Posted: Thursday November 11, 2010 6:52 PM

Chargers also-rans so far in weak AFC West

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SAN DIEGO (AP) -It took their first winning streak of the season for the San Diego Chargers to stay alive in the weak AFC West.

Even so, until they can prove otherwise, the Chargers are also-rans in the division they've won the last four seasons.

San Diego pulled into its bye weekend at 4-5, trailing the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders. Both of those teams handed San Diego road losses in a first half that saw the Chargers implode under an unfathomable number of special teams blunders and turnovers.

That leaves the Chargers to either stage another of their late-season comebacks or get their fingers out of the way as their window of opportunity slams shut.

"I think considering our start, we certainly have given ourselves a chance as we head into the last seven,'' quarterback Philip Rivers said. "I think with the start we've had, that's all you can ask for. Certainly that win-one approach has served us well the last two weeks. I think if we just stick to that, because again, we can't control what those teams ahead of us do, other than when we do play them. We've got to just keep winning one game, because losing five already at this point has put ourselves in a position where we don't have much wiggle room.''

The final seven games could be Norvous time for Chargers fans.

Coach Norv Turner said on the eve of training camp that he thought this could be the best of his four teams. Instead, they've already lost two more games than all of last year, when they finished 13-3 with the AFC's No. 2 seed before taking a face-plant against the New York Jets in the playoffs.

The two biggest reasons for the Chargers' poor start are awful special teams play and 21 turnovers, four more than they had all of last seasons. The special teams breakdowns started opening night when the Chargers allowed Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster to return a punt a team-record 94 yards for a touchdown in a 21-14 Kansas City win.

The miscues continued through last Sunday, when a deflected punt led to an early Houston touchdown. It was the fifth time this season a Chargers punt was blocked or deflected.

Special teams coach Steve Crosby's job security has come up several times, but Turner has defended him.

On Monday, Turner said he'd release the players who've allowed the blocked punts before he'd fire Crosby.

Turner then defiantly declared: "We will not have another punt blocked for the rest of the season.''

The Chargers expect to get several injured players back for their Monday night game against Denver on Nov. 22. Among them are tight end Antonio Gates and wide receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee.

Then again, general manager A.J. Smith told radio station XX 1090 that injuries aren't an excuse. Plus, Rivers has continued playing at an impressive level regardless of who he's throwing to. He's already thrown for an NFL-high 2,944 yards and 19 touchdowns, and seems capable of threatening Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 yards set in 1984.

That would seem to narrow the culprits to coaching and the roster that's been assembled by Smith.

Smith has maintained that Turner is "the right coach at the right time.'' Turner, 94-103-1 in three stints as an NFL head coach, has continually said his staff is doing a good job.

Turner has repeatedly dismissed the notion that perhaps Smith let too many veterans go in the offseason, among them special teams ace Kassim Osgood.

The day after a four-turnover performance in a loss to New England, Turner made a surprising admission.

"Unfortunately, we've had some people handle the ball who shouldn't be handling the ball,'' the coach said. "We've got to bring them up to speed where they're ready to go in a game in this league and handle the football.''

Plenty of things have gone sideways for the Chargers as they've struggled against what had been considered an easy schedule. Coming in, their strength of scheduled was tied for 29th.

The Chargers must still play one more game without Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who sat out until Oct. 29 in a contract dispute and then began serving a three-game, Smith-imposed suspension on the roster exempt list.

San Diego is getting spotty play from the last several draft classes.

Rookie running back Ryan Mathews, obtained after the Chargers traded up 16 spots to the 12th pick, has been slowed by a high ankle sprain and has lost three fumbles. He's gained 382 yards on 87 carries, with two touchdowns, and has 15 catches for 92 yards.

By comparison, LaDainian Tomlinson has gone from unwanted by the Chargers to helping the New York Jets to a 6-2 record and a share of the AFC East lead with New England. Tomlinson has carried 124 times for 591 yards and five TDs, and caught 30 passes for 191 yards.

Mathews is on pace for 716 yards. Tomlinson had 1,236 yards as a rookie.

Of the other 2010 draft picks, linebacker Donald Butler has been on injured reserve, safety Darrell Stuckey and defensive tackle Cam Thomas have hardly been used, and quarterback Jonathan Crompton and tight end Dedrick Epps were released.

Linebacker Larry English, the 2009 first-round pick, was sidelined for six games after having foot surgery. Craig "Buster'' Davis, the oft-injured receiver taken in the first round in 2007, is finished for the year with a groin injury. Linebacker Shawne Merriman, once one of the most-featured player, was hurt again, then waived. He was claimed off waivers by Buffalo, then got hurt again.

Also, three of four home games have been blacked out on local TV. The Chargers, who might ask for hundreds of millions of dollars in public assistance for a new stadium, have the NFL's eighth-highest ticket prices while their payroll is in the bottom half.

 
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