DE Luis Castillo (Doug Pensinger/Getty)
The San Diego Chargers look to protect their slim lead in the AFC West as they take on the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland. Get set for this contest with injury updates, keys to the game, predictions and more.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 ET
TV: CBS (Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots)
PREDICTION: Chargers 27-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: The first quarter is critical for the Browns. If they fall behind, they lack the passing game to come from behind and the injury-depleted defense gave up 210 yards on 45 carries last Sunday. However, sustaining drives will be difficult with RBs Jerome Harrison and Chris Jennings replacing injured Jamal Lewis. San Diego wants to avoid turnovers against an inferior opponent and should incorporate the ground game early.
FAST FACTS: The Browns scored 37 points in Week 11 at Detroit. They have scored a combined 36 points in their other six games since Week 5. ... Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson needs two rushing touchdowns to tie Emmitt Smith (136, 1990s) for the most in one decade.
--C Nick Hardwick (ankle) continues to work, although it was in a limited capacity Thursday. He could be one week away from returning after getting hurt in the opener.
--DL Travis Johnson (groin) was back practicing and is a go for Sunday.
--DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo (ankle) was able to work and will play Sunday.
--T Jon Runyan could get his first snaps as a Charger after being signed last week. He would play on the right side.
--P Mike Scifres (groin) is fine for Sunday.
--OLB Shaun Phillips (ankle) was able to go again and will play Sunday.
--RB Jacob Hester (knee) was back running at full speed and will play Sunday.
--ILB Kevin Burnett (head) has completed all the practices this week and is cleared for Sunday.
--DE Kenyon Coleman's knee injury prevented him from practicing for the second day in a row.
--LB Kamerion Wimbley rode the exercise bike Thursday and did not practice because of a knee injury.
--FB Lawrence Vickers missed practice with a hamstring injury. He was limited in practice Wednesday.
--G Rex Hadnot missed practice with a knee injury that has bothered him all season.
--TE Robert Royal was limited in practice with injuries to his thigh and finger.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Chargers might have picked the right week to have the sorry Cleveland Browns on their schedule.
The Chargers, winners of six straight, will tangle with a Browns team that has lost six straight and is missing three key defensive players.
Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shawne Merriman missed another practice Thursday and his chances appear to be slim to play Sunday. Merriman has been slowed by a soft tissue injury in his foot and at this point, rest could be the best medicine.
"We know what we have been doing to get him ready and he has had a hard time with that," coach Norv Turner said.
Merriman nearly skipped Sunday's game against the Chiefs. He elected to play but was on the field for only a handful of plays.
Defensive end Luis Castillo will miss his second straight game Sunday. His calf injury hasn't allowed him to practice all week; he worked on the side with the Chargers' trainers Thursday.
And safety Eric Weddle didn't work at all, as he will miss the first of an expected two games with a sprained MCL in his knee.
The Browns still have to get ready for their game against the Chargers on Sunday in Cleveland Browns Stadium, but on Thursday they preferred to talk about the end of Jamal Lewis' career.
Lewis was placed on injured reserve Wednesday because of post-concussion syndrome. On Nov. 1, the 10-year veteran announced he would retire after this season. He was emphatic about going out on his own terms, while he still had something left in the tank. If he does not reconsider, the end is not the one he imagined.
Lewis has played with bad ankles, bad knees, tender hamstrings and pain in every part of his body, but he wasn't going to risk permanent brain damage with five games to play on a 1-10 team. He made the team aware of his concussion symptoms after the game in Cincinnati last Sunday.
"I feel bad for him," quarterback Derek Anderson said. "Everything he has gone through and the career he's had -- to go out on I.R., if it is his last game, you don't want to see a guy do that. You want to see him finish the right way and finish the season healthy."
Excluding 2001, when he missed the entire season recovering from knee surgery, this five-game span at the end of 2009 will be the longest string of games Lewis has missed.
Coach Eric Mangini was vague when asked whether Lewis was injured last Sunday in Cincinnati or whether the post-concussion syndrome he is suffering from might be from an accumulation of pounding from 2,542 career carries.
"The first we were made aware of it was (Monday)," Mangini said. "Immediately we started testing, and that's when doctors made the decision."
Jerome Harrison, the running back likely to get most of the carries now, believes it was not a single play that set off warning signals to Lewis.
"He's a big back, so he probably ran into a million people," Harrison said. "I don't think he knows for sure what caused it.
"I hate to lose him like that. He's a great friend, great teammate and a great individual. He's a guy that played the game for the right reasons. He played the game hard every chance he got and it's tough to lose a guy like that in your locker room."
Anderson suffered a concussion once, and he knows exactly when it happened. He and safety Brodney Pool were concussed in the same preseason game against the Giants in 2008.
Anderson said he was "foggy" for weeks and said he was less than 100 percent when he began practicing for the 2008 opener against the Cowboys. Anderson would not use going 11-of-24 for 114 yards against the Cowboys as an excuse, but he offered some insight about why players are willing to play with concussions and other injuries.
"It's such a cut-throat business, if you're not out for a few weeks, your job's gone," Anderson said. "Guys know that, this league doesn't last very long, they want to show they can play when they're dinged up.
"I guarantee everybody in here has probably had (a concussion). But did you black out or were you unconscious? "That's a different story. That's the nature of the business."