The San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers are coming off impressive wins - one against a potential playoff team and the other against a division champion.
Those victories just came a little too late.
San Diego enters Sunday still clinging to the slimmest of hopes for a playoff berth as it hosts Carolina, which has already been eliminated.
The Chargers (5-8) lost four straight before last Sunday's 34-24 win in Pittsburgh, their first victory against a team with a winning record. It also extended their playoff chances at least another week, though one more loss - or a Pittsburgh win over Dallas - officially eliminates them from contention.
To go 8-8 and avoid the team's first losing season since 2003, San Diego will need to win its final three games - not impossible with contests against the Jets and Raiders remaining. But 8-8 may not buy coach Norv Turner another year as it did last season, when the Chargers finished 4-1 to end up .500.
In his sixth and possibly final season with San Diego, Turner deflected talk of his job security.
"That's not the thing that's on my mind," said Turner, who is 54-39 with the Chargers. "We're trying to get ready for Carolina and trying to build on what we did last week. That's where I'm at."
Team president Dean Spanos hasn't yet told him he would be let go at the end of the season, Turner said, though he expected it would take the team's first playoff berth since the 2009 season to save his job.
Turner's squad showed a glimpse of perhaps what could have been with an efficient performance against the Steelers. The Chargers went 12 of 22 on third-down conversions, possessed the ball for 36:46 and played their third turnover-free game of the season in the franchise's first regular-season win in Pittsburgh.
"It's been there, it's just about execution," running back Ronnie Brown said. "You know, like we've been saying all season, when we execute, when we do it the way we're capable of doing it, the results are usually good. But unfortunately, we haven't been able to be consistent and do it for four quarters throughout the whole season."
It's a script that sounds painfully familiar to the Panthers, who at 4-9 are tied for the NFC's worst record but have seven losses by six points or fewer.
Carolina's 30-20 win last Sunday against Atlanta - which already clinched the NFC South title - stands as the highlight of an otherwise disappointing season that began with center Ryan Kalil taking a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer declaring that the Panthers would win the Super Bowl.
They finally realized some of their potential, racking up a season-high 475 yards against the Falcons.
"The disappointing thing is that's what we can be," said coach Ron Rivera, who spent four seasons on Turner's staff in San Diego from 2007-10, mostly as the defensive coordinator.
"We know that. Based on what we did, how we did it and who we did it with, that's the disappointing thing. ... We've found some balance, we have. Unfortunately, we didn't do it sooner."
Sunday's performance continued a recent surge by Carolina's offense. The Panthers are averaging 397.3 yards over their last four games, and Cam Newton has keyed the improvement following an inconsistent first half of the season.
Newton has compiled 1,363 yards of offense and 11 total touchdowns in the last four weeks without a turnover. He accounted for only eight TDs and turned it over 11 times in Carolina's first seven games.
"The way he played and the things that he did, that shows you what potentially he is going to become," Rivera said of Newton, whose career-high 116 rushing yards against the Falcons included a 72-yard TD.
"We just have to keep working and he has to keep growing as a football player. These last five weeks now have been pretty doggone solid. I'm very pleased with his development."
San Diego's Philip Rivers played well against Pittsburgh, matching a season high with three passing TDs and only being sacked once, though his 37 sacks are the second-most in the league.
The Chargers' recent revelation has been receiver Danario Alexander, who caught seven passes for 88 yards and two scores last week. A former undrafted free agent, Alexander has 30 receptions for 494 yards and five TDs over his last five games.
Carolina has won all but one of the teams' four previous meetings, including a 26-24 victory in San Diego in 2008.
Mike Tolbert will be returning to San Diego with the Panthers after spending his first four seasons with the Chargers, totaling 21 touchdowns in 2010 and 2011. He's found the end zone only twice this year.
The Associated Press News Service
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