Virtually every game for the past couple weeks has become an elimination game for one team or another for the upcoming Super Bowl championship playoffs. The Chargers appear to be peaking at the right time of the season but fans have to wonder if it's too late to make a difference.
The Chargers' inspired wins against the visiting New York Giants on Dec. 8 and five days later at the home of the AFC West Division leading Denver Broncos have re-enegized fans -- as well as revived the San Diego team's playoff chances -- as the Bolts head into their final two regular season contests.
The Chargers haven't clinched anything yet -- though the Kansas City Chiefs and Bonita Vista Middle School grad Alex Smith did with Sunday's 56-31 victory in Oakland against the Raiders -- but the San Diegans did hurdle over one team in the frantic final dash to collect a wild card playoff berth.
The Chargers defeated the Giants, 37-14, as Chargers QB Philip Rivers bested vaunted Giants signal-caller Eli Manning.
Rivers then bested Eli's older brother Peyton in the Thursday Night Football match-up to keep the Chargers' playoff hopes alive for another week. Rivers passed for two touchdowns to Keenan Allen in the Chargers' 27-20 come-from-behind win against the Broncos, who entered the game with the NFL's highest-powered offense. Peyton Manning, who is on pace to set single-season passing marks (he had 45 touchdowns entering the game), was held to just 289 yards and two touchdowns by a re-charged Chargers defense.
With a loss in Denver, the Chargers' season would all but have been over.
Instead, the race for the AFC's final wild card playoff berth appears hotly contested as the regular season schedule swiftly draws to a close.
At 7-7, the Chargers trail the Miami Dolphins (8-6) by one game in the wild card playoff chase and are one-half game behind the Baltimore Ravens (7-6). The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens play the Detroit Lions on Monday night.
Miami, which out-gunned the AFC East-leading New England Patriots, 24-20, on Sunday, defeated the Chargers, 20-16, on Nov. 17 to hold the tie-breaker edge should the teams finish in a tie for the final wild card berth. The Dolphins need one win in their final two games to eliminate the Chargers.
Baltimore, however, owns the tie-breaker edge over Miami should those teams end in a tie.
The Ravens have the toughest schedule of any of the wild card contenders by finishing the season with games against three division leaders. However, the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-20 loss at Pittsburgh on Sunday night opened the door for Baltimore to win the AFC North title with wins in their final three contests. The Bengals now sit at 9-5 with a one-and-a-half game lead over the Ravens.
The Chiefs moved into a tie with Denver atop the AFC West standings but trail the Broncos in the tiebreaker with two head-to-head losses. Kansas City, braced by five touchdown passes by Smith, clinched no worse than a wild card playoff berth with their win over the Raiders. At 11-3, the Chiefs remain alive for the division title.
It appears either Denver or KC will secure one of the conference's two wild card berths, leaving the Chargers to scramble with the Dolphins and Ravens for the remaining wild card berth.
The New York Jets look to have taken a back seat in the wild card race following their 30-20 loss to the host Carolina Panthers on Sunday. At 6-8, the Jets can only finish .500 with victories in their final two games.
Miami, which defeated New York decisively, 23-3, on the Jets' home turf on Dec. 1, hosts New York in the final regular season game on Dec. 29.
The win against the visiting Giants kept the Bolts mathematcially alive in the hunt for a wild card playoff berth while it eliminated the Giants from post-season competition.
Eli Manning, the Chargers' No. 1 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft (but immediately traded to the Giants for a package that included Rivers, New York's fourth pick in the draft), said his team needed to win its final five regular season games to land a playoff berth. Manning and his teammates made good on part of that word with a 24-17 come-from-behind victory against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., on Dec. 1.
But the Giants could not follow up that performance with a must-win against the Chargers as the visitors fell behind the Chargers, 24-0, at halftime.
The Chargers used a run-possession game to thwart Peyton Manning and the Broncos as running back Ryan Mathews rushed for 127 yards and scored on a 29-yard sideline dash. The win at Denver snapped the Broncos' 14-game home unbeaten streak and immediately brought back memories of the Chargers' inspired 41-28 win at Kansas City three weeks earlier.
It also brought up bad memories of narrow losses to Washington (30-24 on Nov. 3), Cincinnati (17-10 on Dec. 1), Tennessee (20-17 on Sept. 22) and Houston (31-28 on Sept. 9) earlier in the season that could ultimately prove to be fateful should the Chargers' playoff run end prematurely.
The Chargers host arch rival Oakland this Sunday at 1:25 p.m. The Raiders are just 4-10 in the win-loss column but dealt the Chargers a 27-17 setback Oct. 6 in the Bay Area.
NFC playoff picture
Philadelphia (8-6) continues to lead Dallas (7-7) in the NFC East standings with two regiular season games remaining. Both teams seem on the fringe of the playoff hunt: the division winner appears in; the division runner-up appears out.
Dallas currenlty trails the Carolina Panthers (10-4), San Francisoc 49ers (10-4), Arizona Cardinals (9-5), Detroit (7-6) and Green Bay Packers (7-6-1) in the wild card playoff hunt.
Dallas hosts Philadelphia in the final regular season game, so nothing is set in the division yet.
Philadephia kept its division championship hopes alive with a dramatic 34-20 comeback win against visiting Detroit in blizzard-like conditions on Dec. 8. The game featured snowdrifts of 6-8 inches on the field and an early 8-0 Detroit lead.
The victorious Eagles inched ahead of the Cowboys in the division standings with the win but could not extend thier lead over the Cowboys after being upset, 48-30, at Minnesota on Sunday.
Dallas coughed up a 37-26 loss to visiting Green Bay on Sunday after losing a 29-6 halftime lead.
The NFC West Divisoin appears all but secured by the Seattle Seahawks while the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers are tied for supremacy in the NFC South with identialcal 10-4 records, with the Saints to visit the Pathers this coming Sunday to break the tie.
Chicago defeated host Cleveland, 38-31, on Sunday to take over the NFC North lead over idle Detroit. It appears a three-team race with Green Bay for the division title, with the other two teams likely finishing out of the wild card playoff race.
San Francisco topped Seattle, 19-17, in an all-important divisional match-up on Dec. 8 to move two games behind the division-leading Seahawks in the standings. Both teams won on Sunday to remain separated by two games with two games to play in the regular season.
Seattle (12-2) capitalized on five interceptions by Eli Manning to beat the host Giants 23-0; the 49ers (10-4) fought off a late charge by the Tampa Bay Bucs to prevail by a score of 33-14 in their cross-country trip to Florida.
San Francisco, the runner-up in last season's Super Bowl championship game, looks to have regained the defensive posture that could make the 49ers extremely dangerous in the upcoming playoffs.
AFC playoff picture
The Indianapolis Colts (9-5) have clinched the AFC South title with a four-game lead over the Tennessee Tians and have punched their ticket to the 2013 NFL playoffs.
New England (10-4) appears to have the AFC East title within its grasp with a two-game lead over the Dolphins. But injuries have decimated the Patriots' receiving corps and they will be pitted against the host Ravens this coming Sunday in a must-win game for both teams.
The reeling Pats could have regained the rights to the top seed in the upcoming AFC playofs with a win in Miami but remain a game behind the Broncos in that department.
New England would earn the AFC's No. 1 seed if they finish in a tie with Denver atop the conference standings. The Patriots defeated the Broncos, 34-31, in an overtime match-up on Nov. 24 to hold the edge in head-to-head tiebreaker.
Should the Broncos falter in one of their remaining two games, the Chiefs could find themselves ending the regular season as AFC West champions. Conveivably, the Chargers' final regular season game against visiting Kansas City on Dec. 29 could determine if the Chiefs win the division or if the Chargers earn a wild card berth.
But, clearly, it's one game at a time for all teams concerned.