Chargers keep on winning despite injuries

Fantasy: Branden Oliver

College Contributor Network

Look at some NFL power rankings, now back to me, now back at some power rankings, now back to me.

Does anybody else find it mind-boggling that the Chargers are listed in the top spot by Fox Sports and second by ESPN, and Sports Illustrated? The San Diego squad, which backed into the playoffs last year, now boasts a 5-1 record and an apparently legitimate MVP candidate in quarterback Philip Rivers.

What's perhaps more impressive than Rivers' standout season so far is what the Chargers have been able to accomplish despite a number of crucial players going down with injuries.

Starting running back Ryan Mathews sprained his MCL in Week 2 against the Seahawks, and was said to be sidelined for four to five weeks -- meaning his return could come this weekend. Mathews has gone down before, missing a combined 10 games in his first three seasons, and the Chargers have learned to compensate.

Last offseason, San Diego added Danny Woodhead, who provided an immediate spark in 2013. But in a string of bad luck for the Chargers, he fractured his fibula just one week after Mathews sprained his MCL this season.

The brass showed impressive foresight (for once) by signing former Colts running back Donald Brown this offseason in case Mathews or Woodhead got injured, but he has faced issues of his own. The sixth-year man out of UConn sustained a concussion in Week 5 against the Jets, allowing Branden Oliver to have a breakout game and an impressive follow-up performance.

Oliver, who went undrafted out of Buffalo this year, rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown after Brown went down against the Jets, and tacked on 101 more and another score in his first NFL start against the Raiders.

Paving the way for Oliver is the Chargers' offensive line, which is also performing surprisingly well despite a number of injuries so far this year.

San Diego's starting center, Nick Hardwick, went down in the first game of the season, setting up yet another depth issue for the Chargers. Hardwick, who has been Rivers' teammate for their entire 11-year tenure in San Diego, sustained a season-ending (and potentially career-ending) neck injury, prompting the Chargers to start backup Rich Ohrnberger the next game and then sign Doug Legursky.

Though the center position is often overlooked, the relationship between Rivers and Hardwick can't be stressed enough. Soon after Hardwick's injury, Rivers delivered an emotional press conference, holding back tears when talking about his teammate. He also wore Hardwick's number, 61, on the back of his helmet as a tribute.

But Rivers couldn't even begin to adjust to Ohrnberger's backside before he got hurt and Legursky had to step in -- until, of course, Legursky injured his knee and became the Chargers' second center to be lost for the season. Ohrnberger rushed back from his injury and has performed admirably along with the rest of the offensive line, which has only given up nine sacks this season -- tied for the eighth-best mark in the league.

What the Chargers have been able to pull off despite a key injury in almost every game this season is truly impressive. The team that struggled with depth at the wide receiver position, especially last year, is flourishing now behind Rivers, Ohrnberger and Oliver -- not the names you might have expected to hear. And the team that has been billed as a "second half of the season" specialist as of late, is one of just three one-loss teams after six weeks this season.

Maybe the script is flipped and the team will find a way to loser out and miss the playoffs. Or maybe it's the year for the franchise's first Super Bowl win in history. Anything is possible.

Aubrey Kragen is a senior at USC majoring in Communication. She was born in San Diego and is a fan of the Chargers, the Padres and the Spurs (because she needs at least one good team to root for). Follow her on Twitter: @aubreykragen
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