Double Coverage: Giants at Chargers

With their respective teams at 5-7, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers face a must-win game on Sunday. Getty Images

Win or stay home for the postseason.

That’s what is at stake for the San Diego Chargers and the New York Giants as they face off at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.

Both teams are 5-7. Winners of five of their past six games after an 0-6 start, the Giants will be eliminated from playoff contention this week if they lose to the Chargers, Dallas defeats Chicago and San Francisco beats Seattle.

The Chargers, losers of four of their past five games, would mathematically remain alive for a postseason berth even with a loss. But with a handful of teams competing for the last AFC wild-card spot, any realistic hope of San Diego making a playoff run likely would be extinguished with a loss to the Giants.

“The team we are playing has been in this situation before and we have, too,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. “There will be two teams with a great deal of effort and preparation, and we’ll let it all out on Sunday.”

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break down the matchup:

Williams: Dan, the Giants have won five of their past six to climb within shouting distance of NFC East division race. What are the reasons for the team’s turnaround?

Graziano: They stopped turning the ball over as much, which the law of averages basically said they had to. The Giants committed 23 turnovers in their first six games and lost all six of them. They also forced only seven turnovers in those six games, which was another part of their problem. But in their past six games, of which they have won five, the Giants have committed only eight turnovers and have forced 13. Still not great, but when you factor in the reduced level of competition, it explains a lot. After the 0-6 start, they won four straight games in which the opposing quarterbacks were Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor and Scott Tolzien. The streak ended with a loss to Tony Romo, and they gutted out a comeback victory Sunday night against a battered-looking Robert Griffin III. They still have reached 28 points only once this year (the 31 they scored while playing catch-up in the season opener in Dallas), so the offense isn’t where it needs to be. But it is protecting the ball better, and the improvements on defense have made the difference.

What’s the biggest reason for Philip Rivers’ resurgence this season? Is it as simple as a change in coaches, and if so, what specifically about Mike McCoy has clicked with Rivers?

Williams: McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have done a nice job of creating a scheme based on what Rivers does well -- making quick decisions and precise throws in an up-tempo passing game. The result has been a career-high 70 percent completion percentage for Rivers, 23 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. The playmakers around Rivers also are playing well. Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy. The Chargers have a good one-two combo at running back in Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews. And San Diego has some emerging young talent in receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Ladarius Green. However, during a rough stretch in which San Diego has lost four of its past five games, the offense has struggled to consistently score in the red zone.

Justin Tuck had just 2.5 sacks before his four-sack performance against Washington. Jason Pierre-Paul has just two sacks this year, and the Giants are No. 30 in the NFL with 23 sacks. What’s going on with New York’s talented defensive line?

Graziano: I think Tuck’s had a pretty strong season, even before Sunday. He’s graded out consistently well against the run, where the Giants were strong even when they were losing every week. The sacks may have been a matter of time. But overall, they haven’t pressured quarterbacks well enough. They seem to gear up to stop the run, and the strength of their defensive line is in the middle. But Pierre-Paul spent the first half of the season recovering from offseason back surgery and now has a shoulder injury that kept him out of Sunday’s game and likely will keep him out of this week’s as well. Rookie Damontre Moore hasn’t progressed yet to the point of reliability, and the Giants lack the depth they’ve had at defensive end in years past.

The Giants’ passing game has struggled all year to get going, largely because it hasn’t been able to protect Eli Manning. The Chargers have allowed the fifth-most passing yards in the league. What about their defense might the Giants be able to take advantage of?

Williams: San Diego safety Eric Weddle said that the Giants have one of the most talented receiver groups in the NFL, so the Chargers face a stiff challenge on Sunday. Besides Weddle, San Diego has a young group in the secondary playing together for the first time this year. Because of that, breakdowns in communication have been an issue, leading to explosive plays. The Chargers also are inconsistent in making tackles in the open field, so receivers like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks could shake loose for big gains. Finally, with edge rushers Dwight Freeney, Larry English and Melvin Ingram out with injuries, San Diego has struggled in generating a consistent pass rush, further exposing an inexperienced back end of the defense.

Manning has been sacked a career-high 31 times, and for the first time since his rookie season has more interceptions than TDs. What are the reasons for his dip in play, and does it mean anything to face the team he spurned in the draft a decade ago?

Graziano: Manning bears a decent measure of responsibility for the issues the Giants have had in the passing game this year, but I think the problems start with the protection and expand to other areas beyond his control. The line has struggled all year in pass protection, and the Giants really miss the blocking help they got from running back Ahmad Bradshaw and tight end Martellus Bennett last season. Those guys were two of the best blockers in the league at their positions, and their abilities in that area likely covered up some issues with the offensive line. Add in a slew of injuries -- they’re without starting RG Chris Snee and have lost two starting centers, David Baas and Jim Cordle, to IR as well -- and you have a situation in which the Giants’ passing game can’t really take the chances it used to take. It also hasn’t helped that Nicks has played so poorly and tight end Brandon Myers has been unreliable. Even when he gets time, Manning’s receiving options aren’t what they used to be. As for playing in San Diego, Manning this week brushed off questions about why he didn’t want to play there, complimented the city and its nice weather (which, by the way, I am told will NOT be greeting us this weekend!) and said he expected the fans to remind him of draft day 2004 in some way before and during the game. But as he does with most things, he downplayed that and said it was just a game the Giants have to win.

Manning hasn’t played there since Week 3 of the 2005 season, when Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson blew out the Giants in his 11th career start. Do you think the fans still care? Can Eli expect a chilly reception?

Williams: Yes and yes. In a season filled with looming blackouts, questionable decision-making by a first-year head coach and expiring postseason hopes, Manning’s return provides a rallying cry all Chargers fans can agree on. Expect Manning to hear some boos for spurning San Diego for the Big Apple in the 2004 draft, even though it’s been almost a decade. The man who replaced him in the trade, Philip Rivers, is a beloved figure in San Diego who has had an exceptional career. But Manning has won two Super Bowls with the Giants, while the Chargers have a 3-5 postseason record with zero Super Bowl appearances during Rivers’ tenure.