LB Shawne Merriman (Christian Petersen/Getty)
Here come the visiting Baltimore Ravens to face the struggling Chargers on Sunday, with the home team juggling a nest full of problems. Just what ails the Chargers, who have plummeted from a nifty, preseason pick to reach the Super Bowl to trying valiantly to keep their head above the .500 mark?
Is it a team grown complacent after racing to a franchise-best 14-2 record last year?
Is it a team still grasping the shocking change of seeing Marty Schottenheimer, its veteran and successful coach, being replaced by the uninspiring Norv Turner?
Is it the expectations that have clung to this team like dog hair on a sweater?
Is it the players, well, trying too hard?
"At times it does seem like that -- like we feel the sense of urgency throughout the game, and you try to make a play and sometimes you have the tendency to push too hard and it doesn't happen," LaDainian Tomlinson said. "That could certainly be the case."
Whatever the case, the Chargers (5-5) aren't close to being the team they thought. Despite that, they own a share of the AFC West lead with the surging Broncos.
Tomlinson, who is far off his NFL MVP pace of last year, speculates the Chargers need to grasp the game's joys without thinking of its pitfalls.
"I think we all need to be reminded sometimes it's still the game we played since we were kids and we weren't getting paid a dime," he said. "We were just doing it because we loved it. We did it because family was there and friends and it was fun."
Snickers and giggles are hard to find at Chargers Park this year. The maddening inconsistency by this group, which returned 11 Pro Bowl selections, is causing some to snap.
Linebacker Shawne Merriman, one of those Pro Bowlers, questioned his teammates' commitment in the aftermath of Sunday's defeat in Jacksonville. Merriman barked despite having but one tackle and getting creamed by the undersized Maurice Jones-Drew on a touchdown pass.
But Turner -- who is getting roasted by local fans -- doesn't see any quit in the Chargers.
"I don't look at tape and say someone's not playing hard," he said. "I don't look at tape and say, someone's not competing. I don't look at the tape and say, we lack energy."
Still, that was one fired-up Merriman after Sunday's loss when stating loud and clear that losing isn't that a big of a deal to some of his teammates.
"After a game, it's so emotional and these guys are so competitive, guys may say something and then all of a sudden see it the next day and say, well that's not exactly how this thing was meant to be or perceived," Turner said. "I don't see it."
What's plain to see is this team is still searching for confidence and an identity. And that raises nothing but a big red flag if those two attributes haven't been secured by late November.
That's what makes Sunday's game against the desperate Ravens so critical. The Ravens are basically playing for their 2007 life after dropping four straight games. One more loss and whatever thread of hope this team had of returning to the playoffs is snapped.
They need to show they aren't a team becoming fractured in the locker room after two weeks of sub-par play. Yes, one of those weeks resulted in a win over the Super Bowl champion Colts. But the Chargers know luck played as big of a part in that triumph as did their play.
So which way Chargers? Is this the start of a six-game stretch run in which they prove they should be mentioned among the NFL's elite teams?
Or will Sunday be the continuation of a team taking one step forward, then two back, at every turn?
No matter which way they turn, the hour glass sand for this season is dwindling.
"Is it pretty? No," fullback Lorenzo Neal said. "Is it ugly? Yes. Do you wish it was better? Of course, we all do, but it's not.
"But until we as players actively take a hold of this and do something about it, then we will continue to struggle."
SERIES HISTORY: 6th meeting. The Ravens lead, 3-2. The last time they played was in 2006, when the visiting Chargers coughed up a 13-7 fourth-quarter lead to fall in the final minute. The loss came with a silver lining, as after the game Marty Ball was officially buried. Then-coach Marty Schottenheimer turned the offensive responsibilities and philosophy over to then-coordinator Cam Cameron and the Chargers finished as the NFL's highest-scoring team.
--Ravens LB Ray Lewis and the Chargers' Shawne Merriman are close friends; Merriman played with Lewis' younger brother at Maryland. The pair speak often during the season. "We talk about everything; we jaw about so much," Merriman said. "We just enjoy being warriors for the game and he has been doing it for so long and at a high level that it is amazing. I kind of want to get where he is and surpass him in maybe even a shorter time period."
--The Chargers need to figure out how Merriman can increase his production. He has gone four straight games without a sack. He has 5.5 sacks, but they came in three of the season's 10 games. He had one tackle in the loss at Jacksonville. Merriman led the league with 17 sacks last year in only 12 games.
--At least the Chargers are at home on Sunday. They are a dismal 1-4 on the road after going 6-2 in away games last year." We're not doing enough to beat better teams, especially on the road," RB LaDainian Tomlinson said. "It's obvious we're not a good road team, playing against good teams."
--Tomlinson needs 29 yards to reach the 10,000 career yards mark.
--QB Philip Rivers is struggling, but he hasn't lost his perspective. "I'm thankful for a lot," he said. "I'm thankful for this opportunity. Yeah, things aren't going great and people are upset. I understand all that, but there are a lot worse places I could be standing or things that could be going. Today we're all getting to do something that we love to do. It doesn't always go the way you want it, but the way you handle those tough times, I think, is what really defines who you are."
--LB Carlos Polk was placed on IR after suffering a shoulder injury on Sunday. Polk is a dynamo on special teams, where he leads the team with 12 tackles. His roster spot was taken by rookie LB Jyles Tucker, who was elevated from the practice squad.
--San Diego signed LB Antwan Applewhite to the practice squad. He takes the place of LB Nick Roach, who was signed by the Bears.
--The Chargers lead the NFL with 17 interceptions and they have collected 12 in their last three homes games.
--In the Chargers' last two home games -- both wins -- their special teams has scored three touchdowns.
--Rick Neuheisel is the Ravens' offensive coordinator, but much like with the Chargers, the head coach -- Brian Billick in this case -- calls the plays. Neuheisel started two games at quarterback for the Chargers during the 1987 strike season.
--Ravens wide receivers coach Mike Johnson was the Chargers quarterbacks coach from 2000-01.
--Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was among the finalists for the Chargers' head-coaching job, which went to Norv Turner.
--Billick was an offensive coach at San Diego State from 1981-85.
BY THE NUMBERS: 17 -- Turnovers by QB Philip Rivers, which leads the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I haven't lost any of my confidence." -- QB Philip Rivers, on his shaky play this season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
CB Quentin Jammer will start for the first time in three games after being slowed by a hamstring injury. Jammer will be asked to not only supply coverage but run support for a defense to be tested by Willis McGahee. If that hamstring gets fatigued, it could mean more playing time for Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie is a great talent, but not nearly the run-support force or cover guy that Jammer is.
Also, DE Jacques Cesaire is still nursing a toe injury. The Chargers will be cautious in making sure he doesn't get overworked. Look for additional playing time for Ryon Bingham, and possibly DT Brandon McKinney.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--QB Philip Rivers is looking for consecutive 300-yard passing games for the first time in his career on Sunday after going for 309 last Sunday. Rivers, though, has never had a 300-yard passing game at Qualcomm Stadium.
--WR Chris Chambers could be in for another big day as he and Rivers become more comfortable with each other. Chambers, who came over last month from Miami on a trade-deadline deal, had his top day as a Charger in Jacksonville with 93 receiving yards.
--TE Antonio Gates had three 100-yard receiving games in three of the first five games, but hasn't had one since.
--P Mike Scifres has landed 19 of his past 26 kicks inside the opponents' 20-yard-line.
--CB Antonio Cromartie will likely move back into his role on nickel and dime packages with Quentin Jammer returning to the starting lineup. Cromartie had started the past two games.
--ILB Stephen Cooper, in his first year as a starter after replacing Randall Godfrey, leads the team with 68 tackles. He also has a sack and an interception.
The old Chargers -- last year's Chargers, anyway -- would have seen the Ravens' No. 3 mark in run defense and shrugged. Soon after, would have been a steady diet of power runs, their rival's ranking be damned.
But with the offensive line not playing to the level it did last year, the Chargers can't be so cocky. So look for them to continue to try and move the ball through the air, even if the passes are of the short variety out in the flats to LaDainian Tomlinson or intermediate routes to Antonio Gates.
Philip Rivers had a pretty good game last week -- save for the two fourth-quarter interceptions. That's a bit like saying the ride of the Titanic was cool, save the iceberg, but at least Rivers is showing signs of getting out of his season-long stupor.
--C Nick Hardwick (foot) is out at least one more game. Cory Withrow will replace him. That's a big task against the Ravens' run defense.
--CB Quentin Jammer (hamstring) is planning on starting Sunday after missing the past two starts.
--S Eric Weddle (knee) is expected to go Sunday. He's a key plug in the dime packages.
--Cesaire (toe) will be smart in practice and play Sunday.
--DE Luis Castillo (ankle) is out four weeks.