NFL Preview - Oakland (2-5) at San Diego (3-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - They haven't played in a Super Bowl since 1995, and have never won one.
They're annually picked to challenge for conference supremacy, but usually fall short.
And this year in spite of a talent-sopped roster, they're just 3-3 through six games.
But like an average-looking guy who hangs out with his homeliest male friend, the San Diego Chargers have found the perfect Week 8 way to feel better about themselves.
Play the Oakland Raiders.
As difficult as the ride has been for Norv Turner and Co. through the season's initial stages, it's hardly comparable to the tumultuous trip for a moribund Silver & Black, which reached a collective low last Sunday with a 38-0 loss to the slumping New York Jets at Bay Area home.
The loss dropped the Raiders - who'd been coming off an upset of the Philadelphia Eagles - to a particularly ugly 2-5, good for third in an AFC West Division that's rapidly becoming the personal playpen of the surprisingly still-unbeaten Denver Broncos at 6-0.
Oakland has allowed nearly three points for each one it's scored, saw maddeningly unimpressive quarterback JaMarcus Russell benched in favor of journeyman Bruce Gradkowski against the Jets and only barely escaped further embarrassment when head coach Tom Cable avoided prosecution for an alleged run- in with former assistant Randy Hanson, in which Hanson suffered a broken jaw.
Not exactly the "Commitment to Excellence" Al Davis had in mind, it seems.
And it's seemingly left Cable and his charges in "circle the wagons" mode.
"It's seven weeks into the season. There's a lot of football left," he said. "I still know that this team's gonna succeed this year. To what degree, that will be decided in the next nine weeks, 10 weeks. And I'm not gonna lose faith in it. I haven't. And so we'll just keep moving forward. And I just think the biggest issue for us right now is making sure we take care of each other on this football team."
On the contrary, even at .500, San Diego is second in the woeful four-team loop...ahead of the Raiders and 1-6 Kansas City. In fact, the Chargers have beaten the Raiders 12 straight times.
And in relative terms, they're George Clooney to Oakland's Gene Wilder.
"To a certain extent, we are what our record says we are, which is a .500 football team," said Chargers QB Philip Rivers, during a radio interview on Wednesday's Jim Rome Show. "But knowing the way we come to work and prepare between Monday and Saturday - what most people don't see - there's no doubt in my mind that we're going to finish up better than that at the end."
Oakland has a 54-43-2 record in its all-time regular season series with San Diego, but has lost 12 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 will be looking to pull off their sixth consecutive home-and-home sweep over the Silver and Black. 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.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner is 6-1 all-time against his former employer the Raiders, including 5-0 since coming to San Diego. Oakland's Cable is 0-2 against both Turner and the Chargers as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
In spite of the 6-for-11, two-interception start that led to Gradkowski's insertion last week, Russell will get the start again under center for the Raiders with Cable's blessing. Overall, he's completed just 74-of-160 passes, been intercepted eight times and accounted for only two passing touchdowns for a traditionally aerially-inclined team. He has, however, passed for 200-plus yards with a touchdown in three career home starts against San Diego - including a career-high 277 yards last September - so even a road start within the same state might not be a debacle. On the ground, the recently Darren McFadden-less Raiders now feature youngster Michael Bush, who made his first NFL start last month and gained 55 yards on 12 carries with a TD in the Chargers' narrow 24-20 win. Workhorse Justin Fargas led the team for the second straight week with 67 yards against the Jets. On the outside, rookie Louis Murphy averages 14.5 yards per catch and had 87 yards and a touchdown against San Diego in September. And at tight end, Zach Miller is among the league's best while leading the team with 123 catches and 1,591 yards since 2007. He leads all tight ends in the NFL with a 16-yard per-catch average this season.
Always long on talent, the Chargers have again been short on performance in 2009, allowing 332.3 yards per game through six, with 11 sacks and seven interceptions to show for it. Only two of six opponents have been held below 20 points, which essentially matches the pace of last year's 8-8 team that allowed 20-plus points in 11 games. Still, things looked better in a 30-point whipping of Kansas City last week, in which the Chiefs managed just 10 first downs and 203 total yards - including 100 through the air. Linebackers Larry English and Shaun Phillips have a pair of sacks apiece to lead the team, while cornerback Antoine Cason has a team-best two interceptions. Elsewhere, linebacker Stephen Cooper's 43 tackles lead the group. Veteran linebacker Shawne Merriman has 6.5 sacks in his last four games against Oakland and Phillips' 9.5 career sacks against the Raiders are his most against any foe.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Still vainly waiting for former All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinson (211 yards in six games) to break loose, the Chargers went to the air against Kansas City and got three touchdowns from Rivers and 268 yards overall, helping the team reach fourth in the league in passing. Rivers was 18-of-30 overall, posted a season- best passer rating of 122.6 and threw no interceptions. On the season, he's 126-for-213 while accounting for 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions. In his career, he is 7-0 against Oakland. Tight end Antonio Gates remains his top target with 34 catches for 474 yards and two scores. Since 2002, he leads all tight ends with 53 touchdown catches. Still a dangerous decoy if nothing else, Tomlinson has averaged 115.4 yards per game in his career against the Raiders and has reached 100 yards or more against them nine times. He's averaging 3.5 yards per carry this season and has scored once, leaving the Chargers 31st in the league in rushing with 70.5 yards per game.
Not much good exists statistically or otherwise for the Raiders, who are 30th in the league in run defense (169.7 yards per game) and 28th in total defense (377.1 yards per game) after the New York debacle. The Jets became the first team since 1975 to reach 300 ground yards in consecutive weeks when they got to 316 last Sunday. Oakland has lost by at least 20 points four times and has given up 177 points compared to the 62 it's scored. Still, quarterback pressuring has yielded a respectable 16 sacks - including 10 in the last four games. Veterans Richard Seymour and Greg Ellis lead with four apiece and have a combined 124 in their careers. Linebacker Kirk Morrison has a team-best 67 tackles and free safety Michael Huff leads with three interceptions.
Thanks to the matchup, Rivers, Gates and San Diego wideout Vincent Jackson are good bets for solid numbers, and the possibility always exists that Tomlinson will re-find himself at any moment. Also a good play is the Chargers' defense, thanks to the ever-generous Russell. For Oakland, outside of Miller as a go-to tight end, not much starting material exists beyond perhaps kicker Sebastian Janikowski.
Though the dreaded "trap game" always looms when a superior foe hosts a limping one, the planets simply don't seem aligned for the Raiders to end a long series losing skid on the road. Russell is too shaky. The defense is too leaky. And the Chargers, if Rivers' optimism is to be believed, are simply too good and too determined to kick-start a roll back toward the division's elite.
This week should make it two straight.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chargers 28, Raiders 10.
10/29 14:10:23 ET