(As previously reported on playunderreview.wordpress.com)
The NFL has a knack of reminding us just how much parity there can be in a league with a firm salary cap in place (yes, I’m talking to you MLB). Even the biggest underdog can rise up and play inspired football on any given week, and with a few lucky bounces going their way, can triumph over a highly favored team. Last night’s MNF double-header on ESPN gave us two perfectly scripted dramas filled with suspense, adversity, more suspense, comedy, and full resolution in the form of multiple game winning drives. In no way did we expect the Bills to hang with the Patriots in a low scoring Game 1, but Tom Brady finally shook off the rust and, with the help of a timely fumble, capitalized twice in the final three minutes to win a nail-biter.
And after thoroughly dominating the first half what did the Raiders have to show for it? A tied ballgame at the half. It’s fair to say the Chargers played absolutely terrible in that first half, and their saving grace was two forced turnovers by the Raider O and an iffy video review that kept four extra points off the board (the ball did touch the ground as it shifted). Again, this was a tale of two different halves for the Raiders. JaMarcus Russell looked unusually comfortable in the pocket and felt little pressure, but when forced to make decisions and accurate throws in the 3rd quarter the story changed significantly. The Raiders had a much tougher time more moving the ball on the ground as the Chargers D-line finally started fighting back after getting run over in the first two quarters. They were still not able to put a lot of pressure on Russell in the passing game, and we have to compliment the play calling that allowed Russell to get rid of the ball quickly in most situations. Russell’s decision making was limited to half the field most of the time, and he connected very successfully with TE Zack Miller up the middle for 6 catches and 96 yards.
The real problem occurred on 2nd or 3rd and long, passing situations that left much to be desired from the former #1 overall pick at QB. Russell looked great in the first half checking down to his running back after his quick reads were unavailable, but when dump-offs weren’t going to cut it the ball started flying all over the field. And I mean ALL OVER the field including the sidelines. I saw at least a half dozen passes to receivers in either man coverage or flat out wide-open, especially on the up-and-out routes to the sideline, that not only weren’t catchable but the receivers couldn’t even make an effort because they were so far off. The passes he did get close seemed to be 50/50 chances for either team, and Charger defenders dropped several passed that should have been turnovers. In the last minute of the game, Russell’s last bad throw strung out Johnny Lee Higgins on a pass that left him on the turf for 5 minutes after a jarring, legal hit applied by Chargers safety Eric Weddle.
Upon further review, the Raiders looked to be a real contender through their first two quarters of the season, and at times in the second half as well. But the Chargers were just too strong, even after losing two starting offense lineman and playing out of a hole the entire game. Darren Sproles proved his worth as a franchised player with LaDainian Tomlinson never really got it going against a team he usually dominates. Each had a touchdown last night, but it was a stellar 4th quarter performance by Phillip Rivers that sealed the victory for the Chargers. Rivers also proved his worth with another victory after signing a contract worth up to $93 million contract extension in the off-season. He’s gonna earn every penny if the Chargers continue to show up late to division games against big-time underdogs.