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With backs up against the wall, Chargers are at their best

SAN DIEGO -- This is the way the San Diego Chargers are supposed to play, right?

Dominate on both sides of the ball. Make winning look laughingly easy.

When you come right down to it, the Chargers should be playing a lot like, well, the New England Patriots.

Playoff picture

One week after looking as if they were on the verge of elimination, Philip Rivers and the Chargers are very much back in the thick of the AFC West division title chase. **More ...**

Sunday's 31-0 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs was precisely the type of game one should come to expect from a team that entered Week 14 with the NFL's second-ranked offense, led by one of its most prolific passers, and No. 1 defense. Never mind that the Chiefs were without starting quarterback Matt Cassel, who was back home recovering from an appendectomy. Kansas City wins with the league's best rushing attack, which the Chargers stuffed, and with defense, which they embarrassed with a perfect blend of running and passing that at times made it look like a game of 11-on-none.

So why are the Chargers holding on for dear life on the fringes of the playoff picture?

"You look at rankings and you look at numbers, and you can make it say whatever you want," veteran defensive tackle Luis Castillo said, attempting to make sense of it all. "But it's a matter of stepping on that field and winning games. It doesn't matter what the rush yards are or what the pass yards are. It's about finding a way to win a game when it counts."

The Chargers did that about as emphatically as they cold Sunday. Too many other times this season, they didn't, which is the simplest explanation for why, at 7-6, they trail Kansas City by a game and are farther behind in the wild-card chase (playoff picture) as they prepare for Thursday night's game against San Francisco on NFL Network.

Yet, getting to the heart of why the Chargers have fallen so far short of lofty preseason expectations isn't quite that simple. For most of the season, the blame was placed on horrendous special-teams breakdowns. But last week, after ripping off four straight wins, the Chargers allowed themselves to be absolutely trampled by the Oakland Raiders' running game. It was the kind of performance that strongly suggested that the hole the Chargers dug for themselves early in the season wasn't contradictory to their statistical achievements after all.

These guys simply didn't want it as much as their opponent, which is shocking for a team that had four consecutive seasons of perfect Decembers. But that was the drift you got from talking with straight-talking safety Eric Weddle.

"Oakland came at us and we didn't answer the call," he said.

It was only when the Chargers faced the real prospect of playoff elimination from a loss to Kansas City that they found all kinds of answers on both sides of the ball. Here's a classic example of the power of desperation: the Chargers outgained the Chiefs, 426-67 in total yards.

"When your season's on the line, obviously you're going to play a little bit better," Weddle admitted. "And what happened the week before definitely had a huge part in the way we played (Sunday)."

Yet, it never should have come to this. Not with the enormously talented Philip Rivers at the helm one of the NFL's most dangerous passing attacks. Not with tremendous depth at running back. Not with a defense that is stout enough to do what it did against Kansas City's dynamic backfield duo of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones on a weekly basis.

That leads to the following question: With only a short time to prepare, can the Chargers' defense put together another masterful performance against a 49er offense that looks revitalized with Alex Smith back at quarterback and just as powerful at running back with Anthony Dixon filling in for the injured Frank Gore?

"It's definitely a challenge," veteran cornerback Quentin Jammer said. "You don't get the days to practice, and after a game like (the one against Kansas City), your body hurts, you need your rest. But I think most of it is focus in your preparation. We know that our backs are still against the wall, so it's going to be big to focus this week."

Because when the Chargers are focused, when they want it badly enough, they play the way they're expected to play -- the way they played Sunday.

They've got answers

» The Philadelphia Eagles, because with an explosive running game (LeSean McCoy has rushed for 100 yards in two of his last four games) to go along with Michael Vick's magic, their offense looks virtually unstoppable.

» The Jacksonville Jaguars, because of Maurice Jones-Drew's six consecutive 100-yards rushing games (which have helped them go 5-1 during that stretch; they're 6-1 overall when he hits the 100-yard mark) and the grit they displayed in rallying to beat Oakland.

» The Dallas Cowboys, because despite Sunday night's loss to the Eagles, they clearly have struck gold in an unlikely place with veteran quarterback Jon Kitna giving a huge spark to their offense in place of injured Tony Romo. When Romo is healthy, the Cowboys figure to have as good a quarterback situation as any in the league ... and maybe a little bit of controversy on which that franchise seems to thrive.

They've got questions

» The New York Jets, because they clearly never got over that beatdown in Foxboro. The Jets seemed to lose a lot more than a football game during that Monday night massacre. You wonder if, perhaps, some of their will was taken away. From coach Rex Ryan on down, these guys are classic frontrunners, who just might not know how to respond to extreme adversity. Or maybe they simply weren't as good as a lot of us thought they were.

» The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, because even though they beat the Washington Redskins and still have a playoff pulse, they have now lost six players for the season. Two of their latest losses were defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and linebacker Quincy Black. It's hard to imagine the Bucs being able to able to overcome these repeated blows and reach the postseason. But it's impossible not to admire the massive collective heart of this young, banged-up bunch.

» The Green Bay Packers, because even before Aaron Rodgers left the game with a concussion, their offense wasn't functioning well against the Detroit Lions. And the fact Rodgers has suffered two concussions this season certainly raises some concerns about the status of the Packers' most important player.

Observation points

» Let's just say it: Tom Brady, MVP. Everyone else, including Vick, is everyone else.

» Let's just say it, Part II: Troy Polamalu, Defensive Player of the Year. Everyone else, including Clay Matthews, is everyone else.

» Let's just say it, Part III: Mark Sanchez is, at best, an average quarterback. In his last three games, he has thrown five interceptions and completed only 48 percent of his passes. The Jets, who have scored only nine points in their last two games, need much better.

» Let's just say it, Part IV: Carson Palmer ... see Part III.

» Do you get the feeling that the disconnect between Jimmy Clausen and some of his teammates is every bit as large in Carolina as it was at Notre Dame?

Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith certainly indicated as much with his public complaint after the Panthers' loss to Atlanta about Clausen apologizing to linebacker Jon Beason for playing poorly rather than doing so to "the people in the huddle with you." Smith's frustration and outspoken nature might cause some to take the comment with a grain of salt. But Clausen's leadership skills were one of the main reasons he slipped out of the first round of the draft, and Smith's willingness to call him out this late in his rookie season would appear to be a bad sign regarding Clausen's progress in that area.

» Any questions about Matt Cassel's value to the Chiefs now?

» If (and it's a big if) the Jets were to give any thought to addressing their sorry quarterback situation in the draft, that could create an interesting personnel-choosing dynamic for a team that was put together to win it all this year but seems as if it could be missing the playoffs and needing a major overhaul. Getting the quarterback position right is an enormous challenge, especially for an organization driven by the defense-first mentality of coach Rex Ryan.

» I understand that Jorrick Calvin is a rookie, but that doesn't excuse the Eagles' return man for doubling up on boneheaded moves against Dallas on Sunday night. First, after fielding a kickoff in the end zone late in the game, Calvin somehow thought that he could kill time by running sideways before taking a knee. The clock didn't budge, and all he did was invite multiple Cowboys to swarm in on him before he finally downed the kick. Then, after a Dallas player bumped him, he bumped him back and added a shove to draw a penalty that cost the Eagles field position.

Fortunately for Calvin, the Eagles' offense managed to dig itself out of that hole, and kill off the remaining time.

» Silly display or not, the unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on wide reeiver DeSean Jackson for his backward plunge into the end zone on his 91-yard catch-and-run touchdown looked like a bit of overreaction by the officials. Players make dives and leaps into the end zone all of the time without being penalized, and no flag was deserved there.

» The Atlanta Falcons continue to be a model of efficiency, with a mere 49 penalties this season. They also do an excellent job of avoiding turnovers and sacks, and controlling the ball.

That said, you have to wonder how well the Falcons will be able to maintain their focus after that long trip to Seattle, where the Seahawks tend to play far better than they do on the road.

Why? Because even in extending their winning streak to seven with a seemingly easy looking, 31-10 victory against the Panthers, the Falcons gave up 255 yards in the second half. They also could be tempted to think ahead about their Week 16 game against New Orleans.

» I don't agree with all of the fuss being made, mostly in Dallas, over Cowboys running back Tashard Choice being caught by NBC cameras asking Michael Vick to sign one of his gloves right after the game. Some fans and media interpreted Choice's request as publicly fawning over a member of a bitter rival only moments after said player had a key role in handing the Cowboys another loss. It certainly didn't help matters that after obliging Choice, Vick gave the third-year running back at pat on the head as if he were dealing with some wide-eyed kid.

But as Choice later explained, all he was doing was getting the autograph for his nephew. Choice is one of the Cowboys' hardest-working players. His competitiveness has never come into question, and it shouldn't now. His only mistake might have been not waiting to approach Vick in private.

Players ask other players to sign items for each other all the time. The fact they hold post-game prayers in the middle of the field and exchange friendly texts and work out together during the offseason and share the same agents does not mean they're any less passionate about doing everything in their power to help beat the other guy's team when they're sharing the same field.

Four intriguing games for Week 15

**New Orleans at Baltimore:** The Saints are trying desperately to keep pace with the Falcons. They are on an impressive roll with six straight wins, playing some of their best football at the absolute perfect time. Drew Brees is operating an extremely balanced passing game, connecting at least four times with five different receivers against the Rams. Before Sunday's win against St. Louis, a reporter mentioned to coach Sean Payton that his December record as the Saints' coach was only slightly above .500. He was quick to point out that, with the dominant seasons the team has had in 2006 and 2009, it played "December differently at the very last week" of the season. That won't be the case this year. And the Saints can expect a difficult game from a Ravens team that is probably better than its record reflects.

**Jacksonville at Indianapolis:** Difficult as it might be to believe, the Jaguars can clinch the AFC South in the house of the team that, for all practical purposes, could claim ownership of the division before the season even began. Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 105 yards when the Jaguars beat the Colts earlier in the season, and there isn't a whole lot of reason to think he'll have his six-game streak of 100-yard games broken in this one. Here are a couple of key questions: Will the Jaguars, as a whole, have enough left in the tank after an emotionally draining win against the Raiders? How much will the Colts, with so many injured players, benefit from the extra rest they've had after playing on Thursday night in Week 14? The guess here is that Peyton Manning, his confidence recharged after a solid showing against Tennessee, will have a big game.

**Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants:** It's hard to see the Eagles tripping up at this point. They passed a major test by beating the improving Cowboys with Vick standing tall despite taking hard legal and illegal hits all night. The Giants' defense managed to be fairly effective against him in the teams' previous meeting by keeping him in the pocket and, like the Cowboys, hitting him every chance it could. But there is reason to believe that the Giants could be somewhat fatigued after a bizarre road trip that ended up being much longer than anticipated because of the blizzard that forced their game against Minnesota to move from Sunday afternoon to Monday night.

**N.Y. Jets at Pittsburgh:** The Jets are doing a free fall out of the postseason picture. They have lost their swagger, which is the only way these guys know how to walk, and they don't have a good enough quarterback to lead them during crunch time. The Steelers, who have allowed only 36 points in their last four games and aren't likely to allow the Jets to get anything going on the ground, figure to create even more nightmares for Sanchez and Ryan.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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