- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

In just eight weeks, San Diego’s Marty Schottenheimer has gone from a man on the hot seat to a serious candidate for NFL coach of the year.

The Chargers, 7-21 from October 2002 to September 2004, currently are on a 6-1 run and tied with Denver atop the AFC West — thanks largely to a surging offense that scores more points than any other except that of Indianapolis. San Diego’s 85 points the past two games are its most since the end of the Air Coryell era in 1985.

Drew Brees, who was supposed to be keeping the quarterback job warm only until first-round draft choice Philip Rivers was ready to take over, has thrown a franchise-record nine touchdown passes in those past two games. Five of them went to tight end Antonio Gates, who leads the AFC with eight touchdowns and is second with 54 catches.

With just two games left against winning teams (Denver at home, at Indianapolis), the Chargers are thinking playoffs, a goal they haven’t reached since 1995. Only four Chargers were even in the league back then.

“[There’s] not really satisfaction because we really haven’t achieved anything yet,” said Schottenheimer, who hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1998 with Kansas City. “If I had any idea of how you could handicap these games, I wouldn’t coach, I’d go gamble because I could make a heck of a lot more money. There’s no way you can predict in this league who is going to win any football game. I chuckle when people talk about the last half of our schedule being easier.”

No one’s laughing about the top-ranked, young rushing defense that has held six of its last seven foes under 100 yards. The no-name offensive line has allowed just five sacks in the last six games.

The Chargers have started strong (55-30 first-quarter margin) and adjusted well at halftime (76-31 third-quarter margin). Brees, picked off 15 times in 356 throws last year, has just one interception among his last 206 passes.

Like former Kent State basketball star Gates, starting receiver Eric Parker wasn’t drafted, but he has 24 catches. San Diego has done all this with Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson, its former focal point, not 100 percent because of a sore groin.

“We don’t believe there’s a team out there we can’t play with or compete with,” said safety Jerry Wilson, one of 10 Chargers with playoff experience. “Each week we’re going in with the mind-set that we’re going to win, not that we’re going to play not to lose.”

Running to victory — Quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota and Peyton Manning of Indianapolis are putting up incredible numbers. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are playing stifling defense. But the real key to success this season has been having a 100-yard rusher.

So far a back has gained 100 yards 96 times, which projects to a record 163 such performances, and their teams are 78-18 (.813) in those games. The only season with a higher correlation since 1970 was 1987 (.821), which included three weeks of games with replacement players. In the four weeks before last week’s so-so 7-4 showing, a 100-yard runner meant victory in 32 of 33 games.

“Usually, when you’re running a lot, you’re in control of the game,” Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said. “Most of the time when you have a big rushing day, you get a lot of it at the end of the game.”

Not always. Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil, who received a 186-yard day from Derrick Blaylock in place of injured All-Pro back Priest Holmes in last Sunday’s 27-20 loss at New Orleans, said teams are increasingly running from multiple-receiver sets because there are fewer defenders in the box in those schemes.

Front-runners — Defending champion New England is on the verge of yet another record. The Patriots have scored first in 14 straight regular-season games (17 overall), just one short of the NFL record by Miami in 1978, and can tie the Dolphins on Monday night on the road against the Chiefs. Of course, New England has also gone on to win all but one of those 17 games.

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