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NFL Preview - San Diego (8-3) at Cleveland (1-10)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Last season the San Diego Chargers won all four of their games in December to rally from a 4-8 start and win the AFC West. Having won each of its last six games heading into this Sunday's clash with the Cleveland Browns, the team has a head start on finishing the season strong.
The Chargers will be looking to extend their December winning streak to 15 games this weekend at Cleveland Browns Stadium. And while San Diego is used to beginning the season slow before turning it on late, the club could actually turn its December success into a first-round bye in the postseason.
San Diego won for the sixth straight time last Sunday, knocking off the Kansas City Chiefs by a 43-14 margin. That has the club at 8-3 and a game up on the second-place Denver Broncos in the division.
The Chargers enter this week tied with the Cincinnati Bengals for the second- best record in the AFC, behind only the 11-0 Indianapolis Colts. However, San Diego will get a chance to get the best of the Bengals later this month, as it hosts Cincinnati on December 20, seven days after a road game at Dallas.
San Diego's 2009 regular-season schedule then ends with games at Tennessee and at home versus Washington.
The Chargers haven't lost a December contest since ending the 2005 season with a setback to Denver on December 31. San Diego won its final 10 regular-season games the following year, including all five in December, and capped 2007 with six straight wins that saw the team win another five in the year's final month.
San Diego entered December of last year having lost three straight and five of six before ripping off victories over Oakland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Denver. The victory over the Broncos clinched the AFC West for the Chargers.
Norv Turner has won all nine of his December games as San Diego's head coach, and his team will try to maintain the momentum from last weekend's blowout win versus the Chiefs. Quarterback Philip Rivers threw two touchdown passes in the game and the Chargers converted four turnovers into 28 points.
Running back LaDainian Tomlinson scored one of his two touchdowns during the Chargers' 21-point second quarter, while totaling 39 yards on 13 carries. That gave him 12,257 rushing yards in his career, good enough to pass both Marcus Allen (12,243) and Edgerrin James (12,246) on the NFL's all-time list. Tomlinson is now just 23 yards shy of passing Marshall Faulk for ninth place on the list.
San Diego kicks its December off with a favorable matchup, as it visits a 1-10 Cleveland team that has lost six straight and 16 of its last 17 games dating back to last year. Cleveland has yet to win at home this season, having gone 0-4 as the host to stretch its home losing streak to nine games.
The Browns managed a mere 169 yards of offense in last Sunday's 16-7 loss to Bengals, who bested Cleveland's total yardage on the ground alone. Cincinnati racked up 210 rushing yards versus the Browns, getting 107 yards out of Larry Johnson in just his second game with the Bengals.
Cleveland, meanwhile, got just 100 yards passing out of quarterback Brady Quinn and 40 yards rushing from running back Jamal Lewis in what was likely his final NFL game.
Lewis was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with post-concussion syndrome, a move that comes amid the NFL putting tougher restrictions on players returning to the field following head injuries.
The 30-year-old Lewis is 21st on the NFL's all-time rushing list with 10,607 rushing yards, but he has just 500 without a score in nine games this year. He had previously said that he planned to retire at the end of the season.
The Browns' defense also suffered a major blow, as Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers went down with a leg injury that required surgery and landed him on injured reserve Monday. It marks the third defensive starter that the Browns have lost to a season-ending injury this year, as inside linebackers D'Qwell Jackson (shoulder) and Eric Barton (neck) are already on IR.
San Diego has a 13-7-1 lead in the all-time series with Cleveland, and has won three straight in the series. The Chargers were 32-25 home winners when the clubs last met, in 2006, and took a 21-0 decision in their most recent trip to Cleveland, in 2004. The Browns' most recent win over the Chargers occurred in 2001, at home, and the team is 0-2 in home games against San Diego since that contest.
Browns head coach Eric Mangini is 0-1 against both the Chargers and Turner, with that loss coming for his Jets team in Week 3 of last season. Turner is 0-1 against the Browns as a head coach, with the loss coming for his Oakland Raiders team in 2005.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego's offense didn't let the defense down last weekend, scoring three touchdowns off turnovers. Another score came off a Kansas City miscue was returned to the end zone by the defense. Rivers (2938 passing yards, 19 TD, 6 INT) hit on 21 of his 28 pass attempts for 317 yards and a season-high 135.6 passer rating. He has connected on at least 75 percent of his passes in each of the last three games while leading the NFL's third-highest scoring offense (28.4 points per game). Tight end Antonio Gates (59 receptions, 4 TD) caught both of Rivers' touchdown throws, hauling in scoring passes of 19 and 15 yards. He ended with seven catches for a game-high 118 yards. Wideout Malcom Floyd (23 receptions, 1 TD) added three catches for 85 yards, but fellow receiver Vincent Jackson (49 receptions, 7 TD) had just two catches. Backup running back Darren Sproles (35 receptions, 3 total TD) was second on the club with five catches for 66 yards last week and carried the ball nine times for 17 yards. Tomlinson (497 rushing yards, 8 TD) notched his lowest rushing total in three weeks against the Chiefs, but he does have five touchdowns in that span. San Diego ranks 30th in the NFL at 88.5 rushing yards per game. Rivers wasn't sacked for the second straight week and the third time this season.
The Chargers may be able to attack the middle of Cleveland's defense on the ground with Rogers (36 tackles, 2 sacks), Barton and Jackson all out. Starting safety Brodney Pool (50 tackles), who leads the team with four interceptions, suffered a concussion versus Cincinnati as well and was also placed on IR on Wednesday. Also getting hurt last Sunday were defensive end Kenyon Coleman (knee) and linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (knee), and both players are questionable for this game. Wimbley has 52 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks on the season, while Coleman has notched 32 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Ahtyba Rubin (24 tackles) will likely fill Rogers' spot in the starting lineup and was a sixth- round pick in 2008, while Mike Adams (41 tackles) is listed behind Pool on the depth chart. Adams had 10 tackles versus the Bengals, as did outside linebacker Jason Trusnik (39 tackles, 2 sacks). Playing just days after getting claimed off waivers from Miami, linebacker Matt Roth ended with seven tackles in the loss. Roth and Rogers both ended with sacks versus the Bengals. Overall, Cleveland is ranked 31st in total defense (393.3 ypg) and 29th versus the run (159.9 ypg).
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
For all the trouble the Browns have in keeping teams out of the end zone, the offense has had no such luck in scoring. Cleveland ranks dead last in total offense (230.6 ypg), as well as 31st in points (11.1) and passing yards (133.2) per game. Making his third straight start, Quinn (912 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT) was 15-of-34 passing against Cincinnati and failed to throw a scoring pass, just one week after completing four touchdown throws versus Detroit. Quinn did get a second straight game without a pick, however, and scored the first rushing touchdown of his career. Cincinnati also did a good job controlling wide receiver/return man Joshua Cribbs (17 receptions, 1 TD) on Sunday. Cribbs made just three catches for seven yards and saw little room in the kick return game. He did post one highlight, completing an 18-yard pass to Quinn. Wide receiver Chansi Stuckey (10 receptions, 1 TD with Browns) led the team with four catches for 44 yards, while Mohamed Massaquoi (26 receptions, 1 TD) hauled in just one pass for 12 yards. With Lewis out, the Browns are likely to give the bulk of the rushing work to Chris Jennings and Jerome Harrison.
San Diego figures to offer another challenge for Cleveland this weekend. An interception by corner Quentin Jammer (45 tackles, 2 INT) and fumble recoveries by linebackers Brandon Siler (44 tackles, 1 sack) and Larry English (17 tackles, 2 sacks) led to touchdowns by the Chargers' offense in last Sunday's rout of Kansas City , while safety Paul Oliver (28 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) recovered a fumble of his own and raced it 40 yards for a score. Siler led the team with nine tackles last weekend, while corner Antonio Cromartie (26 tackles) and safety Steve Gregory (46 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) both had six stops. San Diego did play a good chunk of the game without linebacker Shawne Merriman (31 tackles, 4 sacks) because of a foot injury that leaves him questionable for this game, while safety Eric Weddle (70 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) suffered a sprained knee that has him out for this Sunday and possibly a few more weeks after that. Oliver is likely to replace him in the starting lineup. San Diego's defense is holding opponents to 19.9 points per game (14th overall), but is just 21st against the run, yielding 118.1 yards per game.
While Tomlinson will never likely regain the form that made him the top fantasy choice like he was a few years ago, his five touchdowns in the last three games have offset his low rushing total. He could be in line for some more scores this weekend against a weak and injured run defense. Rivers is a must-start, as is Vincent Jackson. Gates is also a good pick this weekend based on matchup, while Floyd could produce in deeper leagues. Ample scoring opportunities should benefit kicker Nate Kaeding, and the Chargers defense is a solid play.
At this point, no Browns player is worth a look this weekend. Even against a struggling run defense, the running backs are a risky plays and Quinn will likely struggle versus San Diego's stop unit, which is tied for seventh in the NFL with 28 sacks to go along with 11 picks. Massaquoi and Cribbs are Cleveland's biggest threats, but the club just can't get the two the ball. Avoid defense/special teams as well.
There is no reason to believe that the Chargers won't extend their December success this weekend. Though there is always the possibility of looking past the Browns, the Bolts always seem to find their focus late in the season under Turner. This game will serve as merely a tuneup for San Diego's big matchup in Dallas next Sunday, as Rivers and Tomlinson should have no problems with attacking the middle of the field versus the Browns. Cleveland, meanwhile, will find it tough to move the ball against San Diego's aggressive defense, and another egg being laid by Quinn and company appears likely.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 31, Browns 9
12/03 19:35:47 ET