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Chargers return to form by dismantling hapless Cardinals

SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and the rest of the San Diego Chargers' offense have the flash.

The guys on defense have the bash.

A week after underachieving in Seattle, the four-time defending AFC West champion Chargers dominated the two-time defending NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals, winning 41-10 as both the offense and defense came up huge.

Gates became the seventh tight end in NFL history with 500 catches, including easy touchdown receptions of 33 and 26 yards from Rivers. Gates had seven catches for 144 yards as the Chargers pulled to 2-2.

Rookie running back Ryan Mathews scored his first NFL touchdown on a 15-yard run late in the third quarter. Fullback Mike Tolbert ran 16 times for 100 yards -- his first 100-yard game in three seasons -- and one score.

On a day when former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier made a brief visit to the Chargers' sideline, the defense harassed the Cardinals' beleaguered quarterbacks all day, with nine sacks and three takeaways. Linebacker Shaun Phillips had a career-high four sacks and also returned an interception of Derek Anderson 31 yards for a TD late in the second quarter.

"Everybody knows defense, we're always waiting in the wings," said end Travis Johnson, who had one sack. "We're the engine to the locomotive, you know what I mean? For the defense, it's all about the engine. We don't really care about all the shine, we just like to go out there and do our job, you know, yeoman's work."

They did it well enough that the Cardinals (2-2) have a quarterback controversy.

Max Hall replaced Anderson, who was 7 of 14 for 64 yards with two interceptions and three sacks, for a 23.2 rating. Hall took a beating, too. He was sacked six times and lost a fumble.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he didn't know who will start next week.

"I know we missed some opportunities in the first half," Whisenhunt said. "It's a tough environment. When they got the lead they were able to pin their ears back and come after us."

Arizona had only 124 yards in offense.

Linebacker Kevin Burnett had two sacks and forced a fumble by Hall that Luis Castillo recovered. Mathews scored on the next play from scrimmage, sweeping to his right and diving to get the ball just inside the pylon late in the third quarter for a 38-7 lead. He sat out last week's game with a sprained right ankle. In his first two games, he lost two fumbles that led to 10 points for the opponents.

Burnett said the key was holding Arizona to 47 yards rushing and forcing the Cardinals to pass.

"Today we were able to dictate the tempo," Burnett said. "When you do that, you force them to be one-handed. It's easy to play poker when you know what everybody's got."

Said Anderson: "Obviously it falls on us and it falls on the quarterback no matter what."

The Chargers also tightened their kickoff coverage after allowing Leon Washington to score on kickoff returns of 101 and 99 yards in a 27-20 Seattle victory a week earlier.

After getting off to another slow September start under Norv Turner, the Chargers got a boost from the schedule makers.

Anderson had been erratic coming in, and the Cardinals were without wideouts Steve Breaston and Early Doucet. Anderson was intercepted by safety Steve Gregory to end the game's first drive, and the Chargers capped their first possession with Rivers' 33-yard TD pass to a wide-open Gates, who came into the league as an undrafted rookie in 2003 and quickly blossomed into one of the game's best tight ends.

"It's a milestone, and you dream about becoming one of those elite guys," Gates said.

"He's the best tight end in football," Rivers said. "You mix that with a variety of formations and running the football and we get some matchups that we were able to take advantage of. It's always nice to see No. 85 running wide open."

Arizona got a big momentum shift when Greg Toler forced a fumble by Darren Sproles. Kerry Rhodes picked it up, fell down, got up and rumbled 42 yards for the tying touchdown.

It was the sixth fumble lost by the Chargers, one fewer than all of last year.

The Chargers pulled away on Tolbert's 5-yard TD run and a 26-yard TD catch by Gates. The big tight end hit the 500-catch mark with a 12-yard reception earlier on that drive, and the scoring grab was his 501st.

Phillips single-handedly wrecked Arizona's next drive. He sacked Anderson on 2nd-and-10, then picked him off and returned it 31 yards for a 28-7 lead.

Phillips dodged the media. He's apparently still mad about criticism of his head-butt that drew a 15-yard penalty in San Diego's 17-14 playoff loss to the New York Jets.

Game notes
Mathews had 55 yards as the Chargers rushed for 180 yards. ... A week after throwing for a franchise-record 455 yards, Rivers was 15 of 20 for 241 yards.