The Chargers win their first true test in the last 3 weeks. Behind clutch offense, and stingy red-zone defense, the Chargers are able to defeat the Dallas Cowboys for their 8th consecutive victory.
The weekend couldn't have worked out much better for the San Diego Chargers. First, they proved their mental toughness again, defeating a Dallas Cowboys team that needed the victory as much (if not more) than San Diego did. The Chargers, make no mistake, took this game from the Dallas Cowboys, simply by making more big plays at crucial times than their erstwhile opponents.
Almost across the board, the stats were even, with 2 significant exceptions. The 1st major difference is 3rd and 4th down conversions. Combined, the Chargers were 6-13. The Cowboys: 2-10. The 2nd major difference was in penalty yards; 24 for the Chargers, 68 for the Cowboys. This is the difference between 2 talented teams, one makes positive plays when they are needed most, the other makes mistakes when they are needed least.
Secondly, the Chargers got help from the Indianapolis Colts, allowing them to increase their division lead to 2 games over the Denver Broncos. Thirdly, the Minnesota Vikings defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, which gave the Chargers the outright lead in the chase for the AFC's #2 seed, and the bye week that comes with it.
Grades are below the jump.
Rivers final numbers (21-32, 271 yards) don't quite stress how amazing his performance was. More than in any game since the Week 2 loss to Baltimore, Rivers was throwing long and often. Considering the degree of difficulty on many of his passes, his overall accuracy and efficiency was sensational. Rivers did throw one horrendous interception - I couldn't tell if he was trying to get the ball to Jackson, or throw the ball away. Otherwise, especially on 2 sideline throws to Jackson, Rivers was terrific. Also, continuing his habit of performing in the clutch, Rivers was 7-8 for 114 yards and a TD on the Chargers final 2 drives of the game.
Running Backs: B
LaDainian Tomlinson's final line of 21 carries for 50 yards was not impressive. What was impressive was Tomlinson's running on the 1 drive where the Chargers absolutely, positively needed him to be productive. On the final possession, he gained 30 of his 51 total yards to help the Chargers kill the clock. Darren Sproles chipped in with 7 carries for 22 yards, often making 3 yards when nothing appeared to be available. Tomlinson and Sproles also contributed 1 catch each. FB Mike Tolbert has been nicely rediscovered as a pass option the last few weeks, contributing 3 catches for 19 yards, but his biggest play came on Tomlinson's TD run - he blew through Dallas LB Keith Brooking to open a hole for Tomlinson. Blitz pickup by the group was outstanding.
Wide Receivers: A+
Vincent Jackson returned to form with 7 catches for 120 yards. His 34 yard reception early in the 4th quarter on 3rd and 12 was the biggest play of the 2nd half. Malcom Floyd contributed 3 catches for 40 yards, but he was a nightmare for Dallas CB Mike Jenkins (who got away with a pair of uncalled pass interference plays in the 2nd and 3rd quarter). TE Antonio Gates added 4 catches for 44 yards and the go-ahead TD in the 4th quarter. Legedu Naanee added one catch, as did reserve TE Kris Wilson - his 21 yard catch and run was a key play on the Chargers' opening TD drive.
Offensive Line: B-
Once again, both good and bad. The good - Dallas OLB DeMarcus Ware never sniffed Philip Rivers, despite being moved all around the defense. It was especially nice to see that RT Brandyn Dombroski handled him well in a pair of 1-on-1 matchups early in the game. The interior of the line, RG Louis Vasquez and C Scott Mruczkowski did a solid job of controlling NT Jay Ratliff, which prevented Dallas' blitzes from reaching Rivers. The only sack was allowed by LG Kris Dielman, against DE Stephen Bowen. LT Marcus McNeill was again good in pass protection. However, excepting the final drive, the unit was overall awful in the running game, gaining a meager 2.7 yards on 31 attempts for the game (the average was less than 2 yards per carry until the final drive).
Defensive Line: B-
Of the Cowboys 108 yards rushing, 68 yards came on their 3rd possession of the game - mitigated by the Chargers' outstanding goal-line stand to keep the Cowboys scoreless on the drive. Despite being blown off the ball for most of the drive, the group of DE Jaques Cesaire, NT Ian Scott, and DE Luis Castillo did a great job of standing up the Cowboys' offensive line to allow the LBs to penetrate and make stops. It appeared that the stand broke the Cowboys' will to run for the rest of the game. On pass defense, the unit did not get much push, but Scott did have a pass deflection that almost turned into an INT. This unit, however, continues to struggle with draw plays and delay runs.
Can someone find ILB Stephen Cooper some hands? He had 3 pass deflections that nearly (maybe should) have been turned into INTs. OLBs Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman were playing hurt and it showed, as neither really got close to Romo. OLB Larry English did get close to Romo a few times, but overpursuit and/or bad angles cost him at least 1, maybe 2 sacks (one could have been a Safety). Inside, ILB Brandon Siler continued to come up with huge plays, especially on the Chargers' goal-line stand, and contributed 5 tackles,as well as the Chargers' only sack. In coverage, the LBs were very good at helping to control Dallas TE Jason Witten, as well as the Dallas RBs in the passing game.
Despite not forcing any turnovers, this group had a very good game. Subtracting the 86 yards allowed in the final 2 minutes, when the unit willingly traded yards for seconds off the clock, the DBs allowed only 153 yards through the air. Excepting 1 catch by Dallas WR Roy Williams, the group as a whole limited yards after the catch, and prevented the Cowboys' receivers from making any huge plays. As good as CBs Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie were, the work of Safties Steve Gregory, Paul Oliver, and Kevin Ellison was more impressive. The group limited Witten and slot WR Patrick Crayton to a combined total of 6 catches for 80 yards - half of their receptions, yards, and the Crayton TD came in garbage time. As a whole, the unit was not used on blitzes as much as in recent weeks.
Special Teams: B
After allowing a game-opening 41-yard return, the coverage units played very well for the remainder of the game. As usual, WR Kassim Osgood was great on punt coverage downing 2 of P Mike Scifres' punts inside the Dallas' 5 yard line. Scifres' 3rd punt, however, resulted in only his 2nd touchback of the season. PK Nate Kaeding was again Mr. Reliable, converting on FGs of 29 and 34 yards - the 2nd of which iced the game late in the 4th quarter. Punt and Kickoff return blocking leaves something to be desired, as Sproles found little to no room to run.
No matter how you look at it, Head Coach Norv Turner and Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera thoroughly outcoached Dallas Head Coach Wade Phillips and Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett. Early in the game, Rivera was very selective with his blitzes, using them to stall the Cowboys' opening drive with ILB / OLB crosses and stunts. Rivera also did not use the Safety blitzes nearly as much as he had in previous weeks. On offense, Turner was a step ahead of Phillips the entire game, notably early with the flea flicker off the Wildcat and the clear out throw to Kris Wilson. Amazingly, following the goal line stand, Garrett virtually abandoned the run - the one weakness of the Chargers defense which the Cowboys could exploit. The Cowboys ran the ball 8 times in the 2nd half, a game in which they did not trail by more than 1 score until 2 minutes remained.
Side note: I'm beginning to think one of Turner's best moves was re-hiring Rob Chudzinsky as TE Coach and Assistant Head Coach. I say this because while Turner has seemingly become an very good game manager overnight (poor game management was one of my main complaints about Turner), many of his opposite numbers are struggling in this area. On Sunday, Phillips fell into this trap. Never mind panicking and not kicking the FG in the 2nd quarter to close within 10-6, Phillips also doomed his team to defeat by not attempting a FG with the ball at the Chargers' 18 and only 26 seconds remaining.
Hidden Plays (Non scoring, non-turnover plays that directly affected the outcome):
- Not really a hidden play - the goal line stand that seemed to suck the life out of the Cowboys and their fans.
- On Dallas' 1st possession - 4th down. Quentin Jammer cheats up to Jason Witten, allowing Williams to get open behind him for a 1st down catch, leading to a Dallas FG.
- Following the missed FG attempt by Dallas K Nick Folk, the Chargers have the ball at the Dallas' 46 yard line with about 25 seconds and 1 timeout. Rivers is sacked, killing a chance to score before the half.
- In the 3rd quarter, Rivers attempts a throw to Gates, missed because of the Umpire. With a single safety rotating high, Gates needs only to make the catch and beat the LB for a 40+ yard TD.
- On Dallas' 1st posession of the 4th quarter, Cooper strips RB Felix Jones of the ball, causing a 5 yard loss and killing the drive for Dallas.
- Red-zone defense: 2 TDs allowed in 4 trips.
- Escaping this game without any major injuries.
- Improved play from Safeties not named Eric Weddle.
- Offensive Line asserting itself in the 4th quarter to ice the game.
- Coverage of opposing TE and slot WRs was terrific.
- Heart shown by D-line to make the goal line stand after getting run on for 60+ yards.
Biggest Areas of Concern:
- Finishing drives on offense could have ended this game in the 3rd quarter.
- Offensive run blocking for the 1st 3 and 1/2 quarters of the game.
- Defensive Line did not open pass rushing lanes for LBs or DBs.
- Dropped / missed INTs.
- Punt and Kick return blocking.
Looking ahead to:
To making another statement this weekend vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. This weekend's game could very well be a preview of a divisional playoff game. The Chargers have to make sure any rematch takes place in San Diego, following a week of rest.