1. Darren Sproles, Mr. Everything Man
Next week against the Broncos could very well be Darren's last game as a San Diego Charger. It's unfortunate too because Norv Turner seems to have finally grasped how to use the pint-size playmaker. A lot of why he was being misused, and overpaid, and disliked by many fans was because the expectations for him were too high. He is not meant to be a Kick Return, Punt Returner and backup RB. He is meant to be a Kick Returner and 3rd down RB, one that mostly runs check-down routes, and he's done that well this season.
This Bengals game was that in a nutshell. With good coverage on the WRs, and the wind working as a deep Safety against Philip Rivers, Sproles caught 8 passes....which passes Antonio Gates and makes Darren the Chargers' leading receiver for the season (57 receptions). At the same time, with Antoine Cason taking over punt return duties, Sproles' kick returns have gotten bigger every week and he got his biggest one of the season (45 yards) in the fourth quarter of yesterday's game.
I am not saying that Sproles is worth the money he's getting paid each year, but when he's asked to fill a role rather than dominate the game he does his job quite well. He was one of the few guys not looking lost out on the field yesterday.
2. Special Teams
Shockingly, this was not a game that was blown by Special Teams. Mike Scifres' 32 yard punting average only looks bad until you look at the average of the other guy punting in the same game (Kevin Huber - 32 yard punting average). The kick coverage kept Bernard Scott to a very average 24 yards per kick return (longest return: 27 yards) and the punt coverage kept Quan Cosby's one(!) punt return to 12 yards. Nate Kaeding made both field goals and both extra point attempts, which is more than could be said for Clint Stitser.
3. Ryan Mathews
Say what you want about the kid's inability to meet some high expectations this season, I am still very excited for Mathews' future and career in San Diego. Bam Bam still comes with great speed, incredible balance, good vision and a heck of a lot of strength. The smoothness with which he runs reminds me of Walter Payton. The combination of him and Mike Tolbert still make for a formidable rushing attack in 2011, and Mathews hasn't even gotten close to reaching his potential.
An offseason of hard work, spent in Southern California and working with the Charger coaches, should bring his pass protection skills up to snuff and help him with his patience and reading of blocks. He has all of the physical skills, that much is obvious, and if he can catch up mentally he could have one of those breakout second seasons that Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson have had recently.
4. Mike Tolbert
After leaving the field on a stretcher, Mike Tolbert was diagnosed with a neck sprain and even traveled back to San Diego with the team last night. Due to the Broncos game being meaningless next week, I'd predict that to be his last carry of the season, but it is great news that the injury seems minor and he'll be ready to be half of the Chargers running attack again in 2011.
5. Philip Rivers
Not only did the Bengals play good defense, but Rivers' typical deep passes were taken from his repertoire by strong winds. However, to say that Rivers had a bad game would be misleading....he just didn't have a great game. He still completed more than 67% of his passes, still finished with over 250 passing yards and still moved the ball downfield with some consistency after the first quarter. The interception was the fault of bad luck/bad timing and not necessarily Rivers' fault, but it is what kept him from being able to keep the Chargers in the game late.