By Sam McPherson
The Tony Sparano Era of Oakland Raiders football begins in earnest this week, as the AFC West leaders—the San Diego Chargers—come to the Coliseum for a Week Six game. The Raiders are reeling after an 0-4 start and the firing of their former head coach, so Sparano has his work cut out for him in many ways immediately.
San Diego made the playoffs last year and advanced to the second round after knocking off the Cincinnati Bengals by 17 points in the opening round. The Chargers lost to the Denver Broncos, 24-17, in the AFC Divisional Playoff, and they’ve started off very strong in 2014 to capitalize on that late-season momentum from last season. In fact, all that separates San Diego from being one of the top teams in the league right now is a one-point loss in the first game of the year to the Arizona Cardinals.
While the Raiders had a bye last week, the Chargers were dominating the New York Jets, 31-0, holding their opponents to 151 total yards. And remember, the Jets beat Oakland in Week One.
San Diego is 4-1 this year, with just an 18-17 loss to Arizona in Week One keeping them from being the only undefeated team in the NFL right now. In that game, the Chargers led 17-6 in the fourth quarter before giving up the lead and losing the game.
Otherwise, the Bolts have looked very good in beating Seattle in Week Two at home, beating Buffalo in a tough road game in Week Three, smoking Jacksonville at home in Week Four and then beating the Jets handily in Week Five.
Overall, San Diego has outscored its opponents collectively by 70 points already this season. Arguably, no team in the NFL looks better at the moment, and that’s not what the Raiders need this week.
Chargers on Offense
Quarterback Philip Rivers is one of the best in the league, year to year, and this season is no exception. He’s completing 70.3% of his passes right now, with 12 touchdowns to go along with that hot start. He’s only thrown two interceptions, and his QB rating is a stellar 116.3 currently. This will be the best quarterback the mediocre Oakland defense has faced all season, including the aging Tom Brady.
San Diego’s biggest challenge on offense is the running game; they have lost too many running backs and linemen to injuries already this season—some more serious than others, of course. But Branden Oliver is emerging a bit in that old Darren Sproles role for the Chargers right now. He leads the team in rushing yards (148) and yards per carry average (4.8). This is the weakest part of the San Diego offense currently.
The receiving corps depth is impressive for the Chargers, with two tight ends presenting difficult match-ups for defenders and a handful of good wide receivers. The team has four players already with 250 yards through the air: wide receiver Eddie Royal (20 catches, 276 yards, 4 TDs), tight end Antonio Gates (21, 275, 5), wide receiver Keenan Allen (25, 269, 0) and wide receiver Malcom Floyd (12, 259, 2). Toss in Oliver (8, 101, 1) and tight Ladarius Green (7, 96, 0), and San Diego has six very capable targets for Rivers.
Chargers on Defense
Free safety Eric Weddle leads the defense, and he has 26 tackles and one interception so far in 2014. Inside linebacker Donald Butler has 27 tackles and a sack, while cornerback Shareece Wright has added 23 tackles so far.
San Diego has 10 players this season already with at least one sack, so you know they bring the pressure up front as well.
Chargers Players to Watch
Rivers, Oliver and Gates cleaned up against the Jets in Week Five. It was Oliver’s first game, really, and he ran for 114 yards. Since Oakland has such challenges stopping the run, they’ll have to keep a lid on Oliver.
Even if they do, Rivers and Gates are magic together, still. They connected for two TDs against New York last week, and Oliver also had a touchdown catch and 182 total yards on the day.
This is a SoCal version of the Triplets, basically, and even if you stop these three, think of all the other players you still have to keep an eye on. The Raiders will have their hands full on defense, no doubt.
On paper, this is a total mismatch. Oakland beat San Diego in Week Five last season at the Coliseum, but that was a long time ago—and seemingly in a galaxy far, far away. The Chargers won the rematch by double digits in San Diego last December, and clearly, the two teams are headed in opposite directions.
Transitive-score fun is always a blast, so remember the Jets beat the Raiders by five points, and the Chargers beat the Jets by 31 points.
Expect the Chargers to win by at least two touchdowns, if not more.
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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on a Examiner.com.