After impressively snapping a four-game losing streak at Pittsburgh last week, the Chargers can make it two in a row on Sunday when they host a four-win Carolina Panthers team. It's a Week 15 matchup between two of the more disappointing teams this season. The Panthers are trying to string together two wins as well after their upset of the Falcons. But this is a late season game that was expected to have much more on the line. Instead, both teams are essentially playing out the string in the final month of the season.
At 5-8, the Chargers can mathematically still entertain a playoffs discussion, but it's beyond a longshot. They're trying to run the table in order to avoid the team's first losing season in nine years. The (almost annual at this point) reports of Norv Turner and A.J. Smith's firing at the end of the season have already surfaced. Both may be beyond saving their jobs, but the one-game turnaround in Pittsburgh last week stunned a Steelers team that is squarely on the playoff bubble. They will try to repeat that performance against Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 15.
Meet the Chargers
The Chargers have an excellent opportunity against a weak schedule to finish the season on a win streak and close at .500. But San Diego has been so disappointingly inconsistent this season, it's hard to project anything, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Philip Rivers is having his worst season in the NFL and is in the top five in the league with 14 interceptions thrown. Rivers has forced it all year as he tries to make something happen for a team that's been in freefall. His turnovers have come at the most costly times, and led to several frustrating losses in the fourth quarter. He lost his top target in Vincent Jackson during the offseason, and he's struggled to find a go-to option outside the numbers.
With Rivers scuffling, the Chargers pass offense has been stuck in neutral for much of the season. They're averaging just 225 yards per game through the air, which slots them in the bottom half of the league. Rivers has the reliable Antonio Gates, an aging veteran who still makes an impact in the middle of the field. The Chargers QB avoided the big mistake last week, and threw three touchdowns in the upset win over the Steelers. He'll need to have a repeat performance at home in Week 15.
Behind Rivers is one of the worst rush offenses in the league with an average of just 94.9 yards per game. Ryan Mathews has battled injuries in his short career but has also failed to get much traction when healthy. San Diego has played catch-up plenty of times this year, and Turner is happy to favor the pass, but it's still been an ugly season running the ball. Mathews will get some touches against the Panthers, but the offense rests almost entirely on Rivers' shoulders. He should have a healthy Danario Alexander to help challenge Carolina down the field.
Meet the Panthers
Carolina is another team that has been bad to mediocre all season, and they will finish below .500 for the second straight year with Cam Newton in control. Newton has had a rocky season, but still demonstrates incredible ability on almost a weekly basis. He's played well over the past month, and can continue that in Week 15 against a vulnerable Chargers pass defense.
The Panthers rolled through the Falcons last week for what was their best offensive performance of the season. Newton and the offense put together 475 yards of total offense in the upset win -- their highest mark of the year. Newton has found the end zone with regularity over the past month, scoring 11 touchdowns since the start of November. He's putting up the kind of numbers that wowed the league at the start of his rookie season. Expect the Panthers to continue to feature Newton out on the ground as offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinkski returns to San Diego trying to keep the momentum going.
Carolina has a solid ground game behind Newton and veteran DeAngelo Williams can help at times. They're 12th in the league at 119.1 yards per game, but they've probably been a little too reliant on Newton. Williams has struggled to hit the big play, averaging less than four yards per carry and scoring just three touchdowns so far this season. They'll face one of the NFL's better defenses at stopping the run, but expect more option reads from Newton as that has boosted the offense during their recent successful stretch.
Local Takes: Chargers
The Chargers are favored at home, and John Gennaro of Bolts From The Blue sets out some of the reasons San Diego can make it two in a row:
What we saw against the Steelers was what the San Diego Chargers can do with a dominant defensive line. The line became dominant immediately after an injury to Vaughn Martin, which pushed rookie sensation Kendall Reyes into the starting Defensive End position opposing sophomore sensation Corey Liuget.
With Martin being placed on IR earlier this week, Reyes will once again get a chance to team with Liuget, Aubrayo Franklin and Cam Thomas in hopes of dominating the line of scrimmage yet again. There's more reasons to believe that they will be able to do this than there are reasons to believe that they won't.
Local Takes: Panthers
James Dator of Cat Scratch Reader previews both defensive units, and highlights the Panthers' concerns in the secondary:
The inability of the Chargers to protect Rivers has been a large reason why San Diego have struggled down the stretch, and with Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson hitting their stride it's likely Carolina's pass rush will have success this week.
It's the secondary that remains a huge question for Carolina. Ron Rivera is making a smart decision to try different combinations of players, and throwing what they have at the wall, but this also increases the potential of the secondary failing. Since parting ways with Vincent Jackson the Chargers have used a variety of receivers, but lack that one main weapon.
This feels like a game where the makeshift secondary could be exposed, but after thriving against Atlanta there's a good chance they can succeed again.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
San Diego Chargers Will Win: Carolina Panthers sbn.to/Ti20zx— Bolts From The Blue (@BFTB_Chargers) December 14, 2012
Chuds Homecoming: Carolina Panthers vs. San Diego Chargers offensive preview - Cat Scratch Reader ow.ly/g69ot— CSR (@CatScratchReadr) December 14, 2012
@UTGehlken - Chargers beat reporter
Chargers cornerback Antoine Cason making the right corrections in his contract year: utsd.us/Wch1HO— Michael Gehlken (@UTgehlken) December 16, 2012
@JosephPerson - Panthers beat reporter
Panthers' injury report in blog form: At least 3 starters out vs. Chargers.blogs.charlotte.com/panthers/— Joe Person (@josephperson) December 14, 2012
This is a sad game. Both head coaches could be fired before the month is up. The Chargers are going to win because they always win just enough down the stretch to keep Norv Turner's job.
The pick: 31-24, Chargers
The Chargers opened with the standard home field advantage from the oddsmakers -- three points -- and the line has held firm there throughout the week, according to OddsShark.
The Chargers make one more trip across the country to face the Jets in their final road game of the season. The Panthers will stay in the AFC West, as they host the Oakland Raiders in Charlotte for Week 16.