San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. Photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI | License Photo
SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers tip-toe back into the AFC West waters on Thursday night and that's not necessarily a good thing.
San Diego wrestles with an old foe in the Oakland Raiders on Christmas Eve, in what could be the Raiders' last game in Oakland.
Hard to say with certainty if the Chargers (4-10) or the Raiders (6-8) will be on the move next year. What we know is the Chargers have been in reverse when facing AFC West rivals.
The Chargers have lost all four of their games in the division this year, and that includes an earlier 37-29 spanking by the Raiders. Remember, the Chargers won only two of their six games in the division last year.
The quickest way to a playoff berth is winning your division. In that regard, the Chargers have played some of their worst football against teams that know them best.
"We haven't done squat in the division," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "So we won't have any problem getting riled up."
But the Chargers know just what they are heading into with a visit to the Black Hole. It will be an emotionally charged atmosphere, much like what the Chargers experienced on Sunday in what may have been their last game in San Diego.
The Chargers and Raiders have proposed joining forces to build a stadium in the Los Angeles area.
Plus, the Raiders will be revved for another reason: it is future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson's last game in Oakland, adding more fuel to Oakland's fire.
But the Chargers can't get caught up in all that. Instead they are trying to build off snapping a five-game home losing streak.
And in the Raiders, at least the Chargers get a AFC West squad they are familiar with beating. The Chargers' only two wins in the division over the past two seasons have come against the Raiders, with Oakland being winless going into each of the games.
But it's a different Raiders team this year, even if they have lost five of their past eight games.
Quarterback Derek Carr on one side of the ball and Khalil Mack on the other gets the Chargers' attention.
Carr has thrown five interceptions in his last two home games, but he needs just four touchdown passes to tie Daryle Lamonica's single-season mark of 34. Carr has two-plus touchdowns in 11 of his past 13 games. Mack leads the NFL with 15 sacks.
So it'll be a talented and charged-up team awaiting the Chargers the night St. Nick makes his visit.
"I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't rather be home with my family that night," Rivers said. "That said, we are going to try and go up there and get a win and be home for Christmas morning."
Then the Chargers will head to Denver, putting a bow on what's been a season that feels like a lump of coal.
"I never thought I'd say this," Rivers said. "But we're going to fight like crazy to get to 6-10 and finish this season the right way."
SERIES HISTORY: 112th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 59-50-2. The Chargers are trying to avoid being swept by the Raiders in a season series for the first time since 2010. Oakland creamed the Chargers earlier this year in San Diego, 37-29. Don't let the final score fool you as this was not a competitive game with the Raiders racing to a 31-point lead. But as long as the Chargers have Philip Rivers, they have a chance. Rivers is 14-5 against the Raiders. And overall on Thursday nights, Rivers is 4-2. The teams have met but once in the postseason, when the Chargers lost a chance to go to their first Super Bowl as they fell to the Raiders in the 1980 AFC Championship Game, 34-27.
--The Chargers, fresh off their first rushing touchdown since the opening week and collecting a season-high 140 rushing yards, will get back to doing what they do best: let Philip Rivers throw the ball. He did toss three touchdown passes in the win over the Dolphins, but running against the Raiders' front seven would seem to be a tougher task. Rivers could get a favorite receiver back in Stevie Johnson (groin). But just as important, Rivers is hell-bent in getting as many passes to Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates as possible. Floyd is retiring at the end of the season and there is no guarantee Gates will be back next season with the Chargers.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Chargers pass protection, which is coming off a solid effort vs. Raiders pass rush, which features Khalil Mack.
The Chargers probably will again be without left tackle King Dunlap (ankle). Last week, his fill-in, Chris Hairston, did a nice job. But this week Hairston could be matched against Mack -- although he does move along the line of scrimmage. But Mack might sniff out a weak spot with Hairston and try to add to his NFL-high 15 sacks. Hairston will need some help from left guard Orlando Franklin. Mack has gone four straight games with a sack and seems to be getting stronger with each week. The Chargers will be trying to prevent him from reaching the Raiders' club record of 16.5 sacks, set by Derrick Burgess in 2005. Look for Danny Woodhead, especially now with Melvin Gordon out, to stay in the backfield and chip on Mack. No Raider has ever led the league in sacks; another reason why the pass-blocking must be on its game to slow Mack's quest to pace the NFL.
--Chargers secondary, which is down starter Brandon Flowers, vs. a Raiders passing game that features multiple targets.
It'll be more backups in the Chargers secondary, and that was before Steve Williams is trying to nurse a sore hip through another game. But the challenge is huge with Raiders wideouts Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. It figures that Jason Verrett will match up with Cooper in a pairing that should be entertaining for many years to come. Cooper leads NFL rookies in catches (68), receiving yards (1,040) and 100-yard games (five). But Verrett, a former first-round pick as well, has the goods to stay with him. The bigger concern is who is going to track Crabtree. Before he got hurt, it would have been Flowers. So the task falls to Patrick Robinson, and maybe, Williams. But it will be interesting to see how Williams' balky hip holds up. Youngsters Craig Mager and Greg Ducre might be asked to fill a role, especially if Williams isn't able to last the entire game, assuming that he is able to go.