Chargers Set to Renew Rivalry with Titans

LB Shawne Merriman (Donald Miralle/Getty)

Let's be clear from the start: The Chargers don't like the Titans.

The feeling is probably mutual, and both teams will get to prove their displeasure with the other in Friday's critical Christmas night game at Tennessee.

"They are a physical football team, and we like to believe we are a physical football team," Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "It's going to be one of those ones like we're going to punch you in the mouth and they are going to try to punch us back. That's just how it is going to be."

There is plenty at stake on the Cumberland River banks with a national TV audience looking in.

If the Chargers win, they'd clinch the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye.

If the Titans win, they'd keep their playoff dreams alive, trying to sneak in as a wild-card entry after starting 0-6.

But there is more to this tilt than postseason aspirations.

In the Chargers' last regular-season visit, on Dec. 9, 2007, the game got chippy with questionable hits being delivered by both sides. But none was more obvious than when Titans offensive linemen David Stewart and Kevin Mawae blasted Shawne Merriman. The questionable hit -- Stewart and Mawae were fined -- started Merriman's knee problems that led him to miss most of the 2008 season.

"That was when my knee went," said Merriman, who some had thought hit quarterback Vince Young late in that game. "It was done from that point on.

"Luckily, I was blessed enough to finish the rest of the season up, but it was painful as hell. It was tough."

One doesn't have to flick on the tape for the Chargers to remember the Titans.

"They definitely took a cheap shot on Merriman," Phillips said. "They are a physical team, and they felt like they could punk us. And we obviously aren't going to get punked. And they are going to do the same thing."

Merriman is clear that he hates the Titans and all they represent. That only adds spice to a game that figures to distribute as much punch as your favorite uncle's egg nog.

"This game is bigger than me being (ticked) off at them for something they did to me," Merriman said. "We are trying to secure a playoff spot. But if a guy is kicking my (rear) the whole game I'm not going to go out and see if I can get him over a pile and get him hurt or do something extra -- it's not needed.

"Football is a physical game, and that is just the way it is always going to be. But there is a difference between physical and bull ... and they definitely got some bull ... about them."

No bull, the Chargers are smoking hot. It takes a deep breath these days to rattle off their streaks: nine consecutive wins, 17 straight in December, four AFC West titles in a row.

The Chargers have plenty to play for. Getting that first playoff week off is so enticing. And if that weren't enough, the opposing uniform is a target as well.

"You don't go after specific players or do things that jeopardize careers," Merriman said. "And that is the kind of guys they are."

Look for some kind of a game on Christmas.

SERIES HISTORY: 38th regular-season meeting. The Chargers lead the series 23-13-1. The Chargers have won the last six in the overall series, which includes a 2007 wild-card playoff game triumph, 17-6. The last regular-season matchup, during the same season, was a thriller, with the Chargers pulling out a 23-17 overtime victory after erasing a 17-3 deficit. That game was also noted for four players being fined $32,500.

NOTES, QUOTES


RB Chris Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty
--The Chargers are charged with slowing Chris Johnson, the blazing running back who makes defenders miss with regularity. He's not only attempting to put the Titans in the playoff hunt, but he's running for Eric Dickerson's single-season mark of 2,105 rushing yards. Johnson is 375 yards shy of Dickerson, and knowing how poorly the Chargers stop the run, he'll try to put a healthy dent in that deficit Friday.

"He's one of a kind, obviously," San Diego linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "There are not too many running backs in the NFL running 4.2s and 4.3s like he is. He's a special player. He's definitely one of those gifted guys, and again, it's a challenge that we're looking forward to. We play this game for a challenge. If it was easy, if we had Harry Hatchet out there running the ball, it really wouldn't be any fun. The fun part is going against the best. He's supposed to be the best, and we want to get out there and get our opportunity to go against the best."

--The Chargers will be going for a franchise-record 7-1 mark on the road on Friday. Why the success away from San Diego this year?

"I think over time when you have the same group of guys here, you develop a mentality, a toughness and an ability to go on the road and play well," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "The best thing we've done is just focus. Our trips have been the same for the most part every trip. The schedule is the same, the routine is the same, and guys approach them as we should, as a business trip. We go and take care of business."

--Coach Norv Turner knows the Chargers have quite a challenge in Tennessee in trying to win their 10th straight game.

"We've been there," he said. "It's a tough place to play. They're very good there. They have a guy who is trying to set a record for 2,000 yards or set a record for most yards. Their quarterback is playing awfully well, and they've always been a very, very good defense. They're explosive in the running game, and Vince Young is playing at a higher level. They look very good on tape."

--Kicker Nate Kaeding was clutch in Sunday's win with his 52-yard winner, but he knows he can't let his guard down.

"There are a lot of big kicks to be made out here the next month or two," he said. "This one is sweet obviously for us and the whole team, but I'm the last person in the world that's going to get complacent because you look around the league, it's a fragile thing for a kicker, and you've got to stay on top of your game."

--The coaches certainly have a history. When Norv Turner was coaching the USC secondary in 1980, Jeff Fisher was one of the cornerbacks.

--Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was a teammate of Fisher's on the Bears.

--Few Chargers are nastier than left guard Kris Dielman. What's his take on the history these teams have?

"There's no love lost between our teams," he said. "I love Nashville, but I don't love them."

BY THE NUMBERS: 20/20 -- The Chargers have scored at least 20 points in 20 straight games, including the playoffs. It's the NFL's longest such streak.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "These are two real competitive teams, two very good teams. It's a physical style of football. We played them back there and there was some stuff going on there. I didn't see that in the playoff game here. I thought it was handled well the second time we played them." -- Coach Norv Turner, on the bad blood between the Chargers and Titans.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Keep an eye on the defensive line, as more backup players will have to step up for the Chargers.

DE Jacques Cesaire has a balky elbow that forced him from Sunday's game. He will probably go, but how long he can hold up is a question.

DE Alfonso Boone has been playing well, and he returned last week after missing two games with a knee injury. That knee is worth watching.

Depending on those players' health, backups Travis Johnson and Vaughn Martin -- and possibly newcomer Antonio Garay -- will see increased playing time.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--C Scott Mruczkowski was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

--C Eric Ghiaciuc, a four-year pro who was cut at the end of the Chiefs' training camp, signed with the Chargers. Ghiaciuc has 42 career starts, all with the Bengals.

--WR Vincent Jackson is coming off his sixth 100-yard receiving game of the season. He has consecutive 1,000-yard seasons now as well.

--CB Quentin Jammer has three interceptions, the most he has had since 2006 (four). His knee, though, has been bothering him of late.

--QB Philip Rivers will take aim at a struggling pass defense while looking for his career-best 12th straight game with a touchdown pass. Rivers is also a perfect 17-0 in December games.

--RT Brandyn Dombrowski is receiving high grades after being thrust into the lineup when Jeromey Clary went down for the season. Friday will be Dombrowski's fifth career start.

--S Eric Weddle is looking more comfortable as he returns after missing two games with a knee injury. He was active in his first game back Sunday and is running well.

GAME PLAN: The Chargers like to score points, and they have no problem going toe-to-toe in that department. The Titans likely will want to run and play tough defense -- not easy against the Chargers.

With Philip Rivers playing as well as he is, the Chargers will go into the air against a passing defense that is nearly at the bottom of the league. With a running game that is still missing, look for the Chargers to use short passes underneath and fling it long to their oversized wideouts.

Considering how weak the Chargers' run defense can be and how quickly Chris Johnson can break off long scoring runs, San Diego's offense will need to carry the day -- through the air.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Chargers run defense, which has been wobbly all year, vs. the Titans running game, featuring Chris Johnson and his quest for 2,000 yards --

The Chargers, beset by injuries along the line, can't stop the run with consistency -- they are ranked No. 21. And that line could be playing with a banged-up end in Jacques Cesaire (elbow). Counter that against Johnson, who doesn't need much to go a long way. He paces the league's second-ranked running game. With the Titans likely leaning on a running game and defense to win, they figure to give Johnson plenty of chances to prove the San Diego run defense is the soft underbelly of the unit. With Vince Young a threat to take an edge on a scramble, the inside figures to be that much more open for Johnson.

Chargers interior offensive linemen, with No. 3 center Dennis Norman, vs. Titans defensive front --

The Chargers are thin inside, with Norman the third man up after injuries to Nick Hardwick and Scott Mruczkowski. And next to Norman is RG Louis Vasquez, who has been playing well but is still a rookie. The Titans counter with Tony Brown, the team's leader with five sacks, and Jovan Haye. The blocking in the middle can be a key with Philip Rivers usually electing to step up and out of harm's way when throwing the deep ball instead of rolling out in either direction. The pocket staying strong in the middle is crucial for the Chargers' long passing game.

Chargers underneath passing game, with TE Antonio Gates, vs. Titans linebackers, missing Keith Bulluck and David Thornton this week --

Gates has been on a roll, breaking out spin moves after catches and running like a wide receiver instead of someone his size. And with the Chargers stretching defenses deep, Gates is getting some nice passing lanes. The Titans will counter with a unit missing Bulluck and Thornton for the first time after they went down with injuries.

INJURY IMPACT:

--C Nick Hardwick (ankle) worked Tuesday, and the Chargers are hopeful regarding his availability on Friday; he could even start. The Chargers are thin at center.

--OLB Shawne Merriman (foot) didn't work Tuesday but will start Friday.

--DE Jacques Cesaire (elbow) didn't practice Tuesday but will likely go on Friday.

--DE Travis Johnson (groin) was out Tuesday but he will start Friday.

--WR Legedu Naanee (foot) didn't practice Tuesday but will go in the game.

--ILB Kevin Burnett (neck) worked Tuesday and is on track to play Friday.

--P Mike Scifres (groin) kicked Tuesday and is fine.

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