Coach Norv Turner (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty)
There is nothing like entering an NFL locker room after a win. The feel, the sound, the jubilation is obvious. And just maybe, the Chargers' locker room will take on those characteristics if they beat the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's home opener.
Not that the Chargers haven't won. It's just that after prevailing against the Raiders in Monday's opener, there was little hip-hip-hooray.
Instead it was what-in-the-name-of-the-holy-roller was that?
The Chargers wouldn't admit it, but they escaped the Black Hole with a season-opening victory thanks to kind calls and a killer comeback.
And that is what makes Sunday's game so compelling.
The Chargers were supposed to waltz through the AFC West, with everyone else in the division rebuilding. But the Chargers struggled in Oakland on both sides of the ball and have to question if they are as big and bad as advertised.
So if surviving in the NFL truly is about looking ahead the key is craning the neck to see the Ravens and not back at the slim win in Oakland.
But that's easier said than done.
The Chargers didn't need much convincing that their offense was souped-up. And while it took time for the running game to get going, Philip Rivers showed he is capable of directing those skilled players and that unit with success.
But can the Chargers' defense bring something to the table on Sunday? If an erratic JaMarcus Russell nearly beats it, what does a much-more competent Joe Flacco do?
In any physical game, a team walks away with bumps and bruises. The Chargers were no exception, losing five starters in Monday's game.
But the team also exited Oakland-Alameda County Stadium with the swagger swung the other way. The ultra-confident, see-you-in-Miami strut it took onto the field before the game wasn't evident. It was missing, much like the ingredients that are usually part of any winning locker room.
The Chargers knew they were going to be tested at some point. No NFL player or executive is naive to think it's one clear ride despite how things are positioned.
But the Chargers get their gut check early, what with a shoddy showing on national television and the possibility key players could be missing with injuries.
They are asked to answer a challenge against the Ravens, a team which is smarting on its own after a close call against the Chiefs.
But the chief concern Sunday for the Chargers is rediscovering that belief and that confidence which was so evident before Monday.
The NFL axiom that a victory covers every blemish is being tested by the Chargers. While they're upbeat over a late drive to pull out 2008's first victory, they also know this year's big, bad 50th anniversary edition took more than a few roundhouses Monday.
There's no roundabout way to say it: A team with such promise needs to reveal it.
SERIES HISTORY: 7th regular-season meeting. Series tied 3-3. The Chargers won the last matchup, but the Ravens have won three of the last four. The last meeting was in San Diego, where the Chargers prevailed 32-14 in 2007. When the Ravens won in Baltimore in 2006, it was one of only two regular-season losses for the Chargers.
--Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh is the older brother of former Chargers quarterback Jim Harbaugh. His father, Jack, is a former college coach, and his brother-in-law, Tom Crean, is the men's basketball coach at the University of Indiana.
--DE Jacques Cesaire was able to work Wednesday after missing the opener with a calf injury. Cesaire missed the entire preseason with the same injury and his return is critical to the defense rebounding on Sunday.
--QB Philip Rivers' fourth-quarter numbers have always been among the best in the league. He was keen late again Monday when collecting his 10th come-from-behind win, and it was the third time he had done it against the Raiders.
"People talk about quarterbacks that handle pressure and respond and lead their team from behind, I don't know I'd want anyone else doing it," coach Norv Turner said. "He's done it continuously. He's done it in some real difficult situations like tonight."
Rivers was 6 of 7 for 79 yards on the critical drive which covered 89 yards.
--WR Legedu Naanee has bumped Malcom Floyd from the No. 3 receiver's role.
"He's our third receiver," Turner said. "I think that's one of the areas we're going to be better this year because he's a year older. He's kind of taken that spot over. There are going to be some games he catches five or six balls, there are going to be some games where he catches one."
--LT Marcus McNeill rolled his ankle Monday night but he wasn't leaving the field after two other linemen had already gone down.
"Unless I couldn't walk, I was staying in the game regardless," McNeill said. "I knew the guys needed me and I wanted to be out there to battle with them."
--DE Andre Coleman was signed to the practice squad after being cut.
--The Chargers are 31-18 (.633) in home openers.
--LaDainian Tomlinson was a spectator on the go-ahead score Monday; he was on the sidelines with an ankle injury when Darren Sproles got the call -- and what a call it was. Despite Sproles' slight size, the Chargers called a trap play inside and it worked -- which impressed Tomlinson.
"It was an unbelievable call in the end on the trap," Tomlinson said. "They had no idea it was coming."
--The Chargers need to keep an eye on Ravens WR Derrick Mason. In two games at Qualcomm Stadium, Mason has 19 catches for 193 and a touchdown.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- Number of Chargers starters injured in their opening-day win. That doesn't included starting DE Jacques Cesaire, who failed to suit up.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You find a way to win. There's no AP poll where votes matter. You just find a way to win and move on." -- QB Philip Rivers and absorbing Monday's ugly win and turning the attention toward Sunday's game against the Ravens.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With all the injuries along the offensive line, the Chargers signed nine-year pro Dennis Norman. He was cut from Jacksonville recently after starting 14 games for them last year at center. Norman can also be plugged in at various spots along the line and will give the team some flexibility after Monday's thinning of the ranks.
It's a lot to ask a player to sign on Wednesday and play on Sunday but the Chargers will have to consider that because of the lack of depth.
--TE Antonio Gates showed in the first game what was evident throughout camp -- he is as healthy as he has been in two years. Gates was moving freely and cutting with ease against the Raiders as he caught a team-high nine passes for 83 yards.
--RB Michael Bennett could see considerable playing time if LaDainian Tomlinson's ankle doesn't allow him to go Sunday. Bennett was considered a long-shot to make the club out of camp, but he was retained for situations just like this.
--LB Larry English played some end in his rookie debut. The Chargers could be shifting him down low with more regularity, depending on injuries. He had but one tackle in his NFL debut.
--WR Legedu Naanee showed in the opener his role in the offense is expanding. Naanee had some key catches in the Chargers' rally; his five catches were a career-high.
--WR Buster Davis was inactive Monday and could find a hard time getting active with the Chargers' stable of wideouts and Davis being nagged by minor injuries.
GAME PLAN: Any team hates to be called a finesse team, and the Chargers are no exception. But how about one that stretches the field -- that is what the Chargers are going to have to do offensively.
With so many injuries inside, the calls will be to get the running backs to the edges. Darren Sproles and Michael Bennett -- if Tomlinson can't go -- need to find the edges to be productive. And the receivers have to stretch the field with Vincent Jackson and others going deep to keep Ravens S Ed Reed out of the box and expecting to help over the top. The Chargers are beat up and the Ravens aren't a team you want to get in a smash-mouth game with when you are already saddles with injuries.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Chargers pass rush vs. Ravens QB Joe Flacco.
Shawne Merriman's return was supposed to give the Chargers' pass rush a jolt. Instead, Merriman isn't moving like he once did; slow-poke QB JaMarcus Russell had plenty of time to go through his reads. But Russell often missed -- Flacco won't. It's one thing to give a mediocre passer that amount of time but not one as polished as Flacco. The Chargers have to figure out a way -- through schemes or just more one-on-one battles -- to put some heat on the quarterbacks. Otherwise a secondary already doubting itself could take another big blow.
Chargers running game vs. Ravens run defense.
The Chargers' interior line is a wreck, with C Nick Hardwick and RG Louis Vasquez possibly out with leg injuries. The Chargers will be hard-pressed behind backups Scott Mruczkowski and Brandyn Dombrowski to penetrate the Ravens' defense. And that running game, which struggled in the opener, could be missing LaDainian Tomlinson as well. The Ravens' experienced defense presents a front seven of nastiness and hard-nosed S Ed Reed, which could mean trouble -- especially on the right side.
Chargers pass defense vs. Ravens TE Todd Heap.
It's been a long-time bugaboo for the Chargers -- covering tight ends. In Monday's game, once again a tight end had a big game as Zach Miller caught six passes for 96 yards; five catches went for first downs and too many in situations where he was wide open. LB Kevin Burnett needs to show his skills of dropping into coverage and SS Clinton Hart and Steve Gregory have to keep an eye on the middle of the field. When the Ravens beat the Chargers back in 2006, Heap had the game winning catch in the final minute.
--NT Jamal Williams (elbow) didn't practice Wednesday but he would have to suffer another setback not to play Sunday.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (ankle) didn't work Wednesday and could be out Sunday. With Michael Bennett running well, there doesn't seem to be a push to rush Tomlinson back.
--OLB Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) didn't practice Wednesday and he could be out this week.
--C Nick Hardwick (ankle) didn't work Wednesday and this could be a game-time decision; it's leaning toward him not playing. Hardwick being out would compromise a running game which has been uneven so far.
--RG Louis Vasquez (knee) didn't work Wednesday and was able to walk on it early in the week. He could go, but even if he does that would be a rookie making his second NFL start with a wobbly knee against a stout Ravens front. He will probably be questionable as the week progresses.
--DE Travis Johnson (groin) didn't practice Wednesday after seeing extensive work. Among his problems in Houston was avoiding injuries.
--LT Marcus McNeill (hand) didn't work Wednesday but he should be able to play Sunday.