Well, here we are. On Sunday, the Chargers and Raiders meet for the final time in 2010, and unlike recent years, the stakes are very, very real for both teams.
Eight long years removed from the playoffs, 34-95 in that span, never having won more than five games in a season, Oakland is 5-6 and in the mix for the AFC West crown. Of course, the Raiders’ season is also on the brink of collapse after two ugly losses to Pittsburgh and Miami. A loss on Sunday dumps them into free fall, two games behind San Diego, and likely three games back of Kansas City with no hopes of a Wild Card berth.
The Chargers are, like always, deep into their annual late season, er, charge. With four straight wins, capped by their prime time whack job in Indy last Sunday, the torrid Bolts are a week away from a showdown with the Chiefs for all the division marbles. Of course, a loss to Oakland leaves them tied with the Raiders, with the Silver & Black holding the tiebreaker, and two games back of K.C.
So where do we go from here? For the Chargers, the obvious answer – hopping on board the Philip Rivers express (again) – might not be the right one. While Rivers remains on fire, the Raiders have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL. On the ground, well, that’s another matter. Ranked 28th against the run, the Raiders face a running game energized by the emergence of Mike Tolbert as a battering ram, posting 100-yard efforts in each of the two games Ryan Mathews has missed. Guess who should be back this week. Well give you a hint – his initials are Ryan Mathews.
On the other side of the tracks, the Raider rushing attack, still fifth best in the league, is spinning out of control, posting 81 yards total the last two weeks and “supported” by a collapsing passing game. The Chargers, by the by, are in the league’s top three against both the run and the pass.
Eight weeks ago, the Raiders won a game in which they were outgained by 200+ yards, thanks to a blocked punt, a bad snap safety, and three fumbles, the last being run back for the clinching touchdown with the Chargers on the brink of kicking the winning field goal. Every December, those kinds of mistakes suddenly disappear from the San Diego dance card.
Vegas has pegged the Bolts as 13-point favorites playing at home. Raider Nation will understandably doubt those odds, but take off those silver- and black-tinted glasses, and you can see the buzzards circling over Oakland.