Chargers put AFC on notice with win over Jets

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press
It's no coincidence LaDainian Tomlinson scored for the first time this year and the Chargers earned their first victory.

SAN DIEGO -- It was just one victory, San Diego's first, but it felt more like a warning shot.

The Chargers' 48-29 belittling of the New York Jets Monday night wasn't one of those survival victories that makes teams feel good to get into the win column. It was a thrashing in which all but the kickoff coverage team had its way in making a not-so bad Jets team look overmatched.

The victory drew San Diego to 1-2, a record that can be looked at as unimpressive, like Oakland's or Miami's similar status. Even the Jets share the mark.

Then again, San Diego's place might not best be viewed by wins or losses but by how good it actually might be.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Slow starts don't always mean a bad year for the Chargers. In fact, they've overcome early struggles to find late success in recent years.
Chargers' starts and finishes since 2004
Year Start Finished Playoffs
2008 1-2 ? ?
2007 1-2 11-5 2-1
2006 2-1 14-2 0-1
2005 1-2 9-7 None
2004 1-2 12-4 0-1

Its first two defeats were last-second, nail-biters to respective division-leading Carolina and Denver -- the latter outcome mired by a controversial call that the Chargers didn't dwell on for too long. They were losses nonetheless, and if this weren't a veteran team that was used to winning, those were the types of results that can demolish spirit.

"You take a deep breath and say, 'Okay we have won one,'" Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson said after grinding out 67 rushing yards on 26 carries. "Before the game you're 0-2, and you're thinking, 'Jesus, if we lose this game and go 0-3, man I don't know what's going to happen.' That thought does creep into your mind. For us to get this first win, it was a sigh of relief. 'Okay, here we go. This is what it feels like to win a game.'

"Sometimes you need that confidence to start back building, and I think we got it tonight."

A handful of teams aren't unbeaten, but could be for whatever reason. San Diego is among them. Yet, in surveying the AFC, even the NFL, it's hard not to consider the Chargers among the better teams -- even though they flirted with allowing the Jets to be the latest team to take them to the wire after building a 24-point, third-quarter lead.

Buffalo, Denver, Baltimore, Tennessee, Dallas and the New York Giants are the unbeatens. They're also healthy and playing at a level that could get them into postseason play, although there probably is still a little more proving to do with just about every team but the Cowboys, Broncos and Giants.

Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Tampa Bay -- and even Arizona -- are fundamentally strong and haven't suffered widespread health concerns, keeping them in the conversation.

Insert the Chargers here. They have the talent, experience, quarterback and running back to keep things going until some of the other kinks are worked out. Indianapolis and Jacksonville are other AFC playoff regulars at 1-2 and could be on a similar path as San Diego with each trying to work through injuries and gain momentum as the season wears on.

The Chargers have been here before, losing three of their first four in 2007 to finish the regular season 11-5 and advance to the AFC Championship Game. That experience helped in knowing how to deal with adversity, but it really didn't cross too many players' minds with the way things unfolded after the first two weeks.

"Last year was last year," said cornerback Antonio Cromartie. "The way we started last year was a whole lot different than the way we started this year. We lost two close games (in 2008). There are (13) more games we have to play. There was no desperation."

The Chargers' next two games are against Oakland and Miami, and if they don't have a winning record after that, then maybe they aren't what they seem to be at this point. Players are remaining modest, but they seem to know what's brewing.

"You saw what this team can do," quarterback Philip Rivers said.

What San Diego must do, Rivers said, is not get too full of itself, so it doesn't get complacent, especially after tapping into wells Monday night that seemingly were dry as it tried to get things on track.

For one, the Chargers rediscovered their opportunistic niche, turning three of their four takeaways -- two interceptions by Cromartie -- into touchdowns. It also got Tomlinson into the end zone. L.T. scored his first and second rushing touchdowns of the season. He actually scored San Diego's first rushing touchdowns of the season.

His injured right toe limited his explosiveness, but he said he is closer to being full strength than he has been in weeks, another sign San Diego might be rounding into form.

More than anything, the Chargers, who entered the game ranked next to last in the NFL on defense (they improved to 29th), had the type of performance they needed to re-establish their sense of worthiness.

Playing an aggressive, blitzing front and trusting the secondary in man coverage, the Chargers confused Jets quarterback Brett Favre, in large part because he was scrambling from a motivated group of pass rushers, who had an extra second or two to get to Favre because of the play of the defensive backs.

San Diego still allowed 29 points, which is just under its average per game for the season, which is not good. Fifteen of those points came in the second half, after the Chargers built a nice, but not secure cushion. The abundance of points teams have scored on San Diego may seem alarming, but no team in the AFC West has played much defense. Oakland actually has allowed the fewest points (73) in the division.

There is room for improvement, by all means, said Rivers. There's also a rumbling afoot that, once again, could turn into a stampede.

Rivers completed 19 of 25 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets. His highlight, he said, came when San Diego could have played things conservatively, like many teams would.

It was the fourth quarter, and the Chargers were nursing a 15-point lead. On third-and-5 from his own 38, Rivers spotted an all-out blitz and connected on a 60-yard pass to Vincent Jackson that set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Tomlinson to ice things.

Besides it being his longest completion, it was a play that showed there is no more letting up.

It's time for the Chargers to make their push to see what, and who, they really are.



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