and Black find themselves in an all-too- familiar position - last place - after a 31-24 defeat to the Houston Texans called into question whether the team had really made measurable progress since last season's 5-11 showing.
The Texans churned up 249 ground yards in the victory, including 131 on just 16 carries from leading NFL rusher Arian Foster, who didn't even make his first rush until the second quarter. Foster scored on a 74-yard run, Derrick Ward opened the scoring with a 33-yard blast in the first quarter, and even forgotten man Steve Slaton managed a 23-yard rush.
The Raiders weren't punchless - Bruce Gradkowski completed 24-of-39 passes for 278 yards as part of a 363-yard offensive day, but Oakland also turned the ball over three times and could advance no further than their own 44-yard line on a potential game-tying drive beginning at their own 25 at the 3:04 mark.
Twisting the knife for the Raiders was a hamstring injury suffered by oft- injured running back Darren McFadden, who entered the Houston contest fresh off back-to-back 100-yard rushing games and looked to be finally rounding into form.
McFadden, who had 129 yards on 18 total touches against Houston before exiting, appears unlikely to play Sunday, which would press Michael Bush back into starting service after a seven-game stint as a No. 1 back last year.
San Diego comes into Sunday's contest in a seemingly much more positive frame of mind.
The Chargers stifled Arizona by a 41-10 count last week, with the defense giving up just 124 yards, one scoring drive that resulted in a 53-yard Jay Feely field goal in garbage time (the other Cardinals points came on a fumble return for a TD), forcing three turnovers and chasing quarterback Derek Anderson from the game.
The Chargers broke through for a whopping nine sacks in the game, including four for outside linebacker Shaun Phillips to go along with an interception return for a touchdown, and two for fellow LB Kevin Burnett.
The high-level display wasn't limited to the defense, as four Chargers running backs combined for 182 yards, including 100 on 16 carries for Mike Tolbert, and quarterback Philip Rivers passed for 241 yards and two touchdowns - both to Antonio Gates - on 15-of-20 passing. Gates continued to impress with seven catches for 144 yards and the two scores.
The victory kept San Diego a game back of the AFC West-leading Chiefs in the division's win column, along with the similarly 2-2 Broncos.
Oakland has a 54-44-2 record in its all-time regular season series with San Diego, but as mentioned, has lost 13 in a row since last defeating the Chargers at home during the 2003 season. The Bolts were 24-20 road winners when they visited Oakland for a Monday night game in Week 1, and completed their sixth consecutive home-and-home sweep over the Silver and Black with a 24-16 triumph at Qualcomm Stadium in Week 8.
The 13-game winning streak is the longest for either team in the 50-year history of the series, but still ranks behind the Raiders' 18-game unbeaten run over the Chargers from 1968 to 1977. Oakland was 16-0-2 against San Diego during that period.
Oakland won the only postseason meeting between the teams, prevailing by a 34-27 count in the 1980 AFC Championship.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner is 7-1 all-time against his former employer the Raiders, including 6-0 since coming to San Diego. Oakland's Cable is 0-3 against both Turner and the Chargers as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The Chargers carry the NFL's No. 1 offense (450.8 yards per game) into Sunday's game, though the 10 turnovers the attack has committed are a major reason San Diego has a middling 2-2 record. Rivers (1328 passing yards, 9 TD, 4 INT), who has a 102.8 passer rating on the year, has been generally outstanding even in the continued absence of suspended (and disgruntled) receiver Vincent Jackson. Malcom Floyd (14 receptions, 2 TD), Legedu Naanee (11 receptions, 1 TD) and Buster Davis (10 receptions) have helped pick up the slack on the outside, though Gates (24 receptions) has been the real marvel. The perennial Pro Bowl tight end leads the league in touchdowns scored (6), and currently owns the longest streak of games with a touchdown pass for tight ends in NFL history, at eight consecutive. The running game has been a credit to the cause as well, though surprisingly it's been bowling ball-sized ex-fullback Mike Tolbert (281 rushing yards, 3 TD) who has seized the spotlight from first-round rookie Ryan Mathews (159 rushing yards, 1 TD). Tolbert and Mathews both had touchdown runs against the Cardinals last week. The San Diego line has allowed eight sacks on the year, but just one last Sunday.
An Oakland defense that was supposed to be better against the run this year was gutted by the Texans last week, and now ranks last in the league in yards allowed per carry (5.3) and rushes allowed of 20 yards or longer (7). An interior line led by Richard Seymour (17 tackles, 1 sack) and Tommy Kelly (14 tackles) must provide more of a presence at the point of attack, and rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain (24 tackles) must begin to live up to his Top 10 billing. McClain ranks among team leaders in tackles but has yet to make a truly big play on the year. Safeties Tyvon Branch (27 tackles, 1 sack) and Michael Huff (21 tackles) will likely bear much of the responsibility for watching Gates, with cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha (6 tackles) and Stanford Routt (14 tackles) concentrating more on the likes of Floyd and Naanee. Huff had a team-high eight tackles last week. The Raiders did not record a single sack of the less-than-mobile Matt Schaub last Sunday, and top pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley (12 tackles, 2 sacks) will be among those trying to prevent that from becoming a trend.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
The Raiders have been generally consistent from an offensive standpoint, ranking a healthy ninth in the league in yardage, though how the potential absence of McFadden (392 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 2 TD) could affect that dynamic remains to be seen. If McFadden is out, Bush (53 rushing yards, 1 TD) will have to prove he can be the same player who entered 2010 as the de facto starter. Bush, who has been limited since the preseason with a broken thumb scored his first touchdown of the year on a 2-yard first-quarter run last week. Veteran Michael Bennett (2 receptions), a member of the Chargers last year, could also get some touches if McFadden is out. For his part, Gradkowski (695 passing yards, 4 TD, 4 INT) must keep the turnovers to a minimum after committing three of them last week, and must find reliable targets other than tight end Zach Miller (22 receptions, 2 TD). Miller had a huge day with 11 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown against the Texans, but wideouts Louis Murphy (16 receptions, 1 TD), Darrius Heyward-Bey (11 receptions) and Johnnie Lee Higgins (3 receptions) combined for just four catches and 45 yards. From a pass-blocking standpoint, the Raider o-line remains dreadful, having given up 13 sacks on the season to date.
The Chargers enter Week 5 quietly leading the NFL in total defense (235.5 yards per game), though coordinator Ron Rivera will have a major personnel adjustment to make this week. Safety Steve Gregory, who leads the Chargers in tackles and had his first interception of the year last week, will begin serving a four- game suspension for violating the NFL policy on banned substances. Paul Oliver (6 tackles) is expected to take over Gregory's starting spot, and safety Eric Weddle (13 tackles) and cornerbacks Antoine Cason (19 tackles, 2 INT) and Quentin Jammer (11 tackles, 1 INT) will have to help compensate for his absence as well. Phillips (17 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT), the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week, is going to have a difficult time repeating his amazing performance of a week ago, but should continue to be a handful for the Raiders coming off the edge. Shawne Merriman (4 tackles) could be back in the lineup after missing last Sunday's contest with a left calf strain. After shutting down the Arizona run game a week ago, San Diego will have a bigger challenge against the Raiders. Inside linebackers Brandon Siler (12 tackles, 1 sack) and Stephen Cooper (9 tackles) are the team's most active run-stoppers, and end Travis Johnson (3 tackles, 1 sack) comes off a good week up front.
The Chargers have a number of viable fantasy options, with Rivers, Gates, kicker Nate Kaeding and a playmaking defense most prominent among them. You'll want to monitor the touches that Tolbert and Mathews are getting, but both should work as a flex play, at the very least. Floyd is a secondary target to Gates, but is also worth considering.
If McFadden is certain to be out, then start Bush without hesitation. The burly ex-Louisville star proved he was capable of handling an NFL workload late last season. The tight end Miller is the only other worthy fantasy starter on the Raider roster.
The Chargers are more talented than the Raiders without any reasonable question, but you can never count on a Norv Turner-coached team being mentally ready to play, especially on the road at this early point in the year. The Raiders may be dysfunctional, but they've also moved the ball pretty well this season and have a recent history of playing San Diego tough. The Silver and Black are far more desperate than the Chargers right now, and figure to play with the type of edge that you shouldn't expect from Turner's group. If the Raiders can cut down on the turnovers and unforced errors that have plagued them, look for this team to send San Diego to its third straight road defeat.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Raiders 20, Chargers 19
10/07 17:53:49 ET
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