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Chargers, Falcons are on the outside, but not for much longer

Both teams are shaking off slow starts to elbow their way into the NFL playoff picture.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Four 4-6 AFC teams lurk outside the wildcard playoff door certain it will crack with the wobbly Tennessee Titans (6-4) and lukewarm Baltimore Ravens (5-5) the duo to catch.

The worst of this 4-6 quartet is the Miami Dolphins — their head coach, Adam Gase, blows childish gaskets every five minutes while orchestrating a team that often plays in similar, infantile fashion.

The third-best of the bunch are the New York Jets, a smoke-and-mirrors gang who have just enough youth and speed and energy to remain in pursuit.

The No. 2 ranked team is the Oakland Raiders, a spiraling lot fresh from a Mexico fiesta on Sunday where they served as black and silver piñatas.

The New England Patriots happily obliged with a 33-8 whacking.

But surely the Raiders retain a better chance than Miami or the Jets because the Raiders present the better quarterback, Derek Carr. Right? OK? Yeah. Our eyes are currently showing us something else but we will keep believing that for now.

At the top of this 4-6 cluster are the Los Angeles Chargers.

They began the season 0-4. They are 4-2 since.

They have lost games in excruciating ways, with wayward kicks and killer drops and dim-witted decisions.

But Sunday in Los Angeles was an awakening.

The Chargers trounced the Buffalo Bills 54-24 in a game the Chargers hope sets a six-game sprint to not only the wildcard playoffs but possibly an AFC West division title, especially with the Chiefs, Raiders, and Broncos all losing on Sunday.

The Chargers had lost in overtime at Jacksonville the week prior in a game they mostly led. Late in it, Chargers safety Tre Boston grabbed an interception, danced out of bounds deep in Chargers territory and failed to advance the ball. That was just one of a myriad of stupid plays that helped lead to the Chargers defeat.

So, immediately in the locker room after the game, Boston was benched as a starter for the Buffalo game. The entire team walked on eggshells all week prior to Buffalo. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn fumed. He was fed up with the Chargers inconsistent and unintelligent play. His staff smoothed the waters with the players.

Then during Bills preparation week, the Bills gave the Chargers a gift: Head coach Sean McDermott benched Tyrod Taylor for rookie Nathan Peterman.

NFL players will latch onto anything at anytime that can work for extra confidence and motivation. This was it for the Chargers defense: How dare they start a rookie quarterback in a road game against us?

Five turnovers and two defensive touchdowns later, the Chargers had proven their point.

Bills rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman’s historic five interceptions in the first half helped lead to a Chargers 37-7 halftime lead. What mattered most to the Chargers was the clean game they played, the smarter game, their emphasis on fundamental football, and offensively moving from a scheme emphasis to getting the ball into playmakers’ hands.

Lynn used to coach Taylor in Buffalo. For a while last season, it looked as if Lynn would be the Bills future head coach. He knew that his team preparing for Taylor as opposed to Peterman was a more complex task. For the Chargers players, Peterman served as relief and fury. They did not have to fret over Taylor’s experience or elusiveness. They could focus on the rookie and his warts.

Boston even jumped in and grabbed another interception, his third in his last two games.

The Chargers travel to Dallas for Thanksgiving thankful.

They are the best of the AFC 4-6 crowd, a team laced with bruises that appears a survivor. Awakened.

Lynn is from Dallas. He has family that lives near the Cowboys headquarters in Frisco, Texas. Lynn used to be a Cowboys assistant coach. This will be his first coaching appearance in the Cowboys AT&T Stadium.

"I can’t find enough tickets," he said, chuckling. "Our team playing on Thanksgiving Day is a privilege. I’d say next to the Super Bowl it is the second biggest game of the NFL schedule. Everyone watches these Thanksgiving games. We want to show the country what we are made of.

"I am very honest with our players. I told them there is hope. Their season is in front of them. I am not afraid of the big picture. Coaches preach about a game at a time and game by game, and, of course, that is correct. But I want our team to know that everything is in front of them. They can still win the division. They can still make the playoffs. I’m beginning to see more of what I want to see."

The Detroit Lions have beaten Minnesota, Green Bay, and Chicago in road games in the same season for the first time in 56 years.

That is a gleaming accomplishment for a 6-4 team that is 3-0 in the NFC North.

After losing in consecutive weeks to the Panthers, Saints, and Steelers, the Lions have consecutively beaten the Packers, Browns, and Bears. Their Thanksgiving Day matchup against the 8-2 Vikings is a return to NFL elite competition.

The Vikings lead the division by two games over Detroit with six games left. A Detroit victory would not only bring the Lions a game closer but also complete a sweep of the Vikings, crucial to any tie-breaker, division champion-deciding elements.

"We’re a resilient group," Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "We’re a confident group."

Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, and the Rams are NFC divisional leaders and Carolina and Seattle lead the wild card field.

Here is how four knocking on the door rank, top down this time, in resiliency/confidence:

  1. Atlanta (5-4)– Talented roster, plenty of scars, determined quarterback in Matt Ryan.
  2. Detroit (6-4) – Always scratching, clawing, more resilient than confident.
  3. Dallas (5-5) - Ezekiel Elliott changes the spirit and the approach of how they play. Without him, they all look less confident.
  4. 4. Green Bay (5-5) – No Aaron Rodgers. See the Ezekiel Elliott effect above.

I spoke to an NFL owner on Friday who told me this about the Jerry Jones/Arthur Blank/Roger Goodell commissioner contract feud:

"Jerry is on a power trip. We don’t know why he is doing this. We do know it just happened to coincide with his team losing Ezekiel Elliott. We want to get this done soon."

NFL owners meet on Dec. 13 in Dallas.

The owners in support of Goodell are trying to push his contract extension through before that meeting.

I mentioned to this owner that there has never been in NFL history an owner inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame who only three months later was the subject of chatter about his team being stripped from him.

"Well, I actually never really thought of it that way," the owner said. "It’s a sign of our times."

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