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NFL Preview - Oakland (5-6) at San Diego (6-5)
By Chris Ruddick, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The San Diego Chargers take aim at a fifth straight win when they welcome the Oakland Raiders to town this Sunday for a key AFC West matchup at Qualcomm Stadium.
After dropping five of its first seven games, San Diego has once again set the stage for another strong finish. The Chargers won their fourth straight game this past Sunday, an impressive 36-14 rout over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. The opportunistic Chargers picked off Manning four times, returning two of the interceptions for touchdowns.
"The defense was awesome," said Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. "Talk about a team win. That is certainly what [Sunday] was. Getting two defensive touchdowns was obviously huge."
Rivers threw for 185 yards without a turnover and running back Mike Tolbert rushed 26 times for 103 yards and a touchdown for the Chargers, who will take the field this weekend seeking to extend their NFL-record winning streak in December to 19 games.
Overcoming early-season deficits has become the norm for this San Diego team, as it won its final 11 games last season, its last four in 2008, six in a row to close out 2007 and 10 straight in 2006.
At 6-5, the Chargers are just one game back of the surprising Kansas City Chiefs in the division race with a critical matchup between the two in San Diego slated for next week.
Two straight losses, meanwhile, has Oakland fighting for its playoff lives. Following a three-game win streak from Oct. 24-Nov. 7, the Raiders were tied atop the West with the Chiefs at that point, but have since been outscored by a 68-20 margin in losing their last two.
To make matters worse, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski separated a shoulder in the team's 33-17 loss to Miami last week and could be lost for the remainder of the season.
"This is a big week for us," said quarterback Jason Campbell, who will regain the quarterback reins with Gradkowski's injury. "We're a team trying to get things going back in the right direction."
Oakland's usually reliable running game was completely shut down by the Dolphins, as Darren McFadden was held to just two yards on eight carries. The talented back, though, hauled in a career-high seven receptions in the loss.
Things don't figure to get any easier for the Raiders this week, as they have dropped seven in a row in San Diego while being outscored, 204-89, during the drought. However, Oakland avoided a 14th straight overall loss to the Chargers in Week 5, when the Raiders handed San Diego a 35-27 defeat.
Oakland has a 55-44-2 record in its all-time regular-season series with San Diego and put an end to a frustrating 13-game losing streak against the Chargers with the previously-noted 35-27 victory back in Week 5. The Raiders still haven't won in San Diego since a 27-7 verdict during the 2002 campaign, having been dealt defeats in each of their last seven visits to Qualcomm Stadium that included last year's 24-16 setback. Oakland's last home-and-home sweep of the Bolts occurred during the 2001 season.
These two longtime rivals have met just once in the postseason since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, with Oakland claiming a 34-27 road win in the 1980 AFC Championship.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner, who directed the Raiders from 2004-05, owns a 7-2 record against his former employer and is 6-1 against Oakland since taking over in San Diego in 2007. Oakland's Tom Cable is 1-3 versus both Turner and the Chargers as a head man.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
You wouldn't know it after watching the Raiders the last couple of weeks, but Oakland's strength on offense has been a multi-faceted running attack that's generated the fifth-most rushing yards in the NFL (139.7 ypg) and racked up totals of 328 and 239 yards on the ground, respectively, in October victories over Denver and Seattle. However the group mustered just 16 yards against Miami a week ago. Top back McFadden (773 rushing yards, 33 receptions, 6 total TD) was kept in check, as he managed just two yards on eight carries, one week after being held to 14 yards by Pittsburgh. Despite the recent rough stretch, though, McFadden is an exceptional playmaker who's averaging 4.9 yards per carry and doubles as an impact receiver out of the backfield, while 245-pounder Michael Bush (358 rushing yards, 4 TD, 11 receptions) brings a physical element between the tackles. Cable will try to get the duo rolling to ease the burden on Campbell (1322 passing yards, 7 TD, 6 INT), whose big arm and above-average mobility are often offset by the ex-Redskin's lack of accuracy and indecisiveness in the pocket. To be fair, Oakland's 27th-ranked passing offense (196.1 ypg) doesn't have many reliable options to throw to other than tight end Zach Miller (37 receptions, 4 TD), and his production has been slowed lately by a nagging foot injury he's playing through. Second- year man Louis Murphy (28 receptions, 1 TD) is the best of a pedestrian allotment of wide receivers, though rookie speedster Jacoby Ford (16 receptions, 1 TD) has showed signs and last week hauled in a 44-yard touchdown catch as well as a returning a kick 101 yards for a touchdown.
With Gradkowski likely sidelined for the rest of the season with a shoulder separation, Campbell once again returns to the starting lineup will be thrown right into the fire, as he will be going up against statistically the best defense in the NFL. The Chargers have yielded the second-fewest passing yards in the league (192.5 ypg) as well as only 11 touchdowns through the air. Corners Quentin Jammer (31 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD) and Antoine Cason (48 tackles, 4 INT, 13 PD) have been terrific, while San Diego also leads the NFL with 33 sacks, with nearly half that total coming from the linebacking duo of Shaun Phillips (38 tackles, 10 sacks, 1 INT) on the outside and Kevin Burnett (70 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INT) along the interior. Antonio Garay (34 tackles, 4 sacks) anchors a defensive line from the nose guard position and lends support to the league's third-rated run defense (81.1 ypg). Bush, though, was able to get 104 yards on 26 carries in the teams' matchup earlier in the year.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
A revolving door at the skill positions has done little to slow down Rivers (3362 passing yards, 23 TD, 9 INT), who's averaging an astounding 305.6 passing yards per game while completing 66.2 percent of his throws in expertly directing the NFL's top-ranked total offense (407.5 ypg). The fiery field general won't have Vincent Jackson at his disposal this week, however, as the wideout will miss the game with a calf injury he sustained against the Colts. Tight end Antonio Gates (44 receptions, 709 yards, 9 TD) has been Rivers' favorite target, while wide receiver Malcolm Floyd (26 receptions, 4 TD) has also been effective. Floyd, though, has been bothered by a sore hamstring. The running game should be improved this week, as talented rookie Ryan Mathews (382 rushing yards, 2 TD, 15 receptions) is expected to be back after missing three weeks with an ankle injury. Even if he is limited, though, converted fullback Mike Tolbert (609 rushing yards, 9 TD, 18 receptions) will be shooting for a third straight 100-yard game. Diminutive Darren Sproles (162 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 2 TD) continues to be one of the more effective third-down backs in the league.
Although Rivers' 431 yards in the Chargers' earlier matchup with Oakland were a career-high, the Raiders have proven to be quite capable at getting to the quarterback this season. Oakland is second in the NFL with 32 sacks, with outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (38 tackles, 5 sacks) and end Matt Shaughnessy (39 tackles, 5 sacks) leading the charge from the outside and tackles Richard Seymour (44 tackles, 5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (42 tackles, 6 sacks) lending a strong interior push. That stout rush has helped Oakland hold opponents to a 54.4 percent completion percentage, the second-best mark in the league, as well as the fifth-fewest passing yards (201.5 ypg). The presence of shutdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (15 tackles) has contributed to those strong numbers as well, and the three-time All-Pro returned to the lineup this past Sunday after missing the past two games with an ankle sprain. A run defense anchored by Seymour and rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain (57 tackles, 1 sack) is allowing a suspect 133.7 yards per game (28th overall), including an average of 174 the past two weeks.
As was the case in the last matchup, this one could have the makings of a shootout. Rivers has been the league's best fantasy quarterback for the majority of the season, making him a must-start. Gates is his main target and seems to be healthy following a recent foot injury. Mathews' owners should be happy with his return, but will he be as productive as Tolbert has been in his absence? San Diego's defense got a Peyton Manning-led offense to turn the ball over five times last week. What do you think they will do against Campbell? The Chargers' defense might be the best bet of all the San Diego fantasy options this week.
On the Oakland side, McFadden is probably the only player who warrants a start, but he will be going up against the top-ranked defense in the league, not to mention he has struggled over the past couple of weeks. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski is also among the league leaders with 26 field goals made.
It was after the loss to Oakland that people really started questioning what kind of team this San Diego Chargers club would be. We all probably should have known better. With a critical matchup against Kansas City on tap next week, the Chargers could be caught looking ahead here, but don't count on it. The Chargers appear to be a team on a mission at the moment. Oakland's offense has had trouble getting it going the past few weeks, and it's hard to believe it will get on track against the league's best defense. Oakland won the previous matchup thanks in part to two blocked punts. That won't be the case this week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: San Diego 38, Oakland 24
12/02 18:57:55 ET