Bolts Aim to Land on Other Side of Upset

CB Cletis Gordon (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

Are the Chargers the team they thought were, with grand plans to go deep into the playoffs after last year's stellar regular season? Or are they just an average team, as their 4-4 record suggests? They could get a strong clue after Sunday night, when the inconsistent Chargers face the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts at Qualcomm Stadium.

The Chargers were ready to build on last year's 14-2 regular-season mark, their best showing in franchise history. But a coaching change and an early false sense of confidence has left the squad bewildered at the season's halfway point.

"It's too early to put a stamp on what this season is," said quarterback Philip Rivers, who isn't playing at the Pro Bowl level he did last year. "I know the expectations in our locker room, the expectations of everyone else."

The expectation was the Chargers were primed to take their spot along the NFL's elite teams. Ready to show the Patriots, Colts and Steelers that there was room for one more feared team in the AFC.

But the early-season matchup with the Patriots was a disaster. The Chargers had their doors blown off, 38-14.

And the rest of the year has been spotty as well. Whenever the Chargers are faced with a challenge of playing a team that's not among the NFL dregs, they've failed.

So here come the Colts (7-1), who are smarting after suffering a painful defeat to the Patriots. The Colts figure to be in a particularly sour mood, as they let a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead slip away at the home Sunday.

The Chargers were dynamite at home last year in running the table, 8-0. But they have already lost once at home to the Chiefs, the team they're tied with atop the woeful AFC West.

But everything could change in Chargers Park if they could rise up and beat the Colts. It would chase away the dark cloud that is hovering over the Chargers, one that comes with expecting so much and getting so little.

If nothing else, the Chargers no longer seem to be in denial that this year's team has many miles to go to approach last year's squad. At the season's midpoint, the Chargers already have twice as many losses as they finished with last year, and they've yet to prove their mettle against a squad with at least a .500 record.

Elite team? Not the Chargers. And that's according to MVP LaDainian Tomlinson.

"We're not an elite team at all," Tomlinson said. "We're a team that's middle of the pack, and we're struggling to win games."

The Chargers looked less than average in getting embarrassed by the Vikings in the last game, as the run defense was of the Swiss cheese variety. Adrian Peterson ran through gapping holes and past countless Chargers whiffing on trying to tackle him.

But so often a team that is red-faced one week rebounds the next. That said, the Chargers seemed especially demoralized in the wake of Peterson's humiliating performance.

So which way do the Chargers go?

Is there enough leadership from the head coach down to right a ship that can't find calm waters?

Or have the self-doubts about Turner and his ability to lead this team become too much to overcome? Especially against a team with so much savvy as the Colts.

Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman said the Chargers will get on track -- well, kind of.

"It will happen," Merriman said. "But better sooner than later, before it's too late."

If nothing else, the Chargers no longer prance around as if they are light years ahead of their opponents.

"Realistically, we're 4-4, and we're going to scrap and claw to get in the playoffs," Rivers said. "And then we'll see what happens."

SERIES HISTORY: 23rd meeting. Chargers lead the series, 13-9. The Chargers went into Indianapolis two years ago and ruined the Colts' bid for an undefeated season after they had started 13-0. The Colts upended the Chargers in a wild-card playoff game after the 1995 season with future Chargers quarterback Jim Harbaugh at the helm. It was San Diego's last playoff appearance under coach Bobby Ross, who was fired after the 1996 season.

NOTES, QUOTES

--DE Luis Castillo is out for six weeks after undergoing ankle surgery. He will be replaced by Jacques Cesaire and Ryon Bingham. "When we've had guys injured, we've had guys step in and play well," coach Norv Turner said. "That's something that we're counting on."

--How big was Castillo's absence last week against Viking RB Adrian Peterson? Real big, according to defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. "Adrian is outstanding, but we thought we could handle him, and we did in the first half," he said. "What happened in the second half is Castillo got hurt. That really hurt us."

--It's a bit troubling at the season's halfway point when one of the team's players says things aren't right. It's especially troubling when that player is RB LaDainian Tomlinson. "It's obvious that we're just not all on the same page," he said. "Everybody's not playing like we're capable of playing. We've got to change that."

--GM A.J. Smith was quoted as saying the Chargers were-no shows for two games in the season's first half -- at New England and at Minnesota. "I don't know what to say about it," Smith said. "I don't have any answers. I thought we were flat Sunday. We're up and down. We're playing in spurts. It's not good enough, and in two of the games we didn't even show up." That's hardly a ringing endorsement for Norv Turner, the coach Smith hired after Marty Schottenheimer was canned. At this rate, the Chargers won't show up for four of the 16 games on the schedule. Not good.

--CB Antonio Cromartie is on coach Norv Turner's radar as possibly being used as a return man. But with CB Quentin Jammer slowed by a hamstring injury, the time might not be right this week. "He is amazing," Turner said of Cromartie. "There is a place for that. It's something we've got to continue to consider."

--The Chargers have proven their approach in defending Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning -- get after him. Manning has been sacked four times in a game just twice in 41 games, and it was the Chargers who did it both times.

--One can bet the Chargers' crowd will be in a lather with Manning on the field -- Chargers fans are still miffed at his little brother for dissing the franchise when it selected him with the No. 1 pick. But what will be interested to listen for is when the first "Marrr-ty, Marrr-ty" chants will start if the team gets off to a slow start.

--Turner said the Chargers' momentum gained during its three-game winning streak dissolved in the great indoors of Minnesota. "We were on a little bit of a mini-roll, and we were getting better," he said. "We did take a step back."

--The Chargers continue not to use backup RB Michael Turner, despite paying him more than $2 million and turning down the opportunity to move him in the offseason. Turner is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Turner has just 36 carries, but he is averaging 6.1 yards with a long of 74. The camp talk of using both Turner and RB LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield turned out to be so much hot air. Turner had one carry for a minus-3 yards Sunday.

--Sunday marks the start of one of the most difficult stretches for the Chargers. After facing the Colts, they travel to Jacksonville, entertain the Ravens, then go to Kansas City.

--This marks the third consecutive year the Chargers have played both of the previous season's Super Bowl teams. They swept New England and Philadelphia in 2005, swept the Steelers and Seahawks last year and earlier this year beat the Bears.

--Colts LB Freddy Keiaho played fullback at San Diego State.

--The Chargers run defense has allowed 493 yards in its last two games.

--The Chargers' kick and punt coverage teams have been on a hot streak. In the last four games, rivals have started 28 of 42 drives at or inside the 20-yard line.

--Since the start of the 2005 season, the Chargers are 6-2 in nationally televised games -- like Sunday's.

--Colts president Bill Polian and Chargers GM A.J. Smith were executives for the Chicago Blitz in 1982. They would later work together with the Buffalo Bills.

--Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd was on the Chargers' staff from 1974-76.

BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- Teams the Chargers have beaten this season that have a winning record.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "To be honest, I don't care too much about the playoffs. I don't care about the Super Bowl. We've got to get a win against Indy." -- OLB Shawne Merriman.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The backups could have big roles for the Chargers on Sunday.

With DE Luis Castillo (ankle) out, Jacques Cesaire and Ryon Bingham will see much more playing time.

CB Quentin Jammer is nursing a bad hamstring, and he might not even try to practice until later in the week -- if at all. If he can't go, that puts the inconsistent but speedy Antonio Cromartie into a larger role, as well as fourth-string CB Cletis Gordon. Having backups -- and a rookie safety, Eric Weddle, on dime packages -- isn't a comfortable notion when going against Peyton Manning.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Philip Rivers has 11 turnovers in eight games -- seven interceptions and four lost fumbles. He had one of each in the loss at Minnesota.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson needs three rushing touchdowns to tie his hero, Walter Payton, for third on the NFL's all-time list at 110. Tomlinson has at least one rushing touchdown in three of his last four regular-season home games and nine of last 12.

--CB Antonio Cromartie was selected as the AFC's special teams player of the week after setting an NFL record by returning a failed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown.

--DE Shawne Merriman has 2 1/2 sacks in his last four games, and they all came in the Oakland game.

--TE Antonio Gates needs to have QB Philip Rivers look his way more. Despite getting blitzed with regularity, Rivers found Gates just once for 10 yards on Sunday.

--WR Vincent Jackson is getting some flak for failing to make adjustments on balls not thrown right at him. Through eight games, Jackson has just 21 catches for 336 yards and two scores. He has two catches in his last three games.

--WR Malcom Floyd had fallen out of the receivers mix after looking as if he would be a big part of it. He has been inactive the past two games.

GAME PLAN: Get back to giving the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson on a consistent basis. If the Chargers' run blocking can return to form, allowing Tomlinson to get a heavy workload would help gobble up yards and time. The Chargers offense has been struggling of late -- 10 points in the past six quarters -- so it doesn't want to get into a scoring orgy with Peyton Manning and the Colts. Let Tomlinson prove his MVP status.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Edges of Chargers' pass protection vs. Colts speed rushers at end -- The Chargers were repeatedly flustered in their pass protection last week, as the Vikings repeatedly blitzed them and gave Philip Rivers a case of happy feet. The Colts likely will copy that plan, but they can supply pressure with their regular front, especially off the corners with DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. It's going to be critical that LT Marcus McNeill -- he gets Freeney -- and RT Shane Olivea -- he draws Mathis -- are on their games.

Chargers pass defense, which could be missing CB Quentin Jammer, vs. Colts passing attack, led by seven-time Pro Bowl QB Peyton Manning -- At full strength, the Chargers would be hard-pressed to slow down Manning on a couple of fronts. But now Jammer, the team's top cover man, is questionable with a chronic hamstring injury. That could press Antonio Cromartie into a bigger role and put little-used Cletis Gordon into the fray more than the Chargers would want. The Chargers also might be selling out to prove they can stop the run -- or blitzing Manning -- which would leave the Colts quarterback with some big holes to shoot for.

Chargers punt return game, featuring Darren Sproles, vs. Colts punt return coverage unit, which has been struggling -- Sproles has come on of late and had a solid game in Minnesota, when he averaged 14.5 yards on two efforts, with a long of 19. Sproles appears to be getting closer to breaking a long one -- he could also hear the talk that Antonio Cromartie might eventually get a shot at returning punts. The Colts' punt coverage team is ranked dead last, allowing an average of 18.7 yards per return, including a 74-yarder. This could be a critical area for the Chargers, who will be looking for good field position in case they get in a shootout with the potent Colts.

INJURY IMPACT: OLB Shawne Merriman (knee) was limited in his work Wednesday. He's expected to play Sunday...C Nick Hardwick (foot) is out at least one more game; he didn't practice Wednesday. Cory Withrow will replace him...WR Craig Davis (ankle) worked Wednesday, and it looks as if he will be available Sunday...CB Quentin Jammer (hamstring) didn't practice Wednesday. He might try later in the week. Antonio Cromartie would start if Jammer is idle...OLB Shaun Phillips (groin) worked Wednesday. He should go on Sunday...OLB Marques Harris (toe) didn't practice Wednesday...DE Luis Castillo (ankle) is out six weeks. He will be replaced by Jacques Cesaire.

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