|Date of game: 9/28/2014
NFL Preview - Jacksonville (0-3) at San Diego (2-1) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Philip Rivers knows all about first-round QB hype.
He was famously selected by the New York Giants with the fourth overall pick of 2004 NFL Draft, then shuttled off to San Diego when his No. 1 overall counterpart - Eli Manning - stood firm in his declaration that he had no interest in playing for the Chargers and demanded a trade.
This week, the now 11-year pro and his San Diego teammates are riding in the back seat amid the hype for the first start of another ballyhooed passer, Blake Bortles, for the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars.
But Rivers isn't exactly playing like a guy content with second banana status. He's been particularly dominant in his last three meetings with the Jaguars - all won by the Chargers, via an average margin of 22.3 points - while completing better than 79 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns against two interceptions, including a 24-6 win last year in which he was 22-for-26.
He's connected six times with six receivers through three games in 2014 and has five TDs and no INTs in the last two games, both wins, since a season- opening loss to the other Manning, Peyton, in Denver.
"We're all unselfish, we all try to come in and do our job," San Diego receiver Keenan Allen said. "Whoever Phil hits, pretty sure he's going to hit the right guy so we just go with it and try to win the game."
A developing issue for the Chargers, however, is the health of the players joining Rivers in the backfield.
He lost Ryan Mathews for several weeks with a knee injury in Week 2, and he's now without Danny Woodhead thanks to a broken right leg suffered in a Week 3 defeat of the Buffalo Bills.
Woodhead was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
"He's a true professional," San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "We're going to miss him but we've got to move on."
Given those absences, the primary ground option is former Indianapolis Colts running back Donald Brown, who rushed for 62 yards on 31 carries against the Bills. Branden Oliver, an undrafted rookie free agent, was the only other player at the position on the roster until Tuesday, when journeyman Shaun Draughn was signed. Draughn has 63 carries in 22 games for three teams in parts of four seasons.
"My mindset hasn't changed," Brown said. "You always prepare like you're going to start and get all the reps because you never know what's going to happen. Be prepared for any and every situation."
The Jaguars have been fairly permissive when it comes to run defense thus far in 2014, allowing a minimum of 144 yards in a 27-point Week 3 loss to Indianapolis and a maximum of 191 in a 31-point blowout by the Washington Redskins in Week 2.
In terms of overall defense, they're surrendering a league-worst 466 total yards per game and have been outscored by 75 points. In fact, since taking a 17-0 lead over Philadelphia in what became a 17-point Week 1 loss, the team has been outscored, 119-27.
"We've got some guys doing the right thing and some guys not," Jacksonville defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "But when you're playing in the NFL, that kind of stuff gets you beat. It's a recurring theme that we need to get fixed."
This week, though, it's all about Bortles and the offense.
With the Jaguars in a 30-point hole to the Colts at halftime last week, coach Gus Bradley pulled the plug on the Chad Henne place-holder era in favor of Bortles, who completed 14-of-24 passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed for 30 yards on two carries.
Bradley made the starting call for this week after that loss.
"I just love his mindset," Bradley said. "I love the strength that he has. He is a tough, hard-nosed competitor and he will attack. And the team felt that part of it. It's no coincidence that all of a sudden we blocked a little bit better and the receivers played a little bit better. He has a way to uplift people and uplift the team."
The rookie connected with Allen Hurns on a 63-yard scoring pass and later found Cecil Shorts III for a 10-yard TD strike, both in the fourth quarter. He'll not have rookie target Marqise Lee, who missed last week's game and hasn't practiced this week with a right hamstring problem.
"It was definitely good to get some game action before you go into the week of practice," Bortles said. "So I mean kind of taking it one day at a time, try to learn from everything, every experience, situation you get put in and move on."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Dam the Rivers
The Jaguars were at their most effective in the initial half of the first game of the season, when they sacked Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles five times while establishing a 17-0 intermission lead. The 34 points allowed in the second half and the two blowout losses since reveal exactly what occurs when no consistent pass rush is generated. With a gunner like Rivers, disruption isn't optional. It's mandatory.
Rattle the Rookie
Where it's a necessity for the Jaguars to pressure a veteran like Rivers, it'll also help the Chargers' cause to rattle the first-start mojo of Bortles, who showed veteran presence in his debut. He was sacked just once in two quarters against Indianapolis, but creating situations that make him uncomfortable - thanks to guys like Dwight Freeney, perhaps - could yield mistake-promoted turnovers for San Diego.
There's a reason Bortles was thought of so highly out of a non-QB factory like the University of Central Florida. He's that good. And someday, he's likely to play a key role in a desperately needed mindset-change in Jacksonville. But while he may have intermittent success against the Chargers, the first victory will have to occur somewhere other than Qualcomm Stadium. The hosts are just plain better.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chargers 31, Jaguars 14