By Dave Thomas

Everyone raise their hands who had the Chargers as all but a sure lock for the AFC playoffs after racing out to a 5-1 start.

While the Bolts are far from out of the playoff hunt, their road to the post-season looks to be much more daunting now then it did about a month or so ago. Sitting at 5-4 after three straight losses, San Diego will look to get things back on track a week from Sunday when it hosts the AFC West rival Oakland Raiders.

Before the season began, a number of NFL experts noted that the Chargers could improve on their 9-7 mark from a season ago, a season in which they made the playoffs for the first time in four years. At their current pace, the Bolts will need to go 5-2 down the stretch in order to do just that.

What Has Happened In San Diego?

While there is no one single person (coaches or players) to point the finger out for the team’s three-game losing skid, there are certainly some reasons why things have gone south in such a hurry.

First, the lack of a running game (San Diego ranks 28th out of 32 teams with 81.8 yards per game) has been a killer for the Bolts.

Secondly, the Chargers’ offensive line, something of a mess over the years, has had its ups and downs again this season. While quarterback Philip Rivers has a QB rating of 102.6 (20 TD’s, eight interceptions), he has been sacked 16 times to date. That last number may not sound like a ton given that is on average around two a game, but some injuries and inconsistent play on the offensive line is likely to inflate Rivers’ sack total by season’s end.

Defensively, the Bolts continue to lack having a killer pass rush.

While San Diego has sacked opposing quarterbacks 17 times in nine games (around two a game), there is no dominant pass rusher on that side of the ball.

Meantime, San Diego’s secondary has had mixed results to date. You could say they are not as bad as past Charger teams, but then that is not saying a whole lot.

With those thoughts in mind, here are a few studs and duds after nine games:

STUDS –

Eric Weddle – Where would the Bolts be without their Pro Bowl free safety? To date, Weddle has 64 total tackles (51 solo). Weddle continues to be the glue holding the secondary together;

Philip Rivers – Despite major struggles (three INT’s) in the 37-0 loss at Miami last weekend, Rivers continues to be the field general. The veteran has thrown for 2,351 yards to date, going 197-of-294 for a 67 percent completion rate. Given all the pressure he can be under at times, amazing how this guy remains so injury-free;

Donald Butler – While Butler does not get the national press at the inside linebacker position that others around the NFL do, his 57 total tackles is second on the team to Weddle;

Antonio Gates – Yes, Gates does not have the break away power and speed he had in the past, but the future Hall-of-Famer still can be counted on to produce. In nine games, Gates has 35 receptions for 445 yards and nine TD’s;

Eddie Royal and Branden Oliver – Both deserve honorable mention for their efforts to date. Royal (26 catches, 374 yards, five TD’s) and Oliver (98 carries, 371 yards, two touchdowns) have helped San Diego move the ball and punch it in the end zone.

DUDS

Ryan Mathews – When the Chargers drafted Mathews out of Fresno State five years ago, the hope was that he would become a star running back. No, most folks did not think he would ever eclipse the talented LaDainian Tomlinson, but thoughts were that he could carry the load behind Rivers and the offensive line. Injured in the home opener against Seattle, Mathews has run for all of 71 yards on 23 carries. After a solid season last year, Mathews is back to being an average NFL back who has problems staying healthy;

Manti Te’o – Much like Mathews, Te’o was not expected to be the second coming of the late Junior Seau or Shawne Merriman. He was, however, bringing some big stats and highlights into the league following his career at Notre Dame. A foot injury these last two seasons has hampered Teo and his ability to contribute on a consistent basis;

Corey Liuget – While his numbers (32 total tackles, 2.5 sacks) at defensive end are not horrific, safe to say many people likely thought Liuget would be a little more of a demonstrative force four seasons into the league from Illinois. A big second half of the season by Liuget would certainly bolster San Diego’s chances of making the playoffs.

For more Chargers news and updates, visit Chargers Central.

Dave Thomas has been covering the sports world since his first job as a sports editor for a weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania back in 1989. He has covered a Super Bowl, college bowl games, MLB, NBA and more. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

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