This is the preseason game that mattered.
Yes, it's an oxymoron … But it's the third preseason game that most simulates a regular-season game, that gives fans the biggest glimpse into what their team might look like come September.
For the San Diego Chargers, it was an improvement over last week's game against the Chicago Bears, especially on offense. On Saturday evening, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., the Chargers routed the Arizona Cardinals 24-7 in front of a crowd of about 59,000.
It was San Diego's first win of the preseason.
Quarterback Philip Rivers led a strong 13-play, 92-yard drive in the first quarter that culminated with a leap over the middle by running back Ryan Mathews to score the first touchdown of the game. Mathews continued his strong preseason effort, racking up 14 carries and 57 yards Saturday before leaving the game with the rest of the starters after the first half.
The second touchdown came wildly. After a 16-play drive in the second quarter, Mathews fumbled in the end zone. The fumble was recovered by Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson, who tossed it to linebacker Sam Acho, where it was again fumbled and picked up by Chargers tight end John Phillips, who ran it in for a touchdown.
The Chargers defense shut out the Cardinals in the first half, with linebacker Dwight Freeney bringing pressure several times and sacking Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer to end the first half.
But it was special teams that made the difference.
After a dismal performance against the Bears, in which rookie Keenan Allen muffed a punt and the Chargers gave up a 100-yard kickoff return, Saturday's special teams unit looked like it had put in some work this past week. Safety Darrell Stuckey blocked Arizona's first punt of the game and in the second quarter, San Diego blocked a field goal.
But, there were also missed opportunities. The Chargers were unable to capitalize on the blocked punt, even after getting the ball at Arizona's 34-yard line. Rivers -- who looked comfortable in this Mike McCoy/Ken Whisenhunt offense, running a no-huddle, up-tempo scheme and completing 10 of 18 passes for 71 yards -- threw an interception. Mathews fumbled in the end zone and kicker Nick Novak missed a 51-yard field goal.
Those are the opportunities that, in the regular season, the Chargers can't afford to miss.
In the second half, the Chargers reserves picked up where the starters left off and tacked onto the 14-0 score. Running back Fozzy Whittaker continued his fight for a roster spot, scoring a touchdown shortly after quarterback Charlie Whitehurst connected with tight end Ladarius Green for a 57-yard pass. Other notable plays: Linebacker Andrew Gachkar with an interception; Linebacker Thomas Keiser with 2.5 sacks; Novak with a 50-yard field goal and safety Brandon Taylor with several key plays in his first time on the field since tearing his ACL last December.
- Wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu had a strong performance after being signed by the Chargers just last Friday. Ajirotutu, who is in his third stint with the Chargers after first making the team in 2010, left the game in the second quarter with a hip pointer and did not return.
- The Chargers finished the night with 311 yards and were 4-6 on third-down conversions in the first half.
- San Diego had five penalties for 30 yards; Arizona racked up 11 penalties for 94 yards.
The Chargers seemed to control the tempo in this game, which is a good sign after the Bears absolutely dominated them last week. It's still too early to tell if this team will be consistent. Rivers looked comfortable and had more time in the pocket … The offensive line did their part … Mathews continued to impress this preseason and looked more confident, finding holes, moving his feet and fighting for yards. We saw glimpses of what McCoy and Whisenhunt have been working on -- a no huddle, up-tempo offense. Even without Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal (all injured), Rivers was still able to spread the ball to most receivers. But the bane of the Chargers existence has been missed opportunities, and although the score favored San Diego tonight, those missed opportunities will come back to haunt them in the regular season.