Despite quarterback Philip Rivers’ early-season slump, the San Diego Chargers are not laboring through one of their usual slow starts. Rivers is about to get more help, too.
Antonio Gates, one of the NFL’s top tight ends, is expected to return today against the New York Jets. Gates missed the past three games with a foot injury.
The Chargers could be on the verge of getting hot. But their 4-1 start might be misleading because they scored narrow victories over weak opponents — Denver, Kansas City, Miami and Minnesota.
The Jets (3-3) are searching for a spark. New York ranks 28th in rushing defense, and quarterback Mark Sanchez is in a funk.
“The Jets are fortunate to be 3-3. This is a team that is not playing well,” said Ken Thomson, a SportsXRadio.com handicapper and host of a show at 7 p.m. weeknights on KDWN-AM (720). “Sanchez has kind of taken three steps back offensively. But the Jets’ running game has been stagnant.
“I think San Diego will shut down the run and force Sanchez to pass, and I’m not sold that he can pass on San Diego.”
Thomson called the Chargers his “favorite play of the week,” but oddsmakers are flip-flopping the favorite. The Jets opened as 2½-point home favorites before bettors moved the number to San Diego minus-2. The lines at Las Vegas sports books vary from Chargers by 1 to Jets by 1 to Pick.
Jets coach Rex Ryan is hoping to get a boost by starting running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a longtime Chargers star, at running back.
But can the New York defense make a stand? Ryan Mathews has put a charge into San Diego’s running attack. Rivers, with six touchdown passes and seven interceptions, has all his targets available in Gates and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd.
“When those three guys are out there at 6-5 or bigger, the Chargers have a huge edge. They moved the ball up and down the field at will on New England, but a couple big blunders hurt them,” Thomson said. “San Diego is my pick to go to the Super Bowl from the AFC.”
Thomson scouts the rest of today’s Week 7 schedule:
■ Chicago (-1) vs. Tampa Bay (at London): It looks as if the Bears have their timing, and Matt Forte has solidified the running game. Forte has 527 yards rushing and has added 36 receptions. Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris got a good effort out of his team against New Orleans, but I don’t think this Tampa Bay offense is particularly good. The Bears have the potential to make the playoffs. Brian Urlacher is healthy, and the defense is solid. Chicago has weapons. The Bucs better not kick to Devin Hester. I like the Bears, and I think it will go over the total (43½).
■ Washington at Carolina (-2½): Cam Newton is growing up as a rookie quarterback. The Panthers rank fifth in the league in total offense at 418 yards per game. I’m not sold that quarterback John Beck is going to be able to step in on the road and take care of business in his first start for the Redskins. I’m all over Carolina. It’s a low spread, so the Panthers are one of my favorite plays of the week.
■ Seattle at Cleveland (-3): I was impressed how the Browns never quit last week in Oakland. I like Colt McCoy, who has eight touchdown passes and three interceptions. But running back Peyton Hillis might not play. Tarvaris Jackson is out, and Charlie Whitehurst will get the start at quarterback for the Seahawks. This is one I’m not going to touch. If I had to play it, I would take Cleveland.
■ Houston at Tennessee (-3): I’m definitely on the Titans coming off the bye. Tennessee dispatched of a good Baltimore team to hand the Ravens their only loss. The Texans played well for three quarters but got buried in the fourth at Baltimore last week. Chris Johnson better get his act together and start running the football. Johnson has just 250 yards rushing and one touchdown in the Titans’ five games. He has had one decent game. He got all that money and ticked me off by sitting out that long. Matt Hasselbeck has been good with 1,414 yards passing and nine touchdowns. The Titans miss wide receiver Kenny Britt but not as much as I thought they would. I think Tennessee wins this game in the neighborhood of seven to 12 points.
■ Denver at Miami (-1): I like Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, and he can get it done in his first start of the season. At the end of the game, you’re going to look at the stats and see 170 yards passing, one touchdown and one interception. But the guy is a winner. Tebow plays hard, and he’s strong enough to take a hit and keep going. I think Denver wins by a touchdown. Dolphins coach Tony Sparano is done.
■ Atlanta at Detroit (-3½): Running back Jahvid Best is out, and that’s a big loss for Detroit. Let’s look at the Lions because they are a little bit suspect. They stole the game in Minnesota, they stole the game in Dallas, and they lost to San Francisco. I don’t know how good this team is. Detroit, to me, is 3-3 and not 5-1. The Falcons played Green Bay tough and beat Philadelphia. This is a tough game. But Matt Ryan and the Falcons can go in and steal this one. Because Best is out, I’m going to take the underdog.
■ Kansas City at Oakland (-3½): I’m still on the Raiders. Even though quarterback Carson Palmer doesn’t start, maybe he gets in there. But I was impressed with Kyle Boller when he stepped in last week. What I like about Boller is he’s not awkward running the ball, unlike Jason Campbell. Boller plays within himself, and he can manage a game. The Chiefs just don’t have enough offense.
■ Pittsburgh (-4) at Arizona: Someone told me the Steelers might try to run a no-huddle offense. If I find out that’s the case, I’ll for sure be on the over (43½). Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb is what I thought he was, because I didn’t think he was that great. He’s short, he has trouble seeing over a lot of these linemen, and a lot of his passes get batted down. But he has a great receiver in Larry Fitzgerald. I’m not sold on Pittsburgh, which is missing key guys defensively. I’ll look at Arizona plus the points.
■ St. Louis at Dallas (-13½): Rams quarterback Sam Bradford won’t play because of a sprained ankle, but I was all over the Cowboys before he was declared out. Dallas is a 2-3 team that could be 5-0. The Cowboys have squandered games they should have won. They blew a 27-3 lead to the Lions in their last home game, and they remember that. Tony Romo will hold nothing back, and Dallas will beat the Rams by at least 20. This should be the blowout of the day.
■ Green Bay (-9½) at Minnesota: Christian Ponder, the Vikings’ rookie quarterback, is going to play with a lot of heart. Minnesota will look at it like a new season by starting over without Donovan McNabb. But until someone gets in the way of the Rolls Royce and gives it a flat tire, I’m not going against the Packers. If it’s less than 10, I can’t take those points. I would only lay it. The points look good now, but when Green Bay is up 7-0 five minutes in, you’re going to be sweating.
■ Indianapolis at New Orleans (-13½): The Colts are pathetic, but they play hard. They know there is no pressure because they get a mulligan for the season without quarterback Peyton Manning. The Saints will win this by double digits, there’s no question to me. Quarterback Drew Brees will play a lot better after the loss at Tampa Bay. Colts quarterback Curtis Painter can do enough to help put the game over the total (48), but I think New Orleans wins by 17 to 20.
COMPILED BY MATT YOUMANS/REVIEW-JOURNAL