TE Brandon Manumaleuna (Doug Pensinger/Getty)
With the Denver Broncos set to take on the defending Super Bowl champions this week, the San Diego Chargers have a great chance to climb back into the AFC West race with a win over the New York Giants. Here's a look at five Chargers players who will prove vital in making that happen.
1. TE Brandon Manumaleuna -- The Chargers must limit their negative plays against the Giants and Manumaleuna will play a big role in making that happen. Whether he's lined up as a fullback, a second tight end or a personal protector, he must make sure neither LaDainian Tomlinson nor Philip Rivers gets dropped in the backfield.
LT has been hit for a loss seven times in the last two games, despite the fact the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders have bottom-10 run defenses. Part of that is on LT -- his yards-after-contact average of 1.9 ranks 52nd among all running backs, according to ProFootballFocus.com -- but some of the blame goes on the blocking. Manumaleuna must spearhead an improved effort on Sunday.
2. WR Legedu Naanee -- Naanee will benefit the most from the release of Chris Chambers. Malcom Floyd inherits Chambers' starting position, but Floyd was logging heavy minutes anyway, which means Naanee will see the biggest spike in activity. That's good news for the third-year receiver, who had 12 catches in the first four games of the season but only one grab in the last three weeks.
Naanee has a chance to cash in against a New York secondary that's been decimated by injuries. The Giants have given up big plays in bunches, yielding 14 passes of 20-plus yards over the last three weeks. That could open the door for Naanee to boost his pedestrian 9.4-yard receiving average; he hasn't caught a pass for more than 15 yards since the season-opener.
3. LB Brandon Siler -- With Kevin Burnett (ankle) and Tim Dobbins (knee) sidelined by injuries, Siler will get his first career start. Known mostly for his run-stuffing abilities, Siler figures to log most of his snaps on running downs as the Chargers contend with the powerful running back duo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.
However, because the only backup inside linebacker available will be James Holt, who was just called up from the practice squad this week, Siler must prove he can hold his own against the pass, as well. It's also worth watching to see if Siler, one of the top special-teams players in the NFL, can handle those roles with his usual tenacity given his added responsibilities on defense.
4. LB Shaun Phillips -- Much noise was made about Shawne Merriman getting his first two sacks of the season last week, but the bigger development is that Phillips now has four sacks in the last two games -- no other Chargers defender has more than two on the season. Phillips' sack-count is even more impressive given the amount of time he's spent dropping into coverage so far this season.
Phillips must find a way to pressure Eli Manning, whether that means sacking him, forcing him out of the pocket or just making him generally uncomfortable. Manning has played poorly since he injured his foot four games ago and his confidence appears shaken as a result; Phillips & Co. must make sure it stays that way for at least one more week.
5. FB Jacob Hester -- In a high-stakes game that figures to be closely contested, special teams can make all the difference. Hester has proven just how important special teams can be this season, as he's scored a touchdown on a fumble return and another on a blocked punt.
Hester is on all special-teams units and must find a way to help the Chargers win the third phase against the Giants. Whether that's making another highlight-reel play or throwing a key block on a Darren Sproles return, he must make his presence felt.
Who else will you be watching on Sunday? Talk about it inside the message boards.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.