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NFL Preview - San Diego (5-5) at Indianapolis (6-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - This is the time of year Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers are at their best. Known for second-half surges over the past few seasons, the Chargers face a formidable foe in Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night from Lucas Oil Stadium.
San Diego won eight of nine games to close out the 2007 season, prevailed in five of the last six contests the following year and ripped off 11 wins in 12 tries at the conclusion of the 2009 campaign. Another season has passed and the Chargers are starting to heat up, having won three in a row since dropping three straight to fall to 2-5.
In Monday night's 35-14 victory over the AFC West-rival Denver Broncos at Qualcomm Stadium, Rivers tied a career high with four touchdown passes and hit four different receivers for scores to even San Diego's mark at 5-5. He didn't have All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates in the lineup because of a balky foot and hit Darren Sproles, Patrick Crayton, Malcom Floyd and Jacob Hester for his second straight four-TD game. Rivers is expected to get another weapon back on Sunday, as disgruntled wide receiver Vincent Jackson is eligible to play after the Chargers signed him to the active roster Tuesday.
Jackson spent the previous three weeks on the Roster-Exempt list after signing a one-year contract last month. Jackson, who held out for an extended period of time, had to serve a three-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He started all 15 games he played in last season, catching 68 passes for 1,167 yards and nine touchdowns to establish career highs in each category. Head coach Norv Turner is excited about his return.
"I'm excited to get Vincent back. I think (because) he's had three good weeks of practice to get ready that he's going to be ready to go play at a high level," Turner said. "Everyone's expecting some big explosion (but) to me it's going to be the production he has over the next six weeks and hopefully into the playoffs that's going to help us."
The four-time defending AFC West champion Chargers are in search of their eighth straight win in November and sit tied with Oakland for second place in the division behind 6-4 Kansas City. They haven't fared too well as the visitor this season as evidenced by a 1-4 record, and this weekend's showdown in Indy may not be the most ideal place to start winning on the road.
Indianapolis is coming off its second loss in three weeks, as it suffered a tough 31-28 loss at New England last week. The Colts rallied from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter and Manning threw two of his four touchdown strikes in the final stanza, but was picked off late by Patriots defender James Sanders. Manning, the leading vote-getter for this year's Pro Bowl, had a season-high three picks and was upset with himself postgame.
"I'm just sick about not extending the game," said Manning. "There's just no excuse not to extend the game there, and give (kicker) Adam Vinatieri a chance for the field goals. Certainly, we were going for the win. We had some time, had some timeouts. We felt like we had a good play called. Just a poor throw ... it's just really sickening."
Manning's lack of heroics on this particular day dropped the 6-4 Colts into a first-place tie with Jacksonville atop the AFC South. The Jaguars hold the tie-breaker since they defeated the Colts in Florida back on Oct. 3.
The Colts played without starting running back Joseph Addai and reserve running back Mike Hart because of injury, but aren't really considered a threat on the ground. They haven't been since Edgerrin James departed for Arizona a few years ago and probably won't start now with San Diego's third- rated run defense paying a visit. Indy running back Donald Brown started his third consecutive game for Addai and rushed for a season-high 68 yards on 17 carries against the Patriots.
Wide receiver Austin Collie missed the previous week's win over Cincinnati with a concussion and was forced to leave the New England game in the first half. Collie, who suffered a bone-jarring hit in the loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 7, will not play when the Colts try to push their home record to 5-0 versus the Chargers. Indy, owners of the NFL's best regular-season record (134-52) since the start of 1999, has won six straight home games.
The Chargers are 14-9 lifetime against the Colts in the regular season, but Indianapolis came through with a thrilling 23-20 victory over San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium in 2008 on Adam Vinatieri's 51-yard field goal as time expired. The win was Indianapolis' first in San Diego since 1999 and halted a two-game losing streak in the series.
These teams have also met three times during the postseason, with the Chargers taking a 2-1 edge by virtue of a 23-17 overtime triumph at Qualcomm Stadium in a 2008 AFC Wild Card Playoff. The Colts claimed a 35-20 win in a 1995 AFC First Round tilt, with San Diego returning the favor with a 28-24 road verdict in a 2007 Divisional Playoff, the final game in the history of the RCA Dome.
Counting those two recent playoff wins, Turner is 4-3 all-time against Indianapolis, including a 1-2 mark during his tenure with Washington from 1994-2000. The Colts' Jim Caldwell will be opposing both Turner and the Chargers for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivers (3,177 yards, 23 TD, 9 INT) leads the NFL in passing yards and has a chance to break Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 set in 1984. The side-armed signal caller managed to beat the Broncos with a season-low 233 yards through the air and threw four touchdown passes in the Chargers' last game, a 29-23 triumph at Houston on Nov. 7. With Gates and running back Ryan Matthews out due to injury, Rivers made do with what he had in Crayton and Floyd. Floyd (537 yards, 4 TD) is second on the team in receiving yards and was bothered by a hamstring issue in the second half. Crayton (514 yards, TD) recorded his first touchdown in a Chargers uniform, but suffered a wrist injury on his way into the end zone. Crayton gave the Chargers a 21-7 lead and was wearing street clothes by the fourth quarter. Gates (663 yards, 9 TD) and Floyd are all questionable for this week, while Crayton is out indefinitely and Matthews is listed as doubtful. Wideout Legedu Naanee (181 yards, TD) is out with a hamstring problem. San Diego is first in both passing and total yards and third in points scored, but 17th in rushing. Mike Tolbert (506 yards, 8 TD) has picked up the slack and ran for a career-best 111 yards and a score on 25 carries. Tolbert has two 100-yard games this season.
The Colts' defense got behind early at New England and needed Manning to come to the rescue. They allowed the Patriots to convert six-of-six third downs in the first half before tightening up over the final 30 minutes. Indy surrendered just one third-down conversion on five second-half attempts and allowed only a field goal in the fourth quarter. The Colts were without linebackers Gary Brackett (42 tackles) and Clint Session (38 tackles, sack) and cornerback Justin Tryon (17 tackles). Colts All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney (19 tackles, 7 sacks) had the lone sack of Tom Brady last week and owns 91 in his career. Robert Mathis (37 tackles, 8 sacks) leads the team in that category and will try to disrupt Rivers' timing in San Diego's potent pass attack. Mathis aims for third straight game with two sacks versus San Diego, while Freeney owns four sacks in five games versus the Chargers. He has a sack in his last two games and four in his previous four contests. Safety Antoine Bethea (65 tackles) and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (56 tackles, 2 INT) must be aware of Jackson in his 2010 debut. Indy rookie linebacker Pat Angerer (50 tackles, sack) led the unit with 12 tackles last week.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Manning (3,059 yards, 20 TD, 7 INT) threw for 396 yards on Sunday -- his second-highest total of the season -- and his four touchdown passes were a season-best. He has thrown three or more touchdown passes in a game four times in 2010-11 and is fourth in the NFL with 20 TD strikes. Rivers is first with 23. Manning passed Marino (62) for second-most games with at least three touchdown passes. Brett Favre leads the way with 72 contests. Manning is also second behind Rivers in passing yards and is on pace for his fifth straight 4,000-yard campaign. Gijon Robinson, Blair White and Wayne (865 yards, 4 TD) all caught touchdown passes on Sunday, while Collie (562 yards, 6 TD) couldn't make it the entire game and experienced symptoms from his previous injury at Philadelphia. Collie leads the Colts in touchdown receptions, while Wayne has a team-high 71 catches. Tight end Jacob Tamme (305 yards, 2 TD) hauled in seven passes for 60 yards against the Pats and has filled in nicely in place of injured TE Dallas Clark. Addai (406 yards, 3 TD) is expected to participate in non-contact drills and a timetable for his return is uncertain. Addai has missed four straight games and hasn't played since a Week 6 win at Washington. Brown (265 yards, TD) and rookie Javarris James (45 yards, 3 TD) will most likely carry the load for Indy's 27th-rated rush attack.
The Chargers held Denver to 63 yards rushing Monday and forced the Broncos to go to the air. They got an interception and three passes defensed from cornerback Antoine Cason (46 tackles, 3 INT), who ended with a team-high nine tackles. The Chargers' top-rated pass defense will face a stiff challenge against Manning and his banged-up cast of receivers, so it will up to players like Cason, cornerback Quentin Jammer (29 tackles, INT) and safety Eric Weddle (56 tackles, sack) to prevent the big play that Indianapolis perfects so well. Covering Tamme across the middle could be a problem for San Diego, which is first in the NFL in total yards allowed (270.7 ypg). Expect leading tackler Kevin Burnett (60 tackles, 5 sacks, INT) and sack leader Shaun Phillips (33 tackles, 9 sacks, INT) to have big games from the linebacker position. Phillips had two of his team's five sacks on Monday. If the Colts decide to run on the Chargers' third-best run defense, add linebacker Steven Cooper (36 tackles, sack) to the mix. After the Broncos scored minutes into Monday's game, San Diego's defense made the proper adjustments and took its opponent out of the game. Nose tackle Antonio Garay (32 tackles, 4 sacks) is the anchor to the 3-4 front line and made it difficult for Denver's ground attack.
Manning is a fantasy stud and can still put up astronomical numbers even without some of his main targets. Facing the NFL's top pass defense shouldn't deter him from any success. Manning surpassed Marino (21) for second-most games with four or more touchdown passes and stands one game behind Favre (23) for the NFL record. Wayne, Tamme and Pierre Garcon can help him get there. Wayne needs 135 yards to reach 1,000 for a seventh straight year.
Rivers has taken the fantasy world by storm with his record-setting pace and has earned top status with Manning, Brady and Drew Brees at the position. He is also dealing with a series of injuries to skill players and, like Manning, can get over the hump without them. Jackson is expected to make his much- anticipated debut and after what he did a year ago, give him a shot. San Diego's defense and Tolbert deserve nods too.
The Chargers will invade Lucas Oil Stadium for their second straight nationally televised appearance, but the results won't be similar to Monday night's pounding of Denver. There's no question Rivers is heating up and has San Diego in position to capture a fifth straight division title, but the host Colts are also aiming for division supremacy in the AFC South. Manning will move his team one step closer to that goal and a few wins shy of Indy's ninth straight season with at least 10 victories.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 31, Chargers 25
11/24 14:35:21 ET