Chargers better late than never

Don't count out those under-.500 49ers in playoff chase

December 05, 2010|By Sam Farmer

With five weeks to go in the NFL season, here's a look into the crystal football at what will happen:

Deja (powder) blue

The Chargers will run the table and win their remaining five games to claim their fifth consecutive AFC West crown.

We've seen this movie before: The Chargers are a disaster to begin the season — this year they got off to a 2-5 start — before hitting their stride and powering into the playoffs. As we know, that's when they've hit the wall.

They finish with the Raiders, Chiefs and 49ers at home, then close the season on the road at Cincinnati and Denver.

That's a favorable schedule for a team that has won 18 consecutive December games.

Your 2010 MVP is …

Philip Rivers. The Chargers quarterback edges Tom Brady for the award, even though the Patriots finish with a better record.

Rivers has done what Peyton Manning did last year — transformed a group of no-name receivers into the NFL's most dangerous passing attack. Legedu Naanee? Malcom Floyd? Seyi Ajirotutu?

Those are some of the guys who will help make Rivers just the second Chargers player to win the award, matching LaDainian Tomlinson's feat in 2006.

Think big

With no running game to speak of, the Packers will mix things up down the stretch with their "Big Five" formation — Aaron Rodgers in shotgun, empty backfield and five receivers spread wide. The Packers ran that 14 times against the Falcons last Sunday. According to ESPN, there had been only four previous snaps leaguewide in five-receiver formations (and two of those were by the Packers).

So when is a logical time for them to break out the Big Five again? Watch for it Dec. 19 at New England, which would allow the Packers to take advantage of the Patriots' lack of depth at cornerback. Remember, it was against New England that the Dolphins unveiled their Wildcat offense. Maybe the Big Five will trigger a new trend.

Even the losers

The 49ers will become the first team to make the playoffs with a losing record.

They will finish 7-9, losing to the Packers and Chargers on the road and winning their final three division games. The 49ers have perked up with Troy Smith at quarterback and should be able to run, even though Frank Gore is done for the season. The pressure is on rookie Anthony Dixon and aging Brian Westbrook to shoulder the ground-game responsibilities.

Mike Singletary's job hangs in the balance.

Return of Chucky

Rumors swirled this week that Jon Gruden is headed to the University of Miami to become the next Hurricanes coach. That won't happen, but the "Monday Night Football" analyst's name will resurface soon.

Gruden will come up as a candidate for the Cowboys job — even if Jerry Jones ultimately decides to keep Jason Garrett — and to replace Singletary in San Francisco. The 49ers job makes a lot of sense, although the York family would have to open the vault to pay Gruden, and they haven't shown a willingness to do that in the past.

Hustling Hasselbeck

For Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, the last five weeks will be one big audition for his next job — possibly in San Francisco or Arizona. It won't be an easy ride, though, because he's playing behind a porous line, probably won't have receiver Mike Williams and will get little help from Seattle's terrible running game.

The Seahawks have lost four of their last five and will be fortunate to win two of their final five — home games against the Panthers and Rams.

Backup plan

The Eagles will decide to keep Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick, maintaining uncommon depth at quarterback. They will apply the franchise-player tag to Vick, keeping him around without a long-term deal, and resist the urge to trade Kolb, who was supposed to be next in line behind Donovan McNabb.

Why keep both? Insurance against injuries is one reason, but the Eagles also can't place all their eggs in Vick's basket.

Yes, he has kept out of trouble, but one slip-up and he could be gone for half a season or more.

That makes it too risky to deal a seasoned backup, even if it means spending a boatload on quarterbacks.

On the defensive

Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty will surge down the stretch and intercept defensive rookie of the year honors from Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh.

People thought Bill Belichick was nuts when he didn't take a pass rusher or receiver — both positions of need — in the first round. But when the Patriots lost Leigh Bodden and McCourty stepped in without flinching, no one questioned the move.

McCourty has five interceptions, and although he has been burned on occasion, he could become the Patriots' new Asante Samuel.

Fly patterns

When Steve Smith made the Pro Bowl as an alternate last season, he was the first Giants receiver to do so since 1968. Hakeem Nicks will be the second.

Nicks, who's nursing a leg injury, will come back in the next two weeks and do enough to earn an invitation to Hawaii. Aloha, Hakeem.

sfarmer@tribune.com

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