By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

A not so mournful RIP to the San Diego Chargers 2010 season, as they will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005 on the heels of their brutal, 34-20 loss to the Bengals of all teams last week. The Chargers pulled their annual act of not bothering to show up for the season until November but unlike the past three seasons, in which they could get away with that thanks to the disintegration of the Broncos, the rebuilding of the Chiefs and the ineptitude of the Raiders, there was another team in their division that was able to stay ahead of them long enough to provide a much slimmer margin for error in their attempt to rebound from a lousy first half of the season and make the playoffs.

Seyi Ajirotutu

A rash of injuries plagued the Chargers on both sides of the ball for most of the season. All-World tight end Antonio Gates had major foot problems and missed games down the stretch. Their top two receivers at one point were Patrick Crayton, who they signed off the street after he was cut by Dallas, and the immortal Seyi Ajirotutu, who came up from the practice squad to catch 12 passes for 245 yards and two TDs. Rookie running back Ryan Mathews, who was drafted in the top 15 of last year’s draft to replace franchise icon LaDanian Tomlinson, couldn’t stay healthy, missed four games and has only managed 558 yards and four scores. On defense, stalwarts Luis Castillo and Stephen Cooper each missed multiple games and on special teams, the Chargers were victimized by a truckload of mistakes in the first half of the season, from blocked punts to missed kicks to long returns given up for scores. The Chargers problems ran the gamut this year and in the end, they couldn’t dig themselves out of the hole they’d created.

But despite all this, they were still alive headed into December, which has been their best month over the past few years, as it also has for QB Philip Rivers. Then, a home loss to Oakland the first Sunday of the month dropped them to 6-6 and even though they won their next two after that, the Cincinnati game sealed their fate. Although they were crippled by the injuries and the incompetence of their special teams through September and much of October, a lot of blame must be laid at the feet of coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith. Turner dragged out making a move with his special teams coach early on even though for a stretch, his team was sunk by mistakes on that unit every week (as opposed to the Dolphins, who made a change after one awful game against the Pats in Week 4 and barely had another problem in that phase of the game for the rest of the year). Turner, an excellent offensive coordinator, also has never exactly lit the world on fire as a head man – in 13 years with San Diego, Washington and Oakland, he’s seven games under .500, has made the playoffs just four times (including the past three seasons) and won just four of eight postseason games. And Smith, one of the more autocratic executives in the league, robbed Rivers of his top offensive weapon in Vincent Jackson for the season’s first 10 games, ostensibly over a couple million dollars. For whatever reason, Smith didn’t provide Rivers, or Turner for that matter, with the kind of depth to better weather the storm brought on by all the injuries. And thus, the Chargers will be home for the postseason.

There seems to be a somewhat passive attitude permeating the organization, from Smith (who needs to pay our best offensive player, we’ll work it all out on the field), to Turner and the players (ahh, so we suck for the first two months every year, we can get away with it and then we’ll be fine when it matters more). And all of this as Rivers enters his prime and develops into one of the best QBs in the league. If it happens like this again next year, combined with the fact that the team needs a new stadium and may move to L.A. if they can’t/don’t get one in San Diego, don’t be surprised to see some major changes for the Chargers at every level.

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. New England: Bill Belichick once famously said that stats are for losers. That may or may not be true, but regardless, here’s a few that are definitely for the league’s best team. Through 15 games, the Pats are first in the NFL in scoring (32 PPG), third in the NFL on third down (46.7 percent) and third in the NFL in red zone offense (TDs scored 63.9 percent of the time). Not too shabby.

2. Baltimore: Suddenly, the Ravens look playoff ready which a lot of folks seem to think may not bode too well for the Pats if the two teams are to meet up in the divisional round. In order for that to happen, though, Baltimore not only has to beat Cincinnati this week, they have to pray the Steelers lose to the now also-ran Browns. If that doesn’t happen, the Ravens are staring down a first round meeting with the Colts in Indy. The last two times they’ve visited Lucas Oil Stadium, including playoff games? Two losses by a combined 51-6.

3. Pittsburgh: Despite all their travails (and whines) this season, the Steelers are in at No. 2 with a bye and at least one home game if they can win in Cleveland on Sunday. That will likely happen, but then what? Kansas City? Another bloodbath with the Ravens? And the Steelers haven’t exactly protected their turf well this season; three of their four losses have come at Heinz Field.

4. New Orleans: Huge win for the Saints in Atlanta the other night. It was a classic case of a team that had been there before overcoming a team that hadn’t, regardless of the circumstances. It wasn’t the Saints best effort, but they made all the plays on both sides when they needed to which is why they’re still my pick to go to the Super Bowl, even if they have to win three road games to get there.

5 (tie) Chicago/Atlanta: The Bears rolled up 38 points against the fraudulent Jets defense last week, giving them 78 in their last two games. This bodes well going forward, especially now that they have a bye and a home game thanks to the Eagles annual choke job on Tuesday night. As for the Falcons, they played and coached like they were afraid in their biggest game of the year against New Orleans on Monday night. They’re still in the driver’s seat for home-field throughout the NFC playoffs, but they better get over what ailed them in the Saints game or it won’t wind up mattering much.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. Carolina: Not terribly surprising that the Panthers managed just 119 total yards in a waxing at the hands of the Steelers last week. What was slightly surprising was Sports Illustrated shill Peter King, in listing soon-to-be ex-coach John Fox’s accomplishments this week, noted his whopping three playoff appearances in nine years. Way to embarrass the poor guy even more, Mr. King.

2. San Francisco: In their biggest game of the season, the Niners screwed up their QB situation for the 436th time this season, had to deal with another sideline confrontation between a player and his coach, lost the game to the Rams and finally fired Mike Singletary on the plane ride home from St. Louis. Singletary probably never should have had the job in the first place but the whole scene, the whole season, was just another reminder that this once gleamingly proud organization is a complete shambles.

3. Cleveland: Another woeful loss for the Brownies, who have pissed away some mid-season good will in a swirling shitstorm of a three (soon-to-be) four game, season-ending losing streak. The saddest part is that we will likely no longer be treated to the high comedy of seeing Eric Mangini looking more like a UPS driver than a football coach on Sundays next fall.

4. Houston: Another utter collapse by this pathetic defense, to Tim Tebow in his second-career start of all people. So naturally, all the scuttlebutt is that owner Bob McNair will still not fire coach Gary Kubiak after the season, with his feeling that a good defensive coordinator is all his weak, soft, perennially underachieving team needs. Must be a real treat to be a Texans fan, eh?

5. (tie) Seattle/Arizona: The Seahawks were naturally blown out again last week, this time by the Bucs, and haven’t even been within 15 points of an opponent, save for once, in six weeks. Of course, if they beat the Rams at home on Sunday night, they win the pukefest known as the NFC West. Yullchh…. As for the Cards, their dramatic win over the Cowboys on Christmas was probably the highlight of their season. I wonder if coach Ken Whisenhunt edited out the part of the film in which the team blew an 18-point lead at home to a third-string QB named Stephen McGee.

What’s Trendy

– Tim Tebow, Broncos: It may have been against the worse than awful Texans, but Tebow’s electric, come-from-behind performance. 308 yards, two TDs (one rushing) and two TD drives in an eight-minute span in the fourth quarter were what did it. Whether or not he plays well again this week against the out-of-it Chargers, whomever coaches the Broncos next year may want to give him a long look.
– Josh Freeman, Bucs: Freeman continued his breakout season and kept his team alive for a playoff berth with a five TD onslaught against the Seahawks. With one game left, the second-year man has 3,106 yards, has completed 60 percent of his passes, has thrown 23 TDs against just six picks and has a 93.6 passer rating. Not only is Freeman an absolute keeper, he’s an outside MVP candidate. Good work.
– The Lions: I know, I keep giving this spot to those lovable felines from Detroit, but you would too! They’ve now won three in a row, the last two on the road, and can close it out with the unlikeliest of four-game win streaks with a win on Sunday at home against the Vikings. Great, great job by coach (and former Belichick assistant) Jim Schwartz, who looked pretty, ahem… challenged earlier this year.

What’s Not

– The Giants: 73 points allowed in their last 68 minutes of game action. A 45-17 loss to Green Bay with 500 total yards allowed in a must-win game last week. Four more picks by the rapidly regressing little Manning, giving him a league-leading 29 on the year. It’s hard to believe, but the Giants can still make the playoffs with a win over Washington and some help this weekend. Just can’t see it happening though; these guys have made their collective bed.
– The Jaguars: A possible playoff berth on the line and Jacksonville loses at home to… wait for it… the Redskins??!! Once again this season, the Jags have proven that with Jack Del Rio and David Garrard at the helm, it’s just good enough to not quite win.
– Andy Reid, Eagles: You won’t believe this. The Eagles had a big game last week that they needed to win to vastly improve their playoff situation, it was against an inferior opponent and it was at home… and they got rolled, looking woefully unprepared and outcoached in the process. Wait, you do believe this. Of course you do. Because if you’ve paid attention to this team at all over the past 10 years, you know that this is Reid’s MO. Never mind the postponement of the game from Sunday to Tuesday, or the opponent having nothing to lose, or Michael Vick’s thigh bruise. The only thing that matters is that Reid is notorious for stinkbombs like this, particularly when the stakes is high. If you had one game to play, for all the marbles, and you could handpick any coach out there to lead you into it, I hope you’d stay as far away as possible from Reid, without a doubt the most overrated coach in all the league not named Shanahan.

And finally…

Pro Bowl selections were announced the other day. I didn’t bother to look at any other team’s except for the Pats, and I only did that because I felt obligated to do so as someone who writes about the team. Now would be a great time to rail against the Pro Bowl, and every major sports league’s all-star game for that matter, as glorified popularity contests, made so because of the emphasis on fan voting. But I won’t do that. These games are for the fans so why shouldn’t they get to vote for who they want to see, even if those players aren’t the best or most deserving?
What I will do, though, is point out that Pats safety Brandon Meriweather was selected to his second Pro Bowl, or the same amount that Rodney Harrison made in 15 years. And that should tell you all you need to know about the Pro Bowl.