David Binn remembers. Who is David Binn? He's the San Diego long snapper and the only Charger who remembers the last time the team was any good.
In 1994, Binn's rookie year, the Chargers went to the Super Bowl. The following season they reached the playoffs as a wild card. Then the darkness descended: eight years without a winning record, five seasons finishing last or tied for last in the AFC West, the great Ryan Leaf mistake, heroic defenses led by Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison dragged to their doom by Mickey Mouse offenses. Oh, there are some players on this San Diego squad who went through those terrible times, but only Binn was there when the sun shone.
Now the Chargers stand poised to achieve something that's been denied them for eight years--a winning record. A victory against visiting Denver this Sunday would give San Diego nine wins, not to mention a two-game lead over the Broncos in the division. If the Chargers lose, the two teams will be even at 8--4, but Denver, which won 23--13 in the teams' first meeting on Sept. 26, will have the hammer on them in head-to-head competition.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan holds a 9--7 lead in his matchups with the Chargers' Marty Schottenheimer, which includes Marty's days as the Chiefs' and Redskins' coach, but this isn't the same Schottenheimer. His operation is more wide open now. The old Martyball is just a quaint historical footnote.
At halftime on Sunday, while Drew Brees was in the process of throwing for a career-high 378 yards and bringing San Diego back to beat the Chiefs on the road, the following conversation took place between Schottenheimer and his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron. "I said to him, 'We need to throw the ball,'" Schottenheimer recalled. "He said, 'Coach, we are.' I said, 'Good, keep throwing it.'"
Brees, who had spent almost a year in the doghouse, is now the fair-haired boy. And the offense is doing some remarkable things. In winning their last four home games, for instance, the Chargers outscored their opponents by an average of 39--17. Brees has thrown one interception over the last nine games, and he's tied for fewest picks in the NFL this season with four.
Denver has enough weapons to test the San Diego defense, but in its loss to Oakland in the snow on Sunday night the Broncos showed an alarming tendency to give up the long pass. Even more shocking was the fact that the guy who got beaten too many times was Champ Bailey, described in some circles as the league's premier shutdown cornerback, whatever that means. Bailey's the guy who went from Washington to Denver in a trade, to shore up a secondary that intercepted only nine passes last year, an NFL low. Am I building a strong enough case for the Chargers? Good, because San Diego is my pick.
Green Bay-- Philadelphia is a replay of a divisional playoff last season. Teams usually don't blitz Brett Favre, but Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson would blitz his own mother. And it was the blitz that forced Favre into the terrible looping throw in overtime that set up Philly's winning field goal. Well, I've been wrong about the Eagles all year, so I might as well keep it going. Here goes nothing. Philly blitzes. Favre beats it. The Pack in an upset.
One more major upset. The desperate Jaguars, seeing their playoff hopes fading, take one from the Steelers, who are fat and coasting. The Redskins, with that good defense, will overmatch Eli Manning and the Giants. The Bills finally have their legs under them, and I give them the win in Miami, despite the Dolphins' stirring victory over the 49ers last weekend.
The Jets will hang on against Houston. I like the Bucs over Atlanta, only because the Falcons should be favored and they're not, which leads me to believe that there's a higher intelligence at work here.