NFL Preview - Washington (4-11) at San Diego (12-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The last 14 months have been no picnic for Washington Redskins head coach Jim Zorn. Norv Turner can certainly relate.
In what's widely expected to be Zorn's last game on the sidelines for the Burgundy and Gold, the Redskins will conclude a forgettable 2009 season with this Sunday's visit to Qualcomm Stadium, where Turner's soaring Chargers will be out to match a team record for consecutive wins in a single campaign.
Turner spent seven mostly tumultuous seasons as the Redskins' head coach from 1994-2000, then bounced around the league as an offensive coordinator (save for an ill-fated two-year stint as the Oakland Raiders' head man) before earning a new lease on life in San Diego. Inheriting a team that won 14 regular-season contests under Marty Schottenheimer, who coincidentally succeeded Turner in Washington in 2001, the well-traveled 57-year-old has guided the Chargers to AFC West titles in each of his first three years at the helm.
This season's edition has been the best of Turner's bunch, having amassed a gaudy 12-3 record and carrying a 10-game winning streak into Sunday's tilt. San Diego has already secured the second overall seed for the upcoming AFC Playoffs and will have the benefit of a bye for next weekend's Wild Card Round.
The Bolts will be entering the postseason razor-sharp, as evidenced by the club's 42-13 Christmas Day dismantling on the road of a Tennessee team that had won seven times in an eight-game span coming in. Quarterback Philip Rivers enhanced his MVP credentials by completing 21-of-27 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, while a swarming defense forced a trio of Titan turnovers that were converted into 21 points.
San Diego can register 11 consecutive victories in the same season for the second time in the club's 50-year history. The 1961 Chargers got off to an 11-0 start en route to an appearance in that year's American Football League Championship Game.
While San Diego will begin the new calendar year competing for its second-ever Super Bowl trip, Washington has already begun the process of rebuilding a once-proud franchise that's fallen on very hard times. The overhaul is expected to include the ousting of Zorn, whose team has gone just 6-17 since the former Seattle Seahawks quarterback won six of his initial eight games during his debut season as a head coach in 2008.
The players appear resigned to their fate as well. After quickly throwing in the towel in an embarrassing 45-12 home setback to a New York Giants squad that would go on to lose its next game by 32 points, the Redskins were lifeless once again in a 17-0 defeat to playoff-bound Dallas this past Sunday at FedEx Field. An anemic offense mustered a paltry 218 total yards and just 43 on the ground against the formidable Cowboys, while venturing inside the opposing 30- yard line only one time over the course of the night.
Washington holds a 6-2 advantage in its all-time series with San Diego, but has dropped its last two decisions against the Chargers. The Bolts were 23-17 overtime winners when they visited FedEx Field in 2005, and prevailed by a 30-3 margin when the clubs met at Qualcomm Stadium in 2001. The Redskins' most recent win in the series came in 1998 at home, by a 24-20 count. The Skins defeated the Chargers in San Diego in 1983 and 1986.
Turner, who was at the helm of the Redskins from 1994 until being fired with three games remaining in the 2000 season, is 1-0 against his former employer. Turner's Raiders were 16-13 winners at FedEx Field during the 2005 campaign. Zorn will be meeting both Turner and San Diego for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Sunday's contest could also be the swan song for Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell (3337 passing yards, 18 TD, 15 INT), a free agent-to-be and potential casualty of the organization's offseason house-cleaning. The former first- round pick's inconsistent season hasn't helped his cause to be retained, although he's hardly the only one to blame for Washington's season-long struggles on offense. Age and injuries have rendered the front line a decrepit unit, and season-ending ailments to top running backs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts and two-time Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley have been crippling blows as well. The team's main runners in last week's loss were Quinton Ganther (172 rushing yards, 3 TD, 8 receptions) and Marcus Mason (101 rushing yards, 5 receptions), two players signed off the street to replenish the depleted backfield, and the bargain-bin tandem combined for a meager 24 yards on 11 carries against the Cowboys. The Redskins still have a couple of healthy and competent pass-catchers in veteran wideout Santana Moss (64 receptions, 3 TD) and second-year tight end Fred Davis (42 receptions, 6 TD), but it's been a chore at times getting each the football. Campbell has been sacked 41 times this season, the fourth-highest amount of any quarterback in the league.
Campbell will have to navigate a tough San Diego pass defense anchored by energetic free safety Eric Weddle (82 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) in addition to dealing with the outside linebacker combo of Shaun Phillips (59 tackles, 7 sacks) and Shawne Merriman (36 tackles, 4 sacks), one of the league's more dangerous edge-rushing duos when healthy. Both are dealing with nagging injuries at the moment, however, and it wouldn't be surprising if each is held out or used sparingly on Sunday in order to get closer to full strength for the playoffs. Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett (61 tackles, 2.5 sacks), starting end Jacques Cesaire (26 tackles, 1 sack) and nickel safety Steve Gregory (65 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) are also candidates to be rested this weekend, with youngsters such as linebackers Brandon Siler (64 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Larry English (28 tackles, 2 sacks) getting an increased opportunity to showcase their skills. English, the Chargers' top choice in last April's draft, is likely to step in for Merriman, who's almost certain to miss the finale due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot. San Diego comes in 15th overall in total defense (326.1 ypg), but is just 23rd against the run (121.2 ypg) and permitted 142 yards to Titans superstar Chris Johnson last week.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego boasts the NFL's second-highest scoring offense (28.7 ppg) as well as one of the league's most prolific aerial assaults, with the fiery Rivers (4155 passing yards, 27 TD, 9 INT) consistently firing darts to a big and talented group of receivers headlined by matchup nightmare Antonio Gates (78 receptions, 7 TD), whose 1,145 receiving yards tops all tight ends this season and earned the 29-year-old a sixth career Pro Bowl nod. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson (68 receptions, 1167 yards, 9 TD) made a strong case for all-star honors with a terrific 2009 season, and the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder teams with fellow good-sized target Malcom Floyd (36 receptions, 1 TD) to provide a physical presence to the Chargers' fifth-rated passing attack (268.3 ypg). A running game that still features former NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson (729 rushing yards, 12 TD, 18 receptions) has churned out a subpar average of 91.5 yards per week (91.5 ypg), but the declining veteran back has remained effective between the tackles and in short-yardage spots. San Diego did get a nice boost for its postseason run with last week's return of stalwart center Nick Hardwick from ankle surgery performed shortly after the season opener.
Washington's defense has produced a league-low 16 takeaways in 2009 and may have a tough time bettering that total on Sunday, considering San Diego's 16 offensive turnovers are the second-fewest total in the NFL. Despite that lack of big plays, the Redskins have been generally solid on that side of the ball for most of this difficult season, with end Andre Carter (60 tackles, 11 sacks) and rookie outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (48 tackles, 11 sacks) leading a quality pass rush that's compiled 39 sacks for the year (6th overall) and 34-year-old London Fletcher (134 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) continuing to be an impact player and stabilizing force from his middle linebacker spot. Massive tackle Albert Haynesworth (38 tackles, 4 sacks) can also be a handful for the Chargers' interior linemen, provided the notoriously moody offseason signee comes out motivated in an essentially meaningless game. The injury-riddled Redskins endured another potentially damaging blow in last week's loss to Dallas, with strong safety Reed Doughty (91 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) sustaining a high ankle sprain that forced him to injured reserve. Special teamer Kareem Moore (26 tackles, 1 INT) will fill in on Sunday, but draws the daunting task of having to cover Gates.
This weekend could make for a difficult time for those participating in fantasy championship games with Rivers as their No. 1 quarterback, as there's a real good chance he'll wind up ceding snaps to backup Billy Volek at some point in the game. With San Diego still expected to make an effort to try to win, players such as Gates, Jackson and Tomlinson should have some value as starters, but with obviously less upside than usual. Campbell wouldn't be a bad choice here, since he'll spend at least part of the day against a number of Chargers' second-stringers, and Davis should get plenty of looks after emerging as the Redskins' primary receiving option in the season's second half. Don't bother picking up any of Washington's no-name backs off the scrap heap, though. With the threat of the Chargers resting most or all of their offensive regulars, Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding isn't quite as appealing a play as normal.
San Diego will clearly be viewing this game solely as a tune-up for the second season, so it's unclear as to how many regulars will be suiting up and for how long they'll play. Still, there's probably a part of Turner that wouldn't mind sticking it to his former employers as payback for his ignominious firing nearly a decade ago, and the competitive nature of guys like Rivers and Tomlinson is a good indicator that the Chargers will take this game at least somewhat seriously. There are fewer signs that the Redskins, who've packed it in for two weeks now, will do the same. Look for San Diego to come out with some focus and jump out to an early lead, with Washington mounting a belated charge that will familiarly come up just short and provide a most-fitting ending to Zorn's harrowing two-year run.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 20, Redskins 17
12/30 21:46:11 ET