Week one can often be the land of mirages – teams that have dramatically changed philosophies in the offseason can take their opponents by surprise, allowing them to get off to fast starts and upsets early. As teams gather film and data on their opponents, sometimes these teams come back to earth. Other times, they really have improved – and improved enough to provide a significant jump in their fortunes.
If Week 1 is “Jump to Conclusions” week (Peyton Manning will throw 112 touchdowns! Kansas City won’t allow a single offensive score! Tom Brady is washed up!), Week 2 can be summed up as “Crashing to Reality” week. One matchup features a new coach who would like to stick in week one’s daydreams a while longer against a new coach who would like to wake up from the same sort of nightmare they experienced enough of last year, thank you.
San Diego Chargers (0-1) @ Philadelphia Eagles (1-0) – Sunday, September 15th, 1:00 PM Eastern, CBS.
Last Week: Chip Kelly’s offense was a revelation – one Washington simply did not seem prepared for. We knew that he would run a high-tempo, fast-paced offense, but the first half was simply ridiculous. They ran 53 plays in the first half – the second-most any NFL team has run in the first half since 1991. That’s an insane pace, an average of about one play every 23 seconds – that’s the rate of a fast basketball team, not an NFL club! It’s no wonder they managed to jump out to a 26-7 lead at the half. They did slow down significantly in the second half as Washington managed to get a little control back and mounted a comeback that ultimately fell short, but the first half blitzkrieg was enough to lead them to a 33-27 victory.
The Chargers also started fast in the late, late game, staking a big lead for new head coach Mike McCoy, building a 28-7 lead early in the third quarter. Unfortunately, unlike the Eagles, they weren’t able to hold on. Matt Schaub and the Texans kicked it into high gear, scoring 31 unanswered points in a loss disturbingly reminiscent of recent struggles, including last year’s Monday Night game against the Broncos, which saw a similar collapse. Philip Rivers was only 1-for-7 with an interception returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, continuing his late game struggles – he was 84-for-134 with five touchdowns to eight picks in the fourth quarter of games last season. It all added up to an all-too-familiar 28-31 loss.
Last meeting: Back in November of 2009, Rivers wasn’t struggling at all, and the Chargers were a team to be reckoned with. In a matchup between two eventual playoff teams, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb threw for 450 yards, but it simply wasn’t enough. LaDainian Tomlinson dominated the ground game for the Chargers, rushing for 96 yards and a pair of scores, while Rivers added a pair of touchdowns through the air to help the Chargers to their fourth straight win of the season, 31-23.
What’s at stake: Chip Kelly and the Eagles are trying to show that they’re more than just one-hit wonders, and that their super-fast offense from the first half is their true identity, as opposed to the team that let Washington climb back into the race in the second half. A 2-0 start would put them in the catbird seat as the team to beat in the NFC East. The Chargers, on the other hand, need to show that they are more like the team that roared out to a 28-7 look, and less like the team that crumbled in the second half. Mike McCoy needs his first win.
This time: The key to stopping Kelly’s Oregon offenses, and likely the key to stopping Philadelphia, is to slow them down. The key to slowing down the offense is to shut down the running back, and LeSean McCoy was unstoppable on Monday night, powering for 184 yards at nearly six yards a carry. There was simply no way to get the Eagles off the field when McCoy was chewing up yardage like that. The Chargers did manage to limit another of the league’s best, Arian Foster, in their matchup Monday night. Foster and Tate only combined for 112 yards, and didn’t have nearly the same spaces of wide open running room that McCoy enjoyed. If McCoy goes off again, the Chargers have no shot, but with a week’s worth of film on the shifty back, I think they’ll be able to bring him back down to earth a little bit.
That would put the pressure squarely onto the shoulders of Michael Vick, and while he’s been inconsistent at the best of times, he’s not facing the toughest pass defense he’s ever faced. The Chargers were absolutely picked apart by Matt Schaub last week. Derek Cox, in particular, was shredded when he tried to cover Andre Johnson, and while DeSean Jackson’s not quite up to Johnson’s levels, he should find plenty of ways to get open. I’d expect Shareece Wright, who had a marginally better game, to be the one following him along the field, meaning someone else is going to get the advantageous matchup against Cox – perhaps Brent Celek or Riley Cooper. One way or another, opportunities should be there in the pass game, if Vick can find them.
As long as we’re talking about inconsistent quarterbacks, we have to bring up Rivers on the other side. What’s happened? A few years ago, he was a Pro Bowler, but now he’s streaky and unreliable. Both interceptions and sacks have been on the rise over the past three years – and they might go hand in hand. Worry about the pressure might make him force throws more than he did in, say, 2009. If he shows the stuff he did in the first half of Monday night, the Chargers have every chance in this game, 8 point Vegas spread or not. He needs to stop forcing the ball down field, and take advantage of what the defense is giving him, while the Eagles need to send the house – Rivers makes mistakes under pressure.
It’s hard not to force the ball downfield when you’re trailing, so they need to keep the Eagles fast-paced offense off the field. One of the ways the offense can help out with that is via a strong run game and, again, the first half Chargers were competent there, while the second half Chargers were not. Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown had 69 effective yards in the first half – nothing nearly as game breaking as McCoy, but efficient runs that extended drives. In the second half, though, they only carried the ball six times as the Texans started racking up points. The Chargers need to keep the game from getting out of hand early.
Prediction: Last week, I called the Jets upsetting the Buccaneers, and there are reasons to look for another upset pick here – the Eagles now being on film after a vanilla preseason, or the chance that the Chargers of the first half are the ‘real’ team, and can correct whatever happened at halftime. Recent history even supports the Chargers – they’ve won four of their last six against the Eagles.
There is such a thing as looking too deep into things, however, and the Eagles, at this point in time, just seem to have fewer holes up and down the line. While I’d love to go for two upsets in a row, sometimes you have to go with the hot hand. I’ll give the Chargers more credit than most, but that just means it ends up Eagles 21, Chargers 17.