SAN DIEGO — Uneasy rests the first-place team. But never before like this.
The Chargers are leading the AFC West, right? Right, well, the National Football League season is six games old, and the Charger regulars have seen two opponents. They have gone 1-0 against St. Louis and 1-1 against Kansas City. Dandy, if the sport were baseball.
In those three games, they have allowed 65 points, or about a touchdown an hour. Starting running backs Gary Anderson and Tim Spencer have rushed for 215 yards combined. A defensive back has yet to have an interception, although last week against Kansas City, the Chargers used eight players in the secondary.
Yet in this season of strike-devised math, it all adds up to a 5-1 record and first place in what used to be football's toughest division. The Chargers are talking playoffs and respectability and pride.
And privately, they are wondering what every other right-minded NFL fan is wondering.
Just who do they think they are?
Today at 1 p.m. at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, we'll find out. The Chargers will be host to a group that Coach Al Saunders calls "personnel-wise, one of the two quality teams in the AFC."
That would be the Cleveland Browns. That would be quarterback Bernie Kosar, running backs Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, and a defense nicknamed "The Dogs" that will sound as if it's chasing a mail carrier.
Last season, the Browns were a last-minute Denver Bronco touchdown drive away from making the Super Bowl. Last season, virtually this same Charger team won four games.
This season, the Browns' regular team has a 2-1 record, identical to the Chargers'. But the Browns' strikeball team went 2-1, while the Chargers strikeball team went 3-0, and thus an estimated 55,000 fans will show up to answer the same, big question.
Just who is kidding whom?
"No question, this is the biggest game of the year for us," said Charger cornerback Elvis Patterson, who played in a few large ones as a Super Bowl starter with the New York Giants last season. "This will dictate what type of season we are going to have. This will tell us what kind of team we have. This will give us definition.
"If the guys haven't realized our position by now, they better realize it in time for Sunday."
They realize it.
Said Gill Byrd, cornerback: "This will tell us, how far away are we? We will find out, what direction are we headed?"
Said Jim Lachey, tackle: "Let's be realistic. This game will show us a lot about us."
In less than an upset special, Saunders, choosing his words carefully, doesn't agree.
"This one game will not necessarily say where we are or where we are going," he said. "This is just a challenge like every other game."
The Charger challenges today will be Cleveland's new "46" Chicago-style defense and Kosar, the Browns' man-child quarterback. One barks; the other plays a terrific game of go-fetch.
The "Dogs" defense, which ranks first in the AFC, will send eight guys at the quarterback, leave one to free-lance and force two of the league's best cornerbacks, Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, to fend for themselves.
Either the Chargers will find a way to run the ball--Anderson and Spencer are averaging only three yards per carry--or will take their chances on two cornerbacks who own Pro Bowl sweats. Either task will be considerable.
"Last season, it looked like they broke us down at our offensive line," said Roger Theder, Charger quarterback coach. "But then deep, they play their positions as well as anybody we have seen. I mean, they have cornerbacks."
On to Kosar, who found a way to shock the NCAA when he graduated from the University of Miami, Fla., in three years. He's in his third pro season, but at age 24, he is still 12 days younger than the 1987 top draft pick, Vinny Testaverde.
It will be this city's first look at Kosar but, worry not, you can't miss him. He is 6-feet 5-inches tall, and he throws the football the way everyone else throws a Frisbee.
"He's got that awkward, side-armed motion, throws the ball real low," said Mike Charles, Charger nose tackle. "It wouldn't be so bad--we could bat them down--except he gets the ball off so quick. You are so busy beating on the offensive lineman, you don't think to put your hands in the air. Half the time, his passes go right over some defender's head."
About Kosar, they say, "All he does is win."
Usually, that's another way of saying the guy is uncoordinated, but Kosar already owns five Brown all-time passing records and even tied one of Dan Fouts' postseason passing records with 33 completions against the Jets in the AFC semifinals last January. Of course, he also wins; he is 18-11 as a starting quarterback.
"What he has, what the Browns have, is that tough mentality," Saunders said. "It shows in everything they do."
Kosar has already done in the Chargers once, last season, in the Browns' season-ending 47-17 victory. In that game, he completed 21 of 28 passes, threw for 258 yards and 2 touchdowns and didn't throw an interception.
"I don't think that game was reminiscent of the type of team they have," Kosar said.
And what kind of team is that? That's what today is for.
Charger Notes Today should mark the first starting assignments in non-strikeball games for Charger replacement players. Pat Miller could be at right defensive end and Mike Humiston should be at left inside linebacker. "I still don't believe it," Humiston said. "I don't want to believe it," said Miller, who was suddenly hit by such a rush of confidence that he has scheduled visits by Midwestern relatives for each of the Chargers' remaining home games. "Don't even tell me what I'm doing until the season is over with. I won't believe it if you do."