Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 15 match between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.
1. PROTECT THE ROCK! – Put it in all caps, underline and italicize it. This has been a staple key week-in and week-out, but unfortunately, the offense keeps turning the ball over at an alarming rate as San Diego has the most giveaways in the NFL. With few teams proving they are able to limit the Bolts from marching up and down the field, the offense has been it's own worst enemy by tossing picks and coughing up the ball. Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt again stressed the need to eliminate the turnovers:
"That's something we talk about. We make a concerted effort every week to talk about it and try to eliminate those. We've got to do something. If you take away our turnovers, we're a pretty good offense."
2. Beware of Mack – The AFC West is chockfull of pass rushers, and there may not be a bigger game changer than the Raiders' Khalil Mack. The third-year edge rusher has singlehandedly won games for Oakland with big plays at clutch moments. Overall, Mack ranks third in the NFL with 11.0 sacks. Joey Bosa is establishing himself as one of the game's most fearsome edge rushers as well, but he too is in awe of the Raiders' star:
"(He's) just a freak of nature. Just so quick and twitchy (in) the way he moves. I think we're pretty different players when it comes to our pass rushing technique and how we go about it. I always love watching other great players. Of course, any little thing I can pick up off his game is good."
3. Contain Carr, Cooper and Crabtree – Derek Carr doesn't have one elite wide receiver he can throw to; he has two. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are among the most dynamic duos at the position in the league. Cooper has 73 catches this season for 1,010 yards and four TDs while Crabtree has caught 71 balls for 806 yards and seven TDs. Still, the man who makes the offense tick is potential MVP candidate Carr, who has impressed Defensive Coordinator John Pagano:
"You see the intelligence picking up even more (with) how he manages the game, how they run the football (and) the things that they do in the pass game off the play-action passes… (He) protects the football as well as any quarterback can protect it. (He has only) five interceptions, doesn't throw up a lot (of poor throws). Throws it, really, only where his receivers can catch it and he's really got great touch."
4. How Will Farrow Fare? – With Melvin Gordon stating he will likely miss Sunday's contest, Kenneth Farrow becomes the Chargers lead dog on the ground. It is impossible to replace what Gordon has done this season, but the Bolts have full confidence in the undrafted rookie. Philip Rivers said he was encouraged by Farrow's performance last week while McCoy noted he needs to elevate his game to another level. As for Farrow himself, the running back said he is approaching the game like any other:
"It doesn't change (my outlook). I learned pretty early how Mel, Danny (Woodhead) and Branden (Oliver) prepare every week. So I tried to keep that at a steady pace throughout the season. I'll go into this week like I have the last 13 weeks. Hopefully Mel can get back. If not, I'll be ready for the opportunity… I've prepared as a starter every week. I was comfortable going into the game last week because I prepared the same (as if I was going to start). I'll approach this week like I've been approaching every week."
5. Embrace the Spoiler Role – Philip Rivers believes there will be a playoff atmosphere at Qualcomm Sunday simply due to the rivalry between these two AFC West foes. Moreover, the Bolts also have a chance to give the Raiders a tougher path to, and in, the playoffs. After leading the division virtually all season, Oakland is now in Wild Card position after losing to the Chiefs last week. The Chargers stressed how sweet it would be to further spoiler the Raiders chances with Pagano detailing the rivalry between the teams:
"Is there a Raider rivalry? Yeah; it is two teams in the state of California that are in the same division. Throughout the years I think I (have) tried to explain to the guys what it means (to) some of the new players, especially the ones on defense. Somebody like myself that's been here for 15 years, what the rivalry means, what it is about and what it means to the people of San Diego about getting this victory; I think that's important. It is big for us to go out and win a division game at home and regardless of what our situation is at this time in the season. You get a division opponent, you get somebody like that in our stadium, you want to go out and you want to beat them."