SAN DIEGO – The Chargers found ways to win close games and banished the words “slow start” from lexicon surrounding the organization by taking four of its first five games for the first time since 2006.
The lone loss? A 35-21 defeat at eventual AFC No. 1 seed New England (13-3). San Diego enjoyed a bye Oct. 16 with a one-game lead in the AFC West and extra time to prepare for a matchup against the New York Jets with national interest.
The Chargers went 2-0 against division rivals during the first block of games, both in exciting fashion. Eric Weddle intercepted a short Matt Cassel pass to short-circuit a potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter against Kansas City to send the Chiefs to 0-3. Dante Hughes batted away a potential game-winning throw by Tim Tebow in the end zone in Denver after Tebow replaced Kyle Orton in the second half as the Broncos, eventual division champions, fell to 1-4.
San Diego played its best game of the early season in a 26-16 win against Miami, and the Bolts overcame a 10-point halftime deficit against Minnesota in the opener. The combined record of those four teams wasn’t the best in the NFL at the time, but the Chargers took pride in playing the schedule in front of them well, knowing some tough matchups were on the horizon.
“The name of the game has never changed in this league, and it’s winning,” Philip Rivers said. “There’s no AP votes. There’s no coaches’ poll. It’s just win football games. So far, we’ve done that 80 percent of the time.”
San Diego 24, Minnesota 17
New England 35, San Diego 21
San Diego 20, Kansas City 17
San Diego 26, Miami 16
San Diego 29, Denver 24
• One of the less memorable special teams plays of the year occurred on the opening kickoff to the entire season. Minnesota’s Percy Harvin took a kick from the end zone and returned it 103 yards for a touchdown, tearing Nate Kaeding’s ACL in the process. The play sparked immediate changes in personnel, and new special teams coach Rich Bisaccia’s coverage units played well most of the season, making some big plays in several wins.
• The Chargers converted 10-of-12 third downs and came close to 470 yards of offense against New England, but destroyed its chances with two lost fumbles, two interceptions and a failure to convert second-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Mike Tolbert’s fourth-quarter fumble in Patriots territory with San Diego trailing 20-14 proved the biggest gaffe. Tom Brady (31-of-40, 423 yards, three touchdowns) nearly was flawless, marking the first of several games where the Chargers’ defense didn’t play well against a team with multiple good pass-catchers and a top-level quarterback.
• Weddle’s interception against Kansas City was the play of the game and also represented his first of seven picks in 2011. His second came a game later against Miami, also late in the fourth quarter with the Dolphins trying to close a 10-point gap.
• Everyone remembers Tebow scrambling for what seemed like forever on the final play of the game and floating a 29-yard pass into the end zone for a potential game-winning score, but a Malcom Floyd catch on the previous drive might have won the game. Facing a potential three-and-out following back-to-back Denver touchdowns sandwiched around a Rivers sack/fumble, Floyd made a 38-yard grab on third-and-10 that set up a field goal, draining valuable minutes and extending a two-point lead to five.
• Ryan Mathews averaged just 17 carries a game, but he ran for 413 yards and three touchdowns in the first five contests. In addition, he caught 20 passes for 261 yards. Mathews pushed his streak of at least 115 total yards to six consecutive games dating back to Week 17 of the 2010 season.
• Rivers threw seven interceptions and was sacked 13 times, but completed better than 67 percent of his passes as teams dared the Chargers to dump the ball underneath. Mathews and Mike Tolbert combined for 48 catches and 492 yards in this stretch.
• Vincent Jackson erupted for 10 catches, 172 yards and two touchdowns against New England and also added a 55-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter against Miami in which he got so open he was able to fall down during a pretty, diving catch, regain his feet and run into the end zone.
• Donald Butler and Antonio Garay each had four tackles for loss and a sack, combined for seven quarterback hits and were second and fourth on the team in tackles.
• The list of players lost for the season in this stretch was considerable: Kaeding, Luis Castillo and Bob Sanders.
• Receivers Patrick Crayton (ankle) and Vincent Brown (hamstring), coming off training camp injuries, missed the first two games of the season.
• Antonio Gates, clearly less than 100 percent, did not have a catch against New England, the second time in his entire career his name didn’t show in the box score of a game he played. He missed the next three and would not return until after the bye.
• Corey Liuget (ankle) and Malcom Floyd (groin) missed the Kansas City game.
• Quentin Jammer injured his hamstring Week 3 against the Chiefs and rookie Marcus Gilchrist replaced him, starting the next week against Miami.
• Both Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert did not finish the Week 5 win at Denver, leaving Jacob Hester as the lone healthy back.