Chargers Collide with Former Coach in Big D'

Riding yet another winning streak, it's time for the Chargers to Cowboy Up.

The Cowboys are up next for the first-place Chargers, as they tie up their seven-game winning streak to the hitching post outside splashy new Cowboys Stadium.

The Chargers have been living large lately, extending their winning run thanks to playing two of the NFL's dregs: the Chiefs and Browns.

But that soft stretch of the season is history, with the Cowboys, Bengals and Titans looming in the not-so-distant future.

For the Chargers, they may or may not be playing the right team to notch win No. 8 in a row. But they are playing in the right month, as they have won 15 straight in Santa's favorite month.

That 2-3 start is oh-so-history with the team leaning toward the tape at 9-3, and a game ahead of the Broncos in the AFC West.

"We seem to finish strong," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "We've talked about it and really made it one of our mottos. I think that has a lot to do with our mind-sets in December. We want to play our best football in December going into January. This team is a real focused team and we have a knack for really taking it one game at a time and taking that idea to heart. We've done that."

Now, can they do it against Dallas, a team, like the Chargers, that isn't shy about reaching the end zone or getting after quarterbacks with its aggressive defense.


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Jamie Squire/Getty
Tomlinson said it's more than offensive and defensive weapons which have the Chargers in the driver's seat for their fourth straight AFC West title. That mojo, which was harder to find than a snowball in San Diego earlier this season, is tagging along for the ride to the Lone Star State.

"It comes with our confidence," Tomlinson said. "We believe that when the clock shows all zeros, that we will have had made enough plays to win the game.

"At the same time, going into the game, we identify who can beat us, how can we lose this game, and then we focus on that and the game plan and execute. The past seven weeks, we've been able to do that."

Thanks, in part, to the fine play of quarterback Philip Rivers.

Rivers doesn't quite get the headlines that Sunday's counterpart, Tony Romo, does, but he is every bit as good -- and many think better. Especially in December, a month in which Rivers has never lost an NFL game.

"I think it says a lot about our team for one," Rivers said. "We've had the focus and the attitude that you need down the stretch that it takes to make a run at it.

"The last few years we've been hot in November and December and this year we have a tough one. Now we are going to Dallas, another tough team in that NFC East division, so hopefully we can keep it going."

Like Tomlinson, Rivers said the Chargers' winning ways is like an avalanche picking up speed when thundering downhill. The more the Chargers are successful, the more their belief in each other grows.

"There's no doubt that it's contagious," Rivers said. "Just like when you lose and you keep losing, it keeps getting harder and harder to win. When you win, it doesn't get easier to win, but your confidence and your level of play seems to rise each week.

"I don't really think there is a danger in it other than when people get caught up in it and start talking about the postseason and where we stand. As long as we don't let that talk get in our way, I think we'll be fine.

"There's no denying that the talk is out there but if we can keep the boring one game at a time approach that we've had, we can keep this streak going."

Boring, maybe. But there is nothing dull about watching the Chargers steamroll one defense after another. And there's nothing ho-hum about building momentum for what they hope is a deep run in the playoffs.

But the Chargers also know the Cowboys have their own quarterback to get excited about. And with the Cowboys smarting from Sunday's loss to the Giants, they are in desperation mode.

"He obviously can make all the throws; he's having an outstanding year," Turner said of Romo. "The thing that jumps out to you is that he's such a good athlete, he creates plays with this athletic ability. You have to do a great job of containing him. He's going to break contain because he does every game. Once he does, you have to do a great job of picking up the receivers and covering because he makes big plays with his athletic ability."

The Chargers have been picking up their game since falling to the Broncos way back on Oct. 19. But they've got their horse headed in the right direction, with plenty of hay (nine wins) already in the barn.

But the Chargers are looking for No. 10, and they will have to master a sour Cowboys team to do it.

SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead series 6-2. The last time the Chargers were in Dallas, it was the first game back after the 9/11 attacks. The Chargers won, 32-21. The Cowboys came to San Diego last in 2005, when the Cowboys pulled out a 28-24 victory on opening day.

NOTES, QUOTES

--DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo was placed on IR with an ankle injury. Nwagbuo's absence leaves a void in the interior line rotation which had worked well for the Chargers since Jamal Williams was lost of the season in the opener. The team filled his roster spot by adding Antonio Garay, a defensive lineman from the Jets' practice squad. Garay, a four-year pro, played for Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera when both were in Chicago.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson is looking forward to heading to Dallas while recalling the Chargers' last trip. The Chargers prevailed, but Tomlinson lost a couple of diamond earrings during the game -- about a $25,000 hit.

"I remember it pretty vividly," he said. "Obviously losing my earrings was one thing that sticks in my mind. I'll never forget that. I remember us winning and talking to Emmitt Smith before the game. I remember being emotional before the game, having my family there and running out in Texas Stadium where I had visited a couple of times before and also watched many Dallas Cowboys games on television growing up. So it was a pretty emotional day for me."


Coach Norv Turner
Stephen Dunn/Getty
--This time last year the Chargers were 4-8 and Tomlinson was grumpy with the way the season was playing out. This year, the Chargers are rolling and Tomlinson is having as much fun as he has had in a while.

Does coach Norv Turner agree with that assessment?

"I don't know because two years ago he led the league in rushing and people kind of forget that," Turner said. "Last year he missed a substantial amount of time and had 1,200 yards and people act like that was a down year. I think he's enjoying the fact that things are spread around. We aren't wearing him out.

"Really, what we're doing, in the first half of our games he's playing -- first half to maybe to the middle of the third quarter -- he's playing the game like it's a normal game. That's why his numbers are down. If he's playing and getting 25 carries, I'm not sure that his numbers would be a lot different. When you don't get the number of opportunities, you don't get the number of opportunities to make the big play, the big run. (Darren) Sproles is getting some of those opportunities, which is helping us. I think LT knows that we have a good football team and that we're getting better and we have a chance to continue to have success over the next couple months."

--During the Chargers' seven-game winning streak, they have outscored their rivals 52-7 in the first quarter.

--Count QB Philip Rivers among those anxious to see the Cowboys' new palace.

"It's a new stadium and I'm sure it will be something to see," he said. "Anytime you are going on the road and playing against a championship-caliber team and a storied franchise like the Cowboys it's exciting. It's going to be fun. I'm expecting a playoff-type atmosphere. It's why you play the game."

--OLB Shawne Merriman speaks for the majority of Chargers defensive players when asked about their former coordinator, Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips.

"I love Wade," Merriman said. "Love and respect."

--Rivers isn't sure how much of an advantage it is to face Phillips' defense, one that he knows from when Phillips was in San Diego.

"The schemes are very similar in many ways; Wade was here for a handful of years," Rivers said. "At the same time, there's a similarity from the offensive side. Dallas runs a similar scheme offensively that we run so both teams will have a pretty good feel for one another. It's all about going out there and executing and playing at a high level. This game is important to both teams and it will be a big one."

--With LT Marcus McNeill ailing, veteran Jon Runyan could see some more playing time Sunday. He was in for about 10 snaps against the Browns, playing on the right side. Turner said he was pleased with what he saw as Runyan made his Chargers debut.

"He did fine," Turner said. "I'm excited that we got Jon and I think he's going to help us as we go through the next month. He's a talented guy in terms of he's got awfully long arms, he's physically talented and he knows how to use them. His experience is outstanding."

--The Chargers are doing a good job of keeping their eye on the prize on a weekly basis.

"I don't even know who we have after Dallas, honestly," Merriman said. "That's how week-to-week we're taking it. It's really from week to week. One game is not bigger than the next. It's cliche, but we've done a great job of taking it one game at a time and that's what we'll continue to do."

BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Number of sacks allowed in last three games by the Chargers.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's going to be a pretty emotional day for me because you look at your career and the last time I was there, I was a rookie. Now I'm in my ninth year and the schedule says that I might not play there ever again so it will be special for me." -- RB LaDainian Tomlinson on returning to the Dallas area Sunday, not far from where he grew up.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Chargers could very likely turn to their kids again Sunday, with numerous injuries -- especially on the defense -- forcing changes. Look for Paul Oliver to start again at safety in place of Eric Weddle. But Oliver will be part of a rotation which will include Steve Gregory as well. Gregory will stay in the slot in the nickel package, where he has played well.

Rookie linebacker Larry English could be in the spotlight again if Shawne Merriman can't go. And even if Merriman starts, he will be used cautiously as the Chargers try not to aggravate his foot injury with the playoffs looming.

That means even if English doesn't start, he will see plenty of action and his play will be a key if the Cowboys, as expected, start flinging the ball around.

If the Chargers are to slow the high-flying Cowboys offense, those not very long in the tooth will have to play well.

PLAYER NOTES

--TE Antonio Gates is on pace for one of the better seasons of his remarkable career. He needs 296 receiving yards over the final four games to break ex-Charger Kellen Winslow's tight ends record of 1,290 yards, set in 1980.


QB Philip Rivers
Jamie Squire/Getty
--QB Philip Rivers has thrown only six interceptions all season -- with 21 touchdowns. For the second time this season, he has gone four games without an interception.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson needs one more touchdown to extend his NFL-record streak of 10-touchdown seasons to nine -- every year of his career.

--RB Mike Tolbert was the unlikely source of a 50-yard-plus passing play when he went 66 yards for a touchdown reception in Sunday's win over the Browns. But the Chargers are making a habit of big plays, as they have nine receptions of 50 yards or more this season, which ties the Eagles for the league lead.

--OLB Shaun Phillips doesn't get the publicity as teammate Shawne Merriman, but maybe he should. Phillips leads the Chargers with seven sacks and is tied for the league-lead with a career-best six forced fumbles.

GAME PLAN: Stay in the air.

If the Cowboys want to get into a shootout with the Chargers, have at it. The Chargers' running game still isn't where it should be, so their best approach to get after the Cowboys is to use their oversized wide receivers and lean on Antonio Gates -- who is playing out of his mind -- on the underneath stuff.

Yes, the Chargers need to get their running game on track at some point. But in this battle, with the Cowboys eager to show their offense takes a backseat to few teams, they figure to get after the Chargers secondary, which is missing a starter.

If so, the Chargers need to throw to keep pace -- luckily for them, that is one of the things they do best.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Chargers run defense vs. Cowboys RBs Marion Barber and Felix Jones.

The Chargers got punched in the mouth for 115 yards last week, and that was with the Browns missing Jamaal Lewis. And the Chargers could be banged up along the line again this week, with Luis Castillo and Alfonso Boone ailing. The Chargers are giving up nearly 118 yards per game and they figure to get plenty of running plays thrown at them Sunday. The Cowboys, rightly so, figure the best way to keep the ball away from the high-powered Chargers offense is to run the ball and eat the clock. In Barber, they have someone averaging 4.4 yards a carry, which is impressive; even more impressive is Jones checking in at 6.4 yards per carry, which includes a 56-yarder. In three of the Cowboys' games this year, he has averaged more than 9.5 yards per carry.

Chargers pass coverage vs. Cowboys TE Jason Witten.

For years the Chargers have made opposing tight ends famous -- last week was no exception. Ever hear of Evan Moore? Didn't think so, but despite playing in his first NFL game last week, the Browns tight end went for 80 yards on six catches. The Chargers will again be without safety Eric Weddle (ankle) and there is a chance OLB Shawne Merriman and DE Luis Castillo could be down. That could open the middle of the field considerably for Witten, who is coming off a sensational game. The Pro Bowler caught 14 passes for a career-high 156 yards in the loss to the Giants. With the Chargers' consistent trouble in tracking tight ends, Witten could be in for a giant game again.

Chargers OLB Shaun Phillips vs. Cowboys OT Doug Free.

Phillips has been on a tear of late, which is a tad surprising in that Shawne Merriman has played in only a handful of plays the last two games. Phillips helped turned the tide last week when he stripped Brady Quinn of the football, which was recovered by the Chargers. Free, who is filling in for starter Marco Colombo, figures to have his hands full with Phillips. Free is considered a better pass-blocker than a road-paver, and he'll get a chance to prove that against Phillips.

INJURY IMPACT:

--LG Kris Dielman missed practice Wednesday because of a personal reason - he's expected to play Sunday.

--DE Travis Johnson (groin) didn't practice, as is his custom. He will play Sunday.

--WR Legedu Naanee (foot) didn't practice and his status for Sunday is in doubt.

--C Nick Hardwick (ankle) didn't work and will not play Sunday.

--OLB Shawne Merriman (foot) was a limited participant and he will play -- but for how long is the question.

--DT Alfonso Boone (knee) was out and he could be down this week.

--S Eric Weddle (knee) is out for at least one more week.

--DE Luis Castillo (calf) practiced and is a go for Sunday after missing last week.

--LT Marcus McNeill (ankle) practiced and said he's good for Sunday.

--OLB Shaun Phillips (calf), as is his custom, didn't work but will play Sunday.

--CB Quentin Jammer (toe) worked and is fine.

--P Mike Scifres (groin) did all his work and is a go for Sunday.

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