Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 14 match between the San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers.
1. Protect the Rock at All Costs – Few defenses have shown the ability to stop the Bolts. San Diego has moved the ball up and down the field all season long, but they've beaten themselves with too many turnovers, committing a league-high 25 giveaways. Earlier in the season the team was bit by the fumbling bug, but in recent games, they've thrown too many interceptions. Furthermore, there is never a good time for a turnover, but the Chargers' have often come at the worst possible time whether it be a pick-six, in the red zone or late in the fourth quarter. Head Coach Mike McCoy hammered home how the offense must do a better job protecting the rock, beginning this week in Carolina:
"There are a number of different reasons for every turnover in the game, but that is obviously a concern and something we have to clean up. There's been way too many of those throughout the entire year. That's one of those things when you look at (our) offense, there aren't a lot of teams stopping us. We're stopping ourselves at critical times throughout the game."
2. Bring Down Cam – For the second straight week, the Chargers face one of the top quarterbacks at extending plays. While it was a point of emphasis to bring down Jameis Winston heading into last Sunday's game vs. the Bucs, the defense let him off the hook on too many occasions. Now, they face Cam Newton who is strong enough to withstand physical hits and athletic enough to run away from defenders. McCoy emphasized how important it is to bring down the reigning MVP when the chances arise:
"Cam's a big man. We all understand that his size and strength, the plays he can make with his feet, his ability to get out of a bad play (when) someone gets pushed into him or you think it is going to be a sack (is special). The next thing you know he is scrambling around and launching some ball 50 yards in the air. It's a beautiful thing hitting someone in stride for an explosive play or touchdown. That's one thing you have to minimize. You have to be very disciplined on defense. If you don't, he'll expose it."
3. Stuff the Ageless Stewart – Jonathan Stewart has been around so long that he was a member of the Panthers when McCoy was still on their staff. Even in his ninth season, the running back is still wreaking havoc with his nose for the end zone. He's run the ball 138 times for 511 yards (3.7 ypc) and seven touchdowns this year as Defensive Coordinator John Pagano explained what it's like facing the longtime running back:
"Stewart's a great runner that seems to dodge anything of looking like he's gotten older. He's looking better and better. It shows the type of athlete that he is because he looks very powerful when he runs the football."
4. Grind it with Gordon – Melvin Gordon is closing in on 1,000 yards rushing on the season, and there is a strong chance he'll get it on Sunday as he only needs eight yards. With chilly, overcast conditions calling for the low 40s and some wind, this might be a game where the Bolts rely heavily on Gordon. The running back has proven he's up for the task this season, leading the league with 292 offensive touches. Carolina is expecting a heavy dose of Gordon as Head Coach Ron Rivera mentioned how establishing the running back sets up San Diego's offense:
"A lot of things begin with Philip (Rivers) and you see their ability to go vertical very quickly. The thing you always are concerned with is the ability to run the football because if they run the football with Melvin, they set up that play-action, which is so dangerous."
5. Touchdown Tyrell – Another player closing in on a 1,000-yard milestone is Tyrell Williams. The wide receiver needs 163 yards to reach the plateau, which would be a career high in a single game. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility for one of the NFL's top big play receivers. Williams has also scored a receiving touchdown in four straight games, becoming the first chargers wideout since Vincent Jackson in 2009 to accomplish that feat. He'd be the first Chargers WR to score five in a row since John Jefferson in 1980 with another on Sunday. Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt explained how he's been impressed with the second year wideout's ability to step up:
"Knowing that he hadn't played a lot (last year), to have this type of production is a credit to him. It's a credit to Nick (Sirianni), our receivers coach. When you've got a quarterback like Philip, and he's developed a chemistry with him, it's obviously been a big plus for us being able to make some of those big plays."