By Dave Thomas

To say this Sunday’s contest at home against the Cleveland Browns is a must-win game for the San Diego Chargers might be a bit of stretch. That said the Bolts know that a loss to Cleveland could have permanent ramifications for their AFC playoff aspirations even though it will only be early October.

After a pair of road losses in Cincinnati and Minnesota back-to-back, San Diego (1-2) finds itself tied for last place in the AFC West with Kansas City. Both teams are a game behind the surprising Oakland Raiders (27-20 winners last weekend over Cleveland) and the unbeaten 3-0 Denver Broncos, a team that has found a way to win each of its first three contests despite not always being pretty.

So, where do the Chargers go from here, a season in which might very well be their last in San Diego for the foreseeable future?

Limiting Turnovers And Sacks

Two of the biggest killers to date for the Chargers have been turnovers and seeing quarterback Philip Rivers sacked way too often.

In the first category, San Diego is a -3 after three games, including some turnovers that directly led to opponents scoring. Meantime, Rivers (890 yards passing, five touchdowns to date this season) has been taken down 10 times by the opposition. Yes, the offensive line is a mess for lack of a better term, but the Chargers know that no one is going to take pity on them because the guys slated to protect Rivers have been dropping like flies with injuries.

If you look at some other numbers for the Bolts, they actually have 14 more first downs than their opponents through three games, with San Diego outgaining the opposition 1,206-975 yards. Still, the Bolts are 1-2, a record that just as easily could be 0-3 were it not for running off 30 unanswered points in a season-opening 33-28 win at home over Detroit.

Third-year wide receiver Keenan Allen (29 receptions, 315 yards, two TD’s) is off and running again, this after an average sophomore season a year ago that was preceded by a dynamic rookie campaign in 2013. Allen nabbed 15 receptions in the season-opening win, something that he may need to do on several occasions this season if the Bolts are to be in a prime position to win games. With veteran tight end Antonio Gates set to return for the Pittsburgh game (Monday, Oct. 12) after serving a four-game PED’s suspension, Rivers will have his favorite target back at that position.

On the defensive side of the ball, free safety Eric Weddle continues to be a menace for opposing offenses, tallying 27 total tackles (22 solo) in the first three games. Linebacker Manti Te’o (20 total tackles, 11 solo) is also proving to have been a wise draft selection for the Bolts several years ago.

Despite the sacks and turnovers, San Diego could have won the second game of the season (lost to Cincinnati 24-19) with a break here or there. In last week’s 31-14 loss at Minnesota, the Vikings were rather dominant, eventually sending Rivers to the bench for backup QB Kellen Clemens.

Three Home Games In October

It seems like season after the season the Chargers enter with high hopes, usually even teasing the fans with what might be.

They either hit their slump early on or go through a rough period later in the season, something that ultimately dooms their long-term playoff hopes.

If you look at the October slate of games, three out of four are at home, including three games where the Bolts should be the favorite (Cleveland, Pittsburgh likely without Ben Roethlisberger, and Oakland). The only game in October where the Bolts will be clear underdogs is an Oct. 18 visit to Green Bay.

While this Sunday’s meeting with the Browns is not a must-win, the Chargers and their fans would sure feel better about things with a victory.

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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