The San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders come into Thursday night’s matchup tied for 1st in the AFC West at 4-4. The Bolts have lost their last three contests while Oakland enters on a two game losing streak of their own. Both teams have been hit with the injury bug especially at running back. San Diego running back Ryan Mathews is questionable to return to the backfield due to a groin injury. Oakland star running back Darren McFadden will not play as he nurses a banged up foot. The winner of this game will clearly be in the drivers seat to win the AFC West. Here are my keys to the game that must happen for the Chargers to win.
Stop Michael Bush
Without Darren McFadden, the Raiders insert Michael Bush into the lineup. Bush is arguably the best backup running back in the NFL. The two backs are very different; McFadden beats people with his speed while Bush is more of a power back. Last year Bush rushed for 199 yards and two touchdowns against the Bolts. The Chargers run defense ranked 4th in the NFL in 2010, this year the unit has regressed to 18th. If Bush could succeed against San Diego lat year, there is no reason he won’t run well this go around. Nose tackle Antonio Garay will be San Diego’s best shot at stopping Oakland’s running game. The Chargers must tackle fundamentally sound to have a shot at taking down Bush. Bush is one of the stronger backs in the NFL making it to easy for him to stray away from pursuing arm tacklers. San Diego must gang tackle Bush! If the Chargers can hold Bush to about 90 yards or less they will win.
The Chargers need to score early and often, which will force Oakland away from their bread and butter, running the football. Carson Palmer has six interceptions in his two starts as Oakland’s quarterback. The Bolts pass defense ranks 4th in the NFL and should stifle Palmer who still appears uncomfortable with his new team. The Bolts offense must help out their defense by forcing scoring early. Early scores by San Diego will force the Raiders to be un-balanced on offense resulting in pick city for the Chargers secondary lead by Eric Weddle.
Protect Philip Rivers
The Raiders have one of the best defensive lines in football lead by Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. The Chargers will need to give Rivers time in the pocket in order for him to succeed. Despite Rivers leading the league with 14 interceptions, Rivers has still accumulated 2,469 yards, which puts him on pace to throw close to 5,000 yards this season. Oakland has a very mediocre pass defense ranking 20th in the NFL. Therefore, the Chargers will have favorable matchups on the outside with Gates and Jackson. Chargers fans like myself truly hope this is the week Rivers begins to put his turnover problems behind him. The Bolts offensive line did a great job against the Packers and will need to continue the trend in hopes of Rivers turning his season around. If the Chargers protect Rivers well, the offense may light up the scoreboard for more than 35 points.
Prediction: Chargers over Raiders 31-20