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Divisional Playoff Review: Kicking the Flag Edition.

The Chargers somehow manage to play their least disciplined game at the worst possible time, allowing the New York Jets to hang around and steal a 17-14 victory.

Jets vs Chargers boxscore

I really believed that the Chargers put this game behind them three years ago when they lost their focus and discipline in losing to the New England Patriots. Wrong. This game joins 12/29/1979 and 1/14/2007 as the most devastating losses in Chargers' history.

Last week, in my post The Principle of Calculated Risk, I stated unequivocally that if the Chargers play their game, they would win. After 10 penalties (regular season avg of 5.2 per game), -1 in turnovers (+10 in the regular season), and 3 missed FGs (32-35 in the regular season), the Chargers are sifting through the wreckage of a 5th playoff appearance in 6 years, with no Super Bowl appearance.

The Jets won this game by turning it into a street fight. The Chargers coaches and players clearly were not prepared to play that style of game, and it showed both on the field and on the sidelines. I'm not saying the Chargers were unprepared - rather, they made so many mistakes that it prevented them from winning the game they had prepared for - jumping out to a big early lead, forcing the Jets offense to abandon the run, and teeing off on Jets' QB Mark Sanchez.

The grades section will deal with game performance and avoid discussing penalties, which I'm saving for a Hidden Plays / Missed Opportunities Section

The rest is below the jump. I recommend a good stiff drink (you're either a Jets fan or hater, and enjoying this immensely, or a pissed off Chargers fan) before continuing.

Quarterbacks: C

Philip Rivers, like many other offensive players, had very deceiving stats. Rivers threw for 298 yards and completed 67.5 % of his passes. He posted both a passing and rushing TD. However, these numbers hide some truly terrible stretches of the game were Rivers was clearly out-of-rhythm. He struggled with the play clock, had difficulties getting players organized for audibles, and amazingly, never seemed to change his cadence to throw off the Jets' defense. While his first INT was a off a Vincent Jackson tip and miraculous catch by CB Darrelle Revis, his 2nd INT was the play that turned the game, an off-timed throw to either Jackson or TE Antonio Gates that was either overthrown or underthrown. Rivers was effective in the final 7 minutes of the game running the 2 minute drill, but could not overcome some crucial drops, ridiculous penalties, and poor special teams play.

Running Backs: C-

Running the ball, the Chargers were unable to mount any semblance of effectiveness. In what is sure to be his final game as a Charger, RB LaDainian Tomlinson contributed 24 yards on 12 carries. In fact, if you take away his first carry, Tomlinson averaged only 1.73 yards per attempt. He was equally negligible as a pass receiver, with 3 catches for 0 yards. The Jets made a point of taking the Chargers' screen passing game completely away - most screen plays went for a loss of yards or a Rivers' throw-away. RB Darren Sproles contributed 3 carries for 33 yards, much of this came on consecutive draw plays late in the 1st half. Sproles also contributed 3 catches for 33 yards. FBs Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert created zero space as lead blockers, while combining for 2 catches for 17 yards. On the whole, the unit was effective in pass protection.

Wide Receivers: B-

Jackson posted a monster receiving day, hauling in 7 catches for 111 yards. Whenever not covered by Revis, Jackson was frequently open. Gates added 8 catches for 93 yards, including a brilliant one-handed grab to help set up the Chargers 1st score of the game. Gates disappeared after the 1st half until late in the game - he had one critical dropped pass that could have moved the Chargers inside the Jets' 20 yard line with less than 7 minutes to play. Malcom Floyd contributed 3 catches for 30 yards, but got away with a fumbled catch that was overturned, as well as dropping a jump ball early in the 3rd quarter that would have extended a Chargers' drive. Reserve TE Kris Wilson added a 13-yard TD in the second quarter. In run or pass blocking, none of the Chargers TEs fared well. Gates and TE Brandon Manumaleuna had a mis-communication in the 4th quarter that resulted in a sack and fumble - had the Jets recovered, the game would have been over.

Offensive Line: C

As usual there was limited to zero space in the running game, excepting the 3 draw plays run by Sproles. By and large, pass protection held up fairly well, but there were numerous miscues when the Jets began overload and delay blitzing later in the game. C Nick Hardwick pushed a shotgun snap over Rivers' head on the Chargers' first possession, effectively killing the drive. Lt Marcus McNeill held up very well in pass protection against OLB Calvin Pace, while the interior of LG Kris Dielman and Hardwick were mostly successful, if bailed out a couple of times by Tomlinson and Sproles in protection. RG Louis Vasquez allowed a sack by Jets' DE Mike DeVito, and late in the game RT Brandyn Dombrowski struggled to contain Jets DE Shaun Ellis.

Defensive Line: B

For the 1st 20 minutes of the game, the defensive line was strong at the point of attack, limiting the Jets' running game and forcing Sanchez into several rushed throws. DT Ian Scott was very disruptive against Jets' C Nick Mangold; his effort helped blow up several running plays. DE's Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire were also strong for most of the game. Including DE's Alfonso Boone and Antonio Garay, the defensive line contributed 18 tackles. The only knock on this group was the ability to occupy enough blockers to allow the LBs and Safeties go reach Sanchez on blitz plays. Minus Jets' RB Shonn Greene's 53 yard run (more on this below), the Chargers front yielded 116 rushing yards on 38 attempts - a 3.05 average.

Linebackers: C

The LBs were strictly average, not good, not awful. On the field ILB Stephen Cooper made a terrific play to stop a Jets' option run, while ILB Kevin Burnett made a nice tackle also resulting in a loss. Along with Brandon Siler, the ILBs contributed 15 tackles, 2 for loss. On the outside, OLBs Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and Larry English did a fair job cleaning up on running plays, but there was very little pass pressure generated by this trio. They combined for 12 total tackles, but forced no turnovers, and got zero sacks. The biggest non-penalty debit was against ILB Tim Dobbins, who lost track of Jets' TE Dustin Keller in the back corner of the endzone, and gave Sanchez just enough room to throw a 2-yard TD pass.

Secondary minus Cromartie: B-

CB Quentin Jammer was terrific in pass defense, contributing 2 critical pass defenses , 5 solo tackles - the tackle on Keller came on 3rd and short and forced a Jets' FG attempt in the 3rd quarter. Jammer also nabbed an INT off a pass tipped by S Steve Gregory. Gregory himself was very good in coverage against the Jets' slot receivers and Keller, with 2 pass defenses. S Eric Weddle was good for all but one play, making a bad tackle attempt on Greene's 53 yard TD run. However, Weddle netted the Chargers' only QB sack, adding 8 solo tackles and a pass defensed. Safety Paul Oliver was responsible for forcing the Sanchez INT as result of a Safety blitz, also adding 3 tackles.

Cromartie: F-

This brings us to CB Antonio Cromartie, who made - considering the situation and result - the single worst play I've ever seen. On Shonn Greene's 53 yard TD, Cromartie came free into the gap and had a clean shot at Greene for a 3-4 yard gain, but stopped without attempting to make the tackle and watched Greene run upfield. Furthermore, after Greene broke Weddle's tackle, Cromartie chased Greene to the endzone, giving him a shoulder bump well after the play. Cromartie's game had not been spectacular by any means before this play, allowing a pair of 3rd-and-long receptions to WR Braylon Edwards. But the failure (or refusal) to attempt a tackle on Greene is unforgivable. This play was the back-breaker for the Chargers, and if Chargers' GM A.J. Smith is remotely serious about wanting tough, hard-nosed football players, Cromartie has played his last game in a Chargers' uniform.

Special Teams: F

No matter how you cut it, you cannot miss a 36 and 40 yard FG in the playoffs and expect to win. PK Nate Kaeding also missed a 57-yard FG, but it was his 36 yard miss in the 1st quarter and 40 yard miss in the 4th quarter that was most responsible for the Chargers losing this game. As good as Kaeding has been in the regular season, he has been a disaster in the postseason. Take away his 4-4 effort against the Patriots in the AFC Championship, plus his 2 misses beyond 50 yards, and Kaeding is a wretched 4-9 in the postseason. Punt and Kick coverage was below standard, neither allowing Sproles to break a long return, nor preventing both a 36 yard return by Brad Smith, as well as a 23 yard punt return by Jerricho Cotchery. Both of these returns created short fields, leading to 10 Jets' points. P Mike Scifres and Hester were the only bright spots. Scifres had 6 punts for a 49.5 yard average, and 3 kicks inside the Jets' 20 yard line. Hester came very close to blocking a punt - he tipped the ball, helping the Chargers get slightly better field position with 3:36 remaining in the game.

Coaching: C-

Norv Turner is no more to blame than Marty Schottenheimer was for the players to maintain focus and discipline, and he didn't make the series of mistakes that Schottenheimer made in 2005 against the Jets and 2007 against the Patriots. However, as offensive coordinator, Turner had no answers for slowing down the Jets' defense with respect to the screen game. No wildcat plays, no end-arounds, no flea-flickers, nothing to make the Jets think twice about pursuing the ball. Furthermore, once it was evident that Tomlinson was completely unproductive, Sproles should have been given more opportunities on draw, trap, and toss plays. In regards to the onside kick with 2:14 remaining, I tend to agree that Turner should have kicked the ball deep and given the Jets one less down to get a 1st down and ice the game. On the other hand, Turner cannot have trusted Kaeding to make a game-tying FG attempt, and likely wanted to give Rivers extra time to drive for a game-winning TD. Certainly understandable, if not fully defensible. Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera had his players ready to play, and with one exception, his game plan contained the Jets' running game, and did not give Sanchez any easy play-action opportunities downfield. His blitzes were not frequent, but were generally effective in forcing incompletions and an INT from Sanchez.

Hidden Plays / Missed Opportunities / Crucial Mistakes (Non scoring, non-turnover plays that directly affected the outcome):

  • On the Chargers' 2nd possession, the Chargers are facing 2nd and 6 at the Jets' 17 when Tomlinson is flagged for a false start, killing the drive and any chance for a TD. This penalty is followed by a poor screen play, a wasted timeout on 3rd and 15, and Kaeding's 1st missed FG.
  • On the Chargers' 3rd possession, Rivers has to burn a 2nd timeout following an incomplete pass attempt.
  • Later on the same possession, following a Jackson reception to the Jets' 42 yard line, Dombrowski commits a False Start. The drive ends on a 4th and 4 at the Jets 36 yard line late in the 1st quarter, as Turner punts.
  • On the Chargers' 5th possession, Floyd fumbles a 12 yard reception, but the call is overturned by a Turner challenge.
  • On the Jets' 5th possession, 3rd and 10 at the Jets' 36, Sanchez completes a pass to Braylon Edwards, gaining 20 yards and moving the Jets across the 50. No score, but the field has been flipped (the drive started at the Jets' 8 yard line and took 6:31 off the clock).
  • On the Chargers' last possession of the half, and holding 1 timeout, Rivers moves the Chargers to the Jets' 40 before Kaeding's missed 57-yard attempt.
  • On the Jets' 1st possession of the 2nd half, 3rd down and 7, Jammer is flagged for Pass Interference at the Chargers'37 yard line, moving the Jets' into scoring range.
  • On 1st and 10 from the Jets' 38, following Sanchez' INT, Floyd commits an illegal block that wipes out a 22-yard catch and run by Jackson to the Jets' 16 yard line. Rivers' 1st INT follows 2 plays later.
  • Following Rivers' 2nd INT, the Jets have 2nd and 8 at the Chargers' 14 when Phillips is flagged for a head-butt. Jets move 7 yards to 1st and Goal at the 7 yard line.
  • In the 4th quarter, 2nd and 2 at the Jets' 44, Rivers throws to Gates who drops the ball with at least 10-15 yards of open field ahead. The drive ends with Kaeding's missed 40 yard attempt 5 plays later.
  • On the Chargers last possession, Jackson is flagged for Unsportsmanlike Conduct for kicking the Jets' challenge flag, following a 30 yard catch that moves the ball from the Jets' 20 to the Jets' 35 yard line with 3 minutes remaining.

Biggest Areas of Concern going into the Offseason (no particular order):

  • Going forward, how much can you trust Kaeding in clutch situations?
  • Will Shawne Merriman's body be fully ready for next season, and can he return to 2005-07 form?
  • Will Vincent Jackson and Shaun Phillips learn from their mistakes and mature going into next season.
  • Will Jackson be suspended by the NFL for off-field DUI incidents? How many games will he miss?
  • Can the Chargers keep Floyd, McNeill, Jackson, Sproles, and Merriman from going elsewhere?
  • Will Jamal Williams come back fully healthy next season?
  • Can the Chargers find an every-down running back via draft or trade?
  • Assuming Cromartie is released, will the Chargers have Antoine Cason ready for opening day?
  • Is Brandyn Dombrowski a legitimate RT, or will the Chargers upgrade in the draft.
  • How quickly can Vaughn Martin and Larry English grow into their respective roles?
  • Can the coaching staff figure out how to guide players through games that turn into "street fights?"
  • How many chances to win the Super Bowl do the Chargers have left?

Looking Ahead To:

A long, embittered offseason, the impending release or trade of Antonio Cromartie, and the draft.

Final Thoughts:

Having won the AFC West 5 of the last 6 seasons, and having train-wrecks like Kansas City and Oakland in your division makes the Chargers the odds-on favorite to repeat as division champs and return to the playoffs. However, time is running out. The Chargers cannot count on Denver, Oakland, and Kansas City being mediocre-to-bad forever. Furthermore, the Chargers are falling into a group of teams that consistently tease (the Schottenheimer coached Chiefs and Glanville/Pardee coached OIlers come immediately to mind) and fail to cash in their playoff opportunities. The pressure will be on next season to produce something beyond an entertaining regular season, followed by playoff disaster.