Can the Chargers KO the Titans?
LB Shawne Merriman (Donald Miralle/Getty)
LB Shawne Merriman (Donald Miralle/Getty)

Posted Jan 4, 2008


Here we go, Round 2. The Chargers will lock bodies again with the Tennessee Titans Sunday in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium. If it's anything like the epic these two teams played on Dec. 9 -- the Chargers won in overtime -- it has the makings of an instant classic.

After playing three quarters of shaky football, the visiting Chargers erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit and won in overtime, 23-17.

The game was marred by late hits, penalties and cheap shots. Four players -- three of them Titans -- were fined by the NFL for their actions.

Shawne Merriman was right in the middle of it. He popped quarterback Vince Young when he wasn't looking, which had the Titans putting him in their cross-hairs. Sure enough, Merriman was soon limping to the sidelines after questionable hits from tackle David Stewart and center Kevin Mawae. Both were fined.

Merriman said after the game he heard from some of his teammates that Titans coach Jeff Fisher ordered the hit.

"I never even said that," said Merriman, who missed two weeks with a sprained knee from the hit. "After the game, I said that people came up and told me. I think it was more put out that I said that. That's what I heard. I didn't know that what happened is what was said for sure. I still don't know, but at the same time, we've just got to go out and play football.

"I think more was made of that situation than what it really was. I didn't think it was going to be as big as it was, especially me being a bit heated after the game. I think that no matter who comes out to play, I've got to go out and perform my best regardless of who we're playing."

That is spin control at its best -- well, almost.

"We are going to come out there and hug each other," Merriman said.

Fat chance.

Neither team cares for the other and that was evident on Dec. 9 and that will be evident on Sunday.

But the Chargers would be foolish to allow their emotions to get in the way of their goal -- winning a playoff game for the first time since the 1994 season.

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson said this year's team is entering the tournament hungry instead of fat and sassy.

"(Last season) it felt so easy throughout the year," Tomlinson said. "Winning something like 10 straight, you had to get to the point where we were kind of a little arrogant and saying, 'You know what? We don't think anybody out there can beat us. We won 10 straight.' You can have a tendency; it's human nature to do that. We did that last year and we paid for it."

But the Chargers don't have that same swagger. Not after stumbling to a 1-3 start and sitting at no better than .500 after 10 games.

"This year, things have come tougher for us," Tomlinson said. "We have really been in some tough games. We have lost some close games, some tough games, and we've had games where we just got embarrassed. I think all that said, you go into the playoffs with a newfound respect."

The Chargers, though, are hot, too. They've won six straight and 10 of their past 12.

"We've kind of found that rhythm and you want to be peaking in January as the saying goes," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "I think we're doing that. Whereas last year, I'm not sure we were. I mean, yeah we just won (10) in a row. But I'm not sure that we were rolling as much as we are right now."

SERIES HISTORY: 40th meeting, if counting the games when the Titans were the Houston Oilers. The Chargers lead the series, 22-16-1. The two met on Dec. 9 in Nashville and in an epic battle, the Chargers prevailed in overtime, 23-17. The Chargers rallied from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win.


LB Shaun Phillips
Donald Miralle/Getty

NOTES, QUOTES

--GM A.J. Smith was awarded a contract extension on New Year's Day that will keep him with the club through 2014. Smith was hired in 2003, replacing the late John Butler. Under Smith's roster-building, the Chargers have gone 46-18 the last four seasons. Only the Colts and Patriots have a better regular-season mark.

"It's been a continual work in progress, but I think he has put together the roots of a championship team and I think his performance in the last four years speaks for itself," team president Dean Spanos said.

"One positive thing he's done is he's kept this team intact for the next four or five years by signing (26) key players to long-term deals (through 2010), which I hope will give us the continued consistency of being in the playoffs. If anybody deserves to be here for that, he does because he really helped build this. Besides, I've worked with him for six years and I feel comfortable working with the man and I think he feels comfortable working with me. I felt it was in the best interests of the club."

--OLB Shaun Phillips doesn't care about Sunday's opponent -- the goal is the same. "It doesn't really matter who's on the field," he said. "It doesn't matter if my mom's cooking team is on the field. We'd put the same effort. All that matters right now is winning."

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson is hopeful the Chargers are peaking at the right time. "That's what we talked about all year long," he said. "We're at the point where we're (playing our best). Hopefully it can continue."

--When the Titans' LenDale White scored in the team's last meeting, he imitated Shawne Merriman's lights-out dance. Does that bug Merriman? "I always said I was 50-50 on it, but I can't lie about it," he said. "It does get under my skin sometimes. It's all part of the game. I'm having fun out there doing it. I guess if a guy goes out there and makes a play or he scores or whatever, he is having fun with it as well. It's just about going out there and doing what you love to do, and that is play football. I know LenDale, so I'm going to have something special for him. He's a good guy, so I'll have something special."

--Coach Norv Turner said the Chargers will keep their emotions in check. "We've talked a lot about that from, I guess, May 1 when we started our minicamp," he said.

"I think that's been one of the strengths of our football team, our ability to keep our poise. We were tested early. We tested ourselves early with the way we started. I think our guys have been disciplined. They've kept their poise and as I said, for the most part, I think we've done a good job preparing on a week-to-week basis. We've got to go play a football game and no one when you get to this point can afford to have a 15-yard penalty that stops a drive or continues a drive for the other team. We certainly can't afford to have a situation where someone would be ejected from a game, any of those situations. We just have to be a disciplined football team."

--Only two teams have longer postseason losing streaks than the Chargers, who have dropped their past four. The Lions have lost six straight and the Cowboys, five.

--When they were the Houston Oilers, the Titans beat the Chargers in three playoff games.

--Turner is 1-1 in the playoffs.

--The Chargers allowed one rushing touchdown at home, fewest in the NFL.

--Titans coach Jeff Fisher was a cornerback under Turner at USC, where he was the secondary coach.

--The Chargers have allowed just three sacks in the past three games.

--The Chargers are 5-0 in December and have won 10 straight games in December.

--At home, the Chargers allowed just 10 touchdowns, tied with Pittsburgh for fewest in the league.

BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- Times the Chargers have won a playoff game since the 1994 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm expecting them to come in with a magnifying glass and some x-ray goggles to see everything that's going on during the game and paying attention to everything." -- LB Shawne Merriman, on how the officials will approach the game after the teams' last meeting resulted in four fines.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

With defensive tackle Jamal Williams returning, that means less playing time for Brandon McKinney and Ryon Bingham. Bingham will probably slide outside more and get in the rotation at end. Still, both figure to play, with Williams being asked to play at a playoff-level after missing the past two games.

S Eric Weddle figures to play more as well. He's being used with more regularity at the expense of starter Marlon McCree.


WR Craig Davis
Harry How/Getty

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Craig Davis is getting more work returning punts and that should be the case on Sunday. Darren Sproles is still the main guy, but Davis will get a shot or two.

--WR Chris Chambers will make his playoff debut on Sunday. Chambers has at least two catches in every game since being acquired from Miami in October.

--S Clinton Hart finished strong, collecting two interceptions in his last three games. He finished with career highs in tackles (109) and interceptions (five).

--QB Philip Rivers has thrown 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in his last six games for a 93.0 rating.

--P Mike Scifres just missed setting a team single-season record with his 46.1-yard average. Darren Bennett set the standard in 2000 at 46.2.

--LB Stephen Cooper finished the year with double-digit tackle totals in 13 of the 16 games. In the season finale Sunday, he had a team-high 16 tackles. He had 10 tackles when the Chargers beat the Titans last month.

GAME PLAN: This figures to be a tough, physical game where points will be hard to come by. The Titans are tough to run against, No. 5 in the NFL. But the Chargers won't get away from doing what they do best, and that is sticking it in LaDainian Tomlinson's gut. The Chargers would love to run on early downs and keep QB Philip Rivers out of harm's way. The Titans would love to knock Rivers around and that will be tough to do unless the Chargers are sitting in obvious passing situations.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Chargers running game, with LaDainian Tomlinson and a taste of Darren Sproles, vs. Titans run defense.

Tomlinson had a great day against the Titans in December, when he rushed for 146 yards and a score, with a nifty 5.6-yard average. Tomlinson is missing his bruising Pro Bowl FB Lorenzo Neal, but his front line has been playing excellent of late -- look for Tomlinson to keep running toward the left side behind LT Marcus McNeill and LG Kris Dielman. The key is how C Nick Hardwick fares against a Titans defensive line that is led by massive DT Albert Haynesworth. McNeill will have his hands full with Kyle Vanden Bosch; McNeill got his doors blown off in the earlier game.

Chargers run defense, which gets a boost from the return of Pro Bowl DT Jamal Williams, vs. Titans' three-headed running game with quarterback Vince Young and running backs LenDale White and Chris Brown.

Williams missed the past two games with ankle and hip injuries and it showed as the Chargers had massive holes in their run defense. It allowed 214 yards against the Broncos and Raiders. Young's contributions to the running game could be compromised if his quad starts to act up.

Chargers kick-return game with Darren Sproles vs. Titans kick-return coverage unit, which is ranked 26th in the league.

In the earlier game between these teams, Sproles was down with a knee injury. He's healthy now and has been giving the return game a jolt. He averages 27.2 yards per effort and has a long of 89 for a touchdown. The Titans' kick coverage team is allowing an average of 24.2 yards. In a game that figures to be so physical with yards hard to come by, the game could hinge on field position. And the Chargers are in position to win that battle if Sproles can set them up with some short fields.

INJURY IMPACT:

--K Nate Kaeding (leg) will be able to kick field goals on Sunday. Dave Rayner will likely handle the kickoff duties.

--OLB Marques Harris practiced Wednesday after missing the last game rebounding from hand surgery. He should be able to go Sunday.

--DT Jamal Williams (hip, ankle) worked on Wednesday and will be a go on Sunday. He has missed the past two games.

--FB Lorenzo Neal (leg) didn't work and won't go Sunday. Andrew Pinnock will replace him.

--LB Shaun Phillips (wrist) practiced and will play Sunday.



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