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Californians finally have three solid NFL teams to cheer for

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

The Chargers are 4-1 and that's good news for a team that rarely loses down the stretch. (US Presswire)  
The Chargers are 4-1 and that's good news for a team that rarely loses down the stretch. (US Presswire)  

With Carson Palmer moving to Oakland, the Raiders suddenly become a trendy playoff pick. They can run. They can pass. They can play defense. They can win.

But that doesn't make them different than their neighbors. California suddenly is loaded with playoff teams waiting to happen, and a check of the standings, please: It's three NFL teams at a combined 13-4, with two of them on top of their divisions.

Once upon a time that was as unthinkable as a new stadium in downtown L.A. As a matter of fact, a year ago today San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego were a combined 5-13. Two years ago they were 7-9, and in 2008 they were 6-11.

I think you get the idea. When it came to California, the best football was outside the state.

Well, times have changed so drastically that six weeks into the season the 49ers and Raiders look like legitimate playoff threats. Of course, so does San Diego, but the Chargers are legitimate playoff threats every season.

San Francisco and Oakland are not ... until now, that is. The 49ers are the strongest team in the NFC West and should win the division, while the Raiders are locked and loaded with the addition of Palmer, ready to chase down San Diego with the run, the pass or both.

The point is: California is golden again. It has three NFL clubs you can't ignore, and these are their stories:

San Francisco

What I like: The 49ers' defense is tough, aggressive and difficult to penetrate. It hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown all season and hasn't allowed an opposing back to run for 100 yards in 28 straight games, the longest active streak in the league.

So it's vulnerable to the pass, right? Not so fast. The 49ers just frazzled Detroit's Matthew Stafford and shut out the league's best receiver, Calvin Johnson, in a remarkable and impressive performance. OK, they rank 21st vs. the pass. Big deal. They're second in points allowed, and that's the number that matters.

In a league where it seems nobody plays much defense anymore, the 49ers are. In fact, they lead the league in red zone defense, with opponents producing touchdowns on only six of 19 series inside the San Francisco 20.

I know, the 49ers have had a decent defense the last few years, but the team has a different personality now. It doesn't make critical turnovers on offense, has just enough juice there to keep you honest and can stonewall you with an effective defense that knows how to close out games.

It happened in Cincinnati when the 49ers intercepted Andy Dalton twice in the last four minutes. It happened in Philadelphia when it forced a Jeremy Maclin fumble in the last three minutes. And it happened in Detroit when it held the Lions to one first down on its last three possessions.

What I don't: The passing game isn't as effective as you'd like, but the good news is that Alex Smith is not committing costly mistakes. He has two interceptions through six starts and a 95.2 passer rating.

Still, there is no wide receiver of consequence other than Michael Crabtree, which will limit the vertical passing game. Did I say limit? The 49ers average 171 yards passing per game, with Smith breaking 200 only twice, and that can happen when you have Frank Gore in your backfield.

Why they should be taken seriously: They can run, and they can stop the run -- two critical elements to championship teams. But this is what I like most: They can travel. They're 3-0 on the road this season -- all in the Eastern Time Zone and all victories achieved with fourth-quarter comebacks.

"We've got something special going on here," said coach Jim Harbaugh.

I'll second that.

Potential obstacle: I don't see one, other than an injury to someone like Gore or linebacker Patrick Willis. They have two more road games in the Eastern Time Zone (Washington and Baltimore), but what's the big deal? They won there before. They can win there again.

Where they finish: First in the NFC West. These guys aren't just the best team in the division; they're one of the best teams in the conference. The key is that they know how to finish games, something that hasn't happened in San Francisco for years. When I was at the team's training camp this summer someone told me that what this club lacked – and what prevented players from moving forward -- was a signature victory.

Not anymore.


What I like: The trade for Palmer. People say the Raiders overpaid for the guy, but we won't know that for at least a year. Carson Palmer was considered an elite quarterback at one time. He could be one again.

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All I know is that the Raiders just landed a first-rate passer that many clubs coveted ... but couldn't get. With Kyle Boller next in line after Jason Campbell, the Raiders were in deep kimchi. So they made a decision to mortgage the future, and it's easy to see why.

They believe they're destined for something big this season and have the pieces in place to make a run at San Diego and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002 ... and they might be right. All that was missing was an above-average quarterback, and they just acquired one.

I know that's putting a lot on Carson Palmer's shoulders, but he raised the Titanic before. Hey, he had the Cincinnati Bengals on top of the AFC North just two years ago. Somewhere, Chargers' fans are cursing Mike Brown.

What I don't: They still commit too many penalties. Clubs always talk about not beating themselves, but the Raiders have done it for years. Apparently, they must believe that anything worth doing is worth overdoing because they're at it again -- this time with an NFL-worst 55 penalties, or nearly nine per game.

Why they should be taken seriously: Because they can win inside or outside the AFC West and because they just filled their biggest hole.

What did we learn about the Raiders a year ago? That they were physical, they could grind out yards with an effective running game and they wouldn't back down from anyone in the AFC West.

You can look it up: They were 6-0 in the division.

Unfortunately, they were 2-8 outside of it, and when they talk about the Black Hole in Oakland they could be talking about the schedule. The Raiders were bulletproof in the division, dead meat outside of it.

Only not anymore, with Oakland 3-2 in non-division games this season -- including a defeat of the New York Jets. That's a start. Now they return to the AFC West, with their next two vs. Kansas City and Denver -- two winnable games -- at home.

Suddenly, the Raiders aren't an easy out anymore.

Potential obstacle: There's only one team in the division for the Raiders to beat, and it's San Diego. Oakland was DOA if they were stuck with Kyle Boller. Now the Raiders look headed for a photo finish with San Diego, with Oakland able to hammer opponents with something other than Darren McFadden and a punishing offensive line.

Where they finish: It's a close call, but I still make them second in the division. I love their physical attack, and it was too much for San Diego a year ago with Jason Campbell calling the shots. The Chargers were 0-2 vs. Oakland.

Palmer could put the Raiders over the top, only I don't know how he adjusts to a new situation. I thought Philadelphia would dominate the NFC East, too, and it hasn't. Not yet. Maybe it takes Palmer half a season to get comfortable ... and by then it could be too late.

San Diego

What I like: Where the Bolts are now. They're 4-1 after five games, and tell me the last time you remember that happening under Norv Turner in San Diego.

It hasn't.

The Chargers have been no better than 2-3 after five games in any season dating back to 2007, but they're on top of the division now ... and that's trouble for the rest of the division and maybe, just maybe, the rest of the conference.

Look, this is what we know about these guys: They start slowly and finish with a rush. The Chargers rarely lose under Turner down the stretch. In fact, they're 17-2 in regular-season games after Dec. 1, and that served them well in the past -- with the club winning three straight AFC West titles in Turner's first three seasons.

If they pull an encore, and there's no reason to believe they won't, they could contend for the AFC's home-field advantage or a first-round bye.

What I don't: That painful foot injury to Gates. It hasn't seemed to improve since 2010, when it caused him to miss a raft of games in the second half of the season.

Yeah, I know, he returned to practice Monday, but he returned before ... only to sit down again. Gates said he just wanted to see what he could do, taking it "one day at a time," but he wouldn't say if he could play Sunday.

Gates is more than one of the best tight ends in the game; he is Rivers' security blanket, a pair of reliable hands when the Bolts absolutely, positively need to make a play. Plus, he's a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties. With him missing, a vital piece of the offense is missing, too.

Why they should be taken seriously: Because they're off to a fast start. It hasn't happened on Turner's watch before. Now it has, which means an important hurdle has been removed. Nobody has better closing speed than San Diego, which means another 13-3 season is not out of the question.

Potential obstacle: Oakland is the only speed bump in the division, and the Raiders hammered the Bolts when they went to San Diego in December. That was a game where the Raiders ran 52 times for 251 yards and three TDs. It's also the game where Jason Campbell threw only 16 times. Hey, if that can happen with Campbell, why not Palmer?

But the schedule could be an issue, too. Look at San Diego's last four games. It plays Buffalo, Baltimore, Detroit and Oakland, closing out with the Lions and Raiders on the road. The combined record of the four: 17-6. Ouch.

Where they finish: First in the AFC West. San Diego better hope this doesn't come down to that Jan. 1 finale in Oakland because I'll be honest: I don't like their chances there.

So why should we make them the favorite? Because they know the drill. They've been here before again and again under Turner, and they know how to win down the stretch. I know how Philip Rivers will respond with this team in December; I don't know how Carson Palmer will with Oakland.


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