NFL Preview - San Diego (0-0) at Oakland (0-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The San Diego Chargers will have a golden opportunity to get off to a much-needed strong start to the 2009 campaign on Monday night, when they travel to meet the AFC West rival Oakland Raiders in the regular season lid-lifter for both clubs.
The Chargers have won AFC West titles in their first two years under head coach Norv Turner, despite getting off to dismal starts in both 2007 and 2008.
In 2007, Turner and company emerged from September with a 1-3 record, eventually sputtering to 5-5 before going on an eight-game winning streak that would land them in the AFC Championship.
Last season, the Bolts went 0-2 out of the box, eventually falling to 4-8 before a late-season winning streak, coupled with a collapse by division- leading Denver, allowed San Diego to win the AFC West crown at 8-8.
The perceived weakness of the AFC West this season would not preclude San Diego from recovering from another poor start, though the Chargers' ability to be among the top playoff seeds in the conference would take another hit.
But another September loss on Turner's resume' would be a surprise in this case, due to the Chargers' recent ownership of the Raiders.
San Diego owns 11 straight wins over Oakland since the Raiders got by the Chargers at home in 2003, and eight of those victories have come by double- digits.
Though the Raiders' five wins last season matched their most since 2002, and head coach Tom Cable was rewarded by having the "interim" label removed from his job title, few NFL observers are expecting the Silver and Black to return to their former greatness in 2009.
Oakland elicited widespread criticism in April, when they selected Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey at No. 7 in the draft, ahead of consensus top wideout Michael Crabtree and several spots before most draft experts had projected the fleet-footed target with questionable hands.
Once training camp started, Heyward-Bey's exploits were overshadowed by a reported incident in which Cable allegedly attacked assistant coach Randy Hanson, leaving him with a broken jaw.
More recently, the Raiders raised the hopes of their beleaguered fan base by making a trade for Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour last Sunday, though Seymour had yet to report to the team as of Thursday afternoon, placing the trade in jeopardy.
Oakland has a 54-42-2 record in its all-time regular season series with San Diego, but as mentioned, has lost 11 in a row since last defeating the Chargers at home during the 2003 season. San Diego swept its fifth consecutive home-and-home over Oakland last season, notching a 28-18 road win in Week 4 and a 34-7 home triumph in Week 14. The Raiders are 0-6 in San Diego since last winning there in 2002.
Oakland won the only postseason meeting between the teams, prevailing by a 34-27 count in the 1980 AFC Championship.
Turner is 5-1 all-time against his former employer the Raiders, including 4-0 since coming to San Diego. Oakland's Cable is 0-1 against both Turner and the Chargers as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Though he remained a focal point of the San Diego offense last season, there was a consensus among NFL observers that running back LaDainian Tomlinson (1110 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 12 TD) had a down year in 2008. Never fully healthy, Tomlinson averaged just 3.8 yards per rush and ceded part of the backfield spotlight to the electrifying Darren Sproles (330 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 6 TD), who was "rewarded" by being named the Chargers' franchise player during the offseason. Tomlinson, who played in the preseason for the first time in recent memory, is eager to prove that he can still deliver the goods at the age of 30. If he can't, San Diego has a great fail- safe with one of the underrated passing games in the league. Philip Rivers (4009 passing yards, 34 TD, 11 INT) had a terrific year in 2008, making a 1,000-yard receiver out of Vincent Jackson (59 receptions, 7 TD) and helping tight end Antonio Gates (60 receptions, 8 TD) to continue his productivity as well. A very effective offensive line helps to power the entire Chargers attack, and right guard Louis Vasquez (Texas Tech), a third-round rookie, is the only new starter there.
New Oakland defensive coordinator John Marshall had to be salivating when the team dealt for Seymour, a player who could be critical in stopping Oakland's long-standing problems against the run. The Raiders were 31st in NFL rushing defense a year ago, and their issues in that area were prevalent during the 2009 preseason as well. Without Seymour, the run-stopping effort will fall to a four-man front led by tackles Gerard Warren (39 tackles, 4 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (56 tackles, 4.5 sacks), with linebackers Kirk Morrison (135 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Thomas Howard (97 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) working behind them. No Raider finished with more than five sacks last season, a situation that Oakland sought to resolve by signing longtime Cowboy Greg Ellis (36 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT with Dallas) in free agency. The work of Ellis, Trevor Scott (15 tackles, 5 sacks) and the pass rush should make things easier for cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (40 tackles, 1 INT) and his group on the back end. Asomugha will likely be matched up with Jackson on Monday, with safeties Hiram Eugene (51 tackles) and Tyvon Branch (7 tackles, 1 INT) responsible in part for defending Gates.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Though quarterback JaMarcus Russell (2423 passing yards, 13 TD, 8 INT), Heyward-Bey, and the Raiders passing game will face some scrutiny on Monday, Oakland's game plan against San Diego figures to emphasize the run in a major way. The trio of Justin Fargas (853 rushing yards, 1 TD), Darren McFadden (499 rushing yards, 4 TD) and Michael Bush (421 rushing yards, 3 TD) was integral to the Raiders' transition into a competitive team late last season, and Cable will try to get the ball into the hands of his backs in any way possible. When Russell has to throw downfield, Oakland could be in more trouble. Heyward-Bey, who hasn't caught the ball consistently since being drafted, will start. The other would-be starter, Chaz Schilens, is out with a foot injury. That leaves holdover Johnnie Lee Higgins (22 receptions, 4 TD), fourth-round rookie Louis Murphy (Florida), and trusty tight end Zach Miller (56 receptions, 1 TD) as some of the team's best options in the aerial game. The Raiders were 10th in the league in rushing last year, but finished dead last in passing offense.
Many eyes figured to be focused on Chargers pass rusher Shawne Merriman anyway on Monday night, as the former Pro Bowler attempted to make his formal return after missing the final 15 games of last year with a knee injury. But a recent allegation of battery against his girlfriend has thrust Merriman even further into the spotlight, and the one-time Maryland star will want to erase some of that chatter with a strong performance against the Raiders. Also looking to tee off on Russell will be fellow outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (74 tackles, 7.5 sacks), the team's sack leader a year ago. On the back end, cornerback Antonio Cromartie (64 tackles, 2 INT) is among the players seeking to have a bounce-back year within a secondary that combined for just eight interceptions all of last season. The Chargers were 31st in the NFL against the pass last year. The San Diego run-stopping group will face a stern test from the Raiders bevy of running backs, with nose tackle Jamal Williams (56 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Luis Castillo (39 tackles, 1.5 sacks) looking to maintain control at the point of attack, and inside linebackers Stephen Cooper (98 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Kevin Burnett (26 tackles, 2 INT with Dallas) making plays behind them.
Your final opportunity to polish off a fantasy win comes here, and there should be little hesitation in using the Chargers' offensive principles. Rivers, Tomlinson, Jackson, and Gates are all definite starts, and kicker Nate Kaeding and the San Diego defense also merit being in your lineup.
Things are always less certain when Oakland has the ball, with the team's three-headed approach at the running back position making the use of Fargas, McFadden or Bush problematic. Probably best to wait and see on those players, and there's certainly no need to risk using any member of the Raider aerial game, with the possible exception of the tight end Miller. Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski was 24-of-32 on field goals last season, and there's no guarantee he'll get a wealth of scoring opportunities in this one.
Though you won't find the Raiders and Chargers in close proximity to one another on most NFL power polls, it bears noting that Oakland hung with San Diego in the first meeting between the teams last year, when the Raiders took a 15-3 lead into the fourth quarter before the wheels came off the bus in a 28-18 loss that marked the swan song of the Lane Kiffin era. If San Diego comes out flat in this trip to the Bay Area, Oakland just might be equipped to finish the job, with an offense that has some real strength in the running game and a defense that should be able to accurately predict what its AFC West opponent will be trying to do. Ultimately, however, it will probably come down to the quarterbacks in the fourth quarter, and Rivers figures to make one fewer mistake than Russell when it counts.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 21, Raiders 13
09/10 17:56:15 ET