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Chargers have finally become the team they were meant to be

After shaking off an 0-4 start, the Chargers have figured things out, right in time to get in the playoff hunt.

Washington Redskins v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Chargers’ awakening that pushes them three victories shy of a division title has them pondering their origins on the way to Kansas City. They play the Chiefs there on Saturday night — their opposites. The Chiefs started wide-eyed and then snoozed.

It’s a beautiful element of the NFL’s laborious 16-game schedule. It doesn’t matter how you get through it, how you get there, just get there.

Chargers start 0-4. Chiefs start 5-0. Both are now 7-6.

For both, win the final three and the AFC West is yours.

The Chargers’ challenging road now reduced to a three-game jaunt is so remarkable, so bizarre that even they have a hard time comprehending it all. But here is what they have found:

They’ve stayed relatively healthy…they’ve kept competing…they’ve found the right balance on offense…the defense is more comfortable and confident in its scheme...they are producing timely turnovers…the coverage and kicking games have improved…the team has played smarter, reducing its penalties and turnovers…

The Chargers are exhibiting a complementary brand of football that often only surfaces when a team cares for each other and relishes the game.

This Chargers journey began on a brutal September Monday night in Denver where their kicking game soured and they lost in the final seconds by three points. Then a two-point loss to Miami, a 14-point loss to Kansas City and a two-point loss to Philadelphia.

When they arrived at the Giants on Oct. 8, both teams were 0-4. Both were gasping. This is the Chargers victory that gave them hope. They won the next two and then lost to New England and Jacksonville. That Jacksonville game was one where they dominated throughout but crumbled late and lost.

The Jacksonville debacle shook things for good.

Their new first-time head coach, Anthony Lynn, scorched them immediately after that Jacksonville loss. The primary emphasis became a fresh, cleaner, less penalty-prone, smarter brand of football. The offense was altered to run first through receiver Keenan Allen, tight end Hunter Henry, and running back Melvin Gordon. The defense became more simplified and more gap-specific oriented.

And veteran quarterback Philip Rivers led the cleanup.

The Chargers have won four straight since Jacksonville, with three of those victories by at least 20 points. Rivers this season has thrown 23 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Consider that in every season since 2010, Rivers has thrown at least 11 picks and that number ballooned to 16 last year. Rivers cleaned it up, and the rest of the Chargers followed.

His chemistry with Allen is startling. Allen is a big receiver with a fearless approach who is first in NFL history to post three straight games of 10-plus catches and 100-plus receiving yards with at least one touchdown. He leads the league in third-down receptions (31) and third-down receiving yards (464). He reported to camp this season at least 10 pounds over his prescribed weight. He wore it off while wearing the league out.

The Chargers are thrilled that the big-money contract that defensive end Melvin Ingram signed did not diminish his effort. Ingram and end Joey Bosa have been beasts. And the Chargers secondary has matured.

It’s a team with mettle. The Chargers have tackled the NFC East and AFC East this season, resulting in grueling road trips. On Saturday they play their second game of the season on a short rest week after the earlier one in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. They’ve scrambled through four different kickers. They moved from San Diego to Los Angeles. They’ve played home games in a diminutive stadium where the opponent often has attracted more fans.

But beat the Chiefs, win at the Jets, and finish with a victory at home against Oakland and the AFC West is theirs.

When times were their toughest, when they were 0-4, Lynn told his team that the expectations and goals they had all agreed upon were still there. He used the stock market and its plunges and rises as an example. He talked about ordinary peoples’ lives, their challenges and struggles. He said it was no time for them to literally take their ball and go home.

He salutes his coaches’ and his players’ commitment.

Their ability to hit the floor and get up.

The Chargers have given us at least four seasons in one season. Down, up, down, up. They have become a loveable lot.

There was plenty of head-shaking, jokes, and laughs across the league over their early showing. But now the Chargers are poised to laugh last and most.

They have lost seven straight to Kansas City. It is the perfect stage for this textured team. Two of the hardest things to do in this league are stay focused and finish. Both are lessons the Chargers have learned in taxing ways.

Lynn sees himself in his team. The Chargers see themselves in him.

Both are wide awake.

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