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NFL Preview - Arizona (2-1) at San Diego (1-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If all this sounds familiar, it's only because it should.
The sky is falling. The coach hasn't had his team ready to play. And the team is already spoiling a playoff season with a disappointing September swoon.
Another early season in another woebegone NFL town.
Unless, of course, that town is San Diego.
There, it's merely par for the Southern California course.
No fewer than four times in the last five seasons - or five of six, if you're already counting 2010 - the Chargers have rumbled, bumbled and stumbled to a sub-.500 record over some or all of the season's initial month.
Yet they usually manage to land on their feet come December, missing the playoffs just once since going 4-12 in Marty Schottenheimer's second season in 2003.
In 2004, Marty's boys began 1-2 and finished 12-4.
A year later, they were 0-2 on the way to 9-7.
Schottenheimer was shown the door after 2-0 and 14-2 resulted in a first-round playoff loss in 2006, but the reversals resumed with replacement Norv Turner - who's guided lowly 1-3, 0-2 and 2-3 opens to division-winning 11-5, 8-8 and 13-3 closes in his first three seasons.
Compounding difficulty this season is a surprise 3-0 run in Kansas City, which already has the Chargers down a pair of games - not to mention a head-to-head tiebreaker - by the end of month one.
But for Turner at least, one more sloppy start hasn't dampened dynastic optimism.
"I'm not going to back down on what I believe about this team," he said. "This team is going to be an outstanding football team. We've got enough players in all three phases. We have some youth, and it presents a great challenge for me as the head coach and all our assistant coaches.
"But I can't think of anything more satisfying than getting some of these young players up to speed in knowing what they have to do to compete at a high level in this league."
Across Qualcomm Stadium this weekend, the contrast couldn't be much greater.
Though outplayed for large chunks of 180 minutes through weeks 1, 2 and 3, the Arizona Cardinals find themselves 2-1 through three games and sharing the NFC West lead with the Seattle Seahawks - whom they'll face in two weeks in Washington.
After escaping with a 17-13 season-opening win at St. Louis, Ken Whisenhunt and Co. were promptly rolled at Atlanta, 41-7, on Sept. 19. Last Sunday, a 24-23 victory over Oakland featured seven Cardinals penalties for 104 yards, including a pass interference call on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie that set up a potential game-winning field goal for the Raiders.
Instead, kicker Sebastian Janikowski missed a 32-yard try wide left as time expired, giving Arizona a win in its home opener.
"I'm not going to tell you we're a perfect team by any stretch of the imagination, I think we all know that," Whisenhunt said. "We're still a work in progress, but you can't take this win away. That's important. We obviously still have work to do to fit the puzzle.
"In realistically assessing our football team, when you have the number of changes that we have, we understand that we're going to have to go through a process like this. If we can eke out wins, I'll take as many of them as I can get."
The Chargers have a 8-3 lead in their all-time series with the Cardinals, including a 27-20 home win in the most recent meeting, at Qualcomm Stadium in the 2006 regular season finale. Arizona is 0-2 against the Chargers since last beating them in San Diego during the 2001 campaign. The Cardinals are 1-5 in San Diego all-time.
Turner is 5-8 in his career against the Cardinals, with all of those games coming during his tenure at the helm of the Washington Redskins (1994-2000). The Cardinals' Whisenhunt will be meeting both Turner and the Chargers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
As Whisenhunt said, the offense is a work in progress. The retirement of Kurt Warner and the release of Matt Leinart have yielded the Derek Anderson era, which hasn't yet taken off. The former Cleveland castoff was just 12-of-26 against Oakland and is hitting on just 52 percent of his throws (51-of-98) overall. That said, when he performs well his teams win, as an 8-0 record with a 90-plus passer rating shows. In the backfield, the two-headed monster of Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells remains solid, especially now that the latter is approaching 100 percent health following a knee injury. Hightower has 70 catches since the start of last season - third in the NFC among backs - and Wells galloped for 75 yards and a 5.4-yard average against the Raiders in his season debut. Finally, stud wideout Larry Fitzgerald leads the league with 477 catches since 2005, and has nine scores in his last eight games against the AFC.
If it's not been one thing for the Chargers, it's been another. Though their 272.7 yards-allowed average is third-best in the AFC and they gave up just 21 combined first downs to the Chiefs and Seattle, they've already been burned for three kick returns for touchdowns in three games and weren't helped by five offensive turnovers specifically against the Seahawks. Strong safety Steve Gregory is the lone player to amass 20-plus tackles through three games (24), though he's followed by five more teammates in double-digits. Linebacker Shaun Phillips has two of the team's six sacks - one each in two of the three games - and veteran cornerback Quentin Jammer recorded his inaugural interception of the season last week against Seattle. Cornerback Antoine Cason has also been a ball hawk, deflecting five passes through his first three games.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The Chargers have played well of late against NFC foes, resulting in two straight home wins and a 6-2 record for starting quarterback Philip Rivers as he's gone 133-of-196 for 1,465 yards, 10 touchdowns and a 102.5 passer rating against the other conference. His 16 consecutive games with a scoring pass is the longest active streak in the NFL. Last time out against the Cardinals, he connected on 79.2 percent of his throws, scored twice and posted a 117.2 passer rating. Behind him in the backfield, Mike Tolbert has stepped in during a spate of injuries to lead the team in rushing with 82 and 73 yards, respectively, over weeks 2 and 3. Rookie running back Ryan Mathews is on the mend and listed as probable this week after an ankle problem. Through the air, tight end Antonio Gates caught his 63rd career TD pass last week to pass Shannon Sharpe for second among all-time tight ends. He has scored in seven straight games.
The Cardinals have been all over the board in terms of points allowed, surrendering a stingy 13, an ugly 41 and a passable 23 through three weeks while being gashed for an average of 377.7 yards per week and running up a dubious minus-4 turnover margin. Linebackers Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington are joined by cornerback Greg Toler with 20-plus tackles, while six players have recorded a sack apiece and safety Adrian Wilson's two interceptions are tied for second in the league. Wilson is one of 10 players in league history with at least 20 sacks (21.5) and 20 interceptions (25) for a career. Darnell Dockett has 12 sacks in his last 14 games against AFC foes, including the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh. His 21 sacks since 2007 are most in the league by a tackle. And speaking of the Steelers, ex-Pittsburgh voicebox Joey Porter has five sacks in six career games against San Diego and 91 overall since 2000.
The Cardinals have a few possible jewels among a field of questions. Fitzgerald, even while hampered with an inaccurate QB, is among the league's best. And Wells is a multiple threat now that he's feeling better structurally. For the Chargers, Rivers and leading wideout target Malcom Floyd warrant must- play status, Gates is the premier tight end in the league and the defense figures to create mistakes, and fantasy points, as well.
Every year there's a San Diego slump. Every year there's a breakout. And until the Chargers fall off dramatically in talent, it's just a question of when. Last year, it was a 37-7 defeat of Kansas City that triggered an 11-game win streak and a runaway division title. And while the 2010 Cards are sturdier than the '09 Chiefs, a victory here to begin a three-game win streak - adding Oakland and St. Louis in the next two games - would shock few.
Wait and see ... the road to 4-2 begins this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 31, Cardinals 17
09/30 16:08:15 ET