SAN DIEGO (AP) — All it took for the San Diego Chargers to get a whole lot better was a visit by the Arizona Cardinals.
A week after underachieving in Seattle, the four-time defending AFC West champion Chargers dominated the two-time defending NFC West champs, winning 41-7 on Sunday as both the offense and defense came up huge.
Antonio Gates became the seventh tight end in NFL history with 500 catches, including touchdown receptions of 33 and 26 yards from Philip 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.
The defense came up big with nine sacks and three takeaways to drop Arizona to 2-2. 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.
Max Hall then 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.
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.
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 another 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.
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.
BERNIE WILSON / The Associated Press