The postseason has been foreign territory for the San Diego Chargers in recent years.
But coach Marty Schottenheimer will be in a familiar location as the Chargers try to secure their first playoff berth in nearly a decade when they visit the Cleveland Browns.
San Diego has not been to the playoffs since 1995, when it lost to Indianapolis in the wild card round. The Chargers can clinch a playoff berth with a win against the Browns and a Baltimore Ravens loss or tie to the Indianapolis Colts, or if they tie the Browns and the Ravens lose.
The Chargers also are trying to win eight consecutive games for the first time since 1987, the year Schottenheimer coached the Browns to their third straight first-place finish in the AFC Central. San Diego, which has not won a division title since 1994, is two games in front of the Denver Broncos for the lead in the AFC West.
“I’m not being cavalier about it,” Schottenheimer said, “but if we win a couple more, we’re in pretty good shape. And I’d like to do them in the next couple of weeks, so it’s behind us.”
The Chargers are coming off Sunday’s 31-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 131 yards and a touchdown and Drew Brees passed for 220 yards and two scores as San Diego won its seventh straight for the first time since 1992.
Tomlinson has scored in a team-record 10 straight games, which is three shy of the NFL record shared by fellow running backs John Riggins and George Rogers. Tomlinson has run for 1,143 yards, making him just the ninth player in NFL history to rush for at least 1,000 in each of his first four seasons. He needs five more rushing TDs to tie the team record set by Chuck Muncie in 1981.
While Tomlinson’s explosiveness and Brees’ consistency have provided San Diego with a balanced attack, the defense has been solid as well. Against Tampa Bay, linebacker Donnie Edwards had two interceptions, including one he returned 30 yards to put San Diego ahead for good, 28-21, with 4:09 remaining.
A San Diego native who played under Schottenheimer with Kansas City, Edwards led the Chargers with 16 tackles and on Wednesday was named AFC defensive player of the week.
“We control our own destiny, and that’s the best position to be in because no one can do anything except for us,” Edwards said. “We don’t have to wait for anyone else to lose or anything like that. If we just win these next three games, we definitely win our division, and that’s what we want. That’s the position we’ve been working hard for … back in the offseason, back in training camp and throughout this year.”
Cleveland has made the playoffs just three times since Schottenheimer left following the 1988 season and is one of four AFC teams already eliminated from contention.
The Browns have lost seven straight games, with the last two coming after Terry Robiskie was named interim coach following Butch Davis’ resignation on Nov. 30.
While a breakout season by Brees has been a big key for San Diego’s success, injuries and ineffectiveness at the quarterback position have been part of the reason for Cleveland’s struggles. Jeff Garcia, Cleveland’s biggest offseason acquisition, suffered a torn knee ligament in last week’s 37-7 road loss to the Buffalo Bills and was placed on injured reserve Tuesday.
Rookie Luke McCown will make his third start of the season and will do so behind a different center. Jeff Faine suffered an ankle injury at Buffalo on the same play in which Garcia was hurt and also was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. With Faine’s injury, left tackle Ross Verba is Cleveland’s only remaining starter on the offensive line.
McCown completed 8-of-20 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. He was replaced by Garcia in the third quarter after his second interception of the game, but had to return in the fourth when Garcia was injured.
“I know it’s tough on every player. It’s demoralizing,” Robiskie said after the loss. “I got a sense standing on the sideline that it was too big a game for us. There was a point in time where it was men against boys. A lot of it was too big for a couple of kids we had playing, and one of them was Luke.”
McCown, who also was sacked seven times at Buffalo, is 22-of-58 for 339 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
Cleveland’s running game also was anemic against the Bills as William Green and Adimchinobe Echemandu combined for just 18 yards on 16 carries. The Browns have not had a 100-yard rusher since October 17, when Green ran 25 times for 115 yards in Cleveland’s last win, a 34-17 victory over Cincinnati.
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