Chargers are in tough

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:44 AM ET

There aren't many teams in the NFL in better form right now than the San Diego Chargers.

There are a number teams of lesser quality, however, that have brighter prospects at making it to the post-season.

Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer didn't make the schedule. His team just has to play it, which has essentially put San Diego in a wild wild-card race.

At 7-4, the Chargers still have a shot at the AFC West title with five weeks remaining in the season. But they are two games behind the Denver Broncos who are showing signs of being the best team in the NFL not named the Indianapolis Colts.

That means the Chargers most likely will battle for one of two AFC wild-card spots. Plenty can change, but at this point odds would favour one of those would be designated for the loser of the AFC North -- either the Pittsburgh Steelers or Cincinnati Bengals -- and the other to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Chargers then, who were 12-4 a year ago, now are in a fight for their playoff lives.

"I said going into the season that we're better than we were a year ago but we might not have as good a record because of the schedule we faced," Schottenheimer said. "I'm not complaining, but my approach to the schedule is this: Go make the playoffs playing that group we played and you're going to feel pretty good about yourself going into the playoffs."

That is a big if, though. Schottenheimer, whose team already has defeated the New York Giants, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins still has the Colts, Chiefs (again) and Broncos remaining.

The Chiefs, who are tied for second in the AFC West have a similarly rocky road with games against the Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Giants, Chargers and Bengals.

Which is why the Jags get a leg up for the second spot. Even with the loss of quarterback Byron Leftwich for a month or more, Jacksonville has the upper hand for the first AFC wild card because of a fluffy schedule that includes the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans.

"I look at things from a pragmatic standpoint," Schottenheimer said. "We have 16 of them and nobody decides until all 16 are played."

GETTING THE BOOT I

Question worth asking in response to Steve Mariucci's firing by the Detroit Lions yesterday: Is Mariucci a good coach or did he ride Steve Young and Jeff Garcia to success in all those winning years with the 49ers?

Question also worth asking: How does Lions general manager Matt Millen not only keep his job but get a five-year contract extension?

GETTING THE BOOT II

It was a bad week to be a kicker with a game on the line as the Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Giants all let would-be wins bet away with botched boots.

Worst was the Giants' Jay Feely, who spoiled what was arguably quarterback Eli Manning's best road performance thus far in his career.

Three times Manning did what he was asked to do -- get Feely in range for a game-winning field goal. All three times the veteran came up small.

In Tampa, Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden was seen muttering expletives walking off the field after Matt Bryant missed a potential game-tying 29-yarder with just under three minutes remaining.

And in Dallas on Thursday, Billy Cundiff missed a short attempt in the fourth quarter that would have avoided overtime and Ron Dayne's killer run for the Broncos.

QUICK KICK

No truth to the rumour that in the wake of the drug charges facing former Cowboy and current ESPN analyst Michael Irvin, WADA chief Dick Pound is reporting that 40% of NFL analysts are dopers.


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