It’s been a while since we had any reason to talk about the Chargers this early in the new year. And it’s been an even longer while since we didn’t have to lead with Philip Rivers.
He was fine against the Ravens on Saturday. Adequate and flavorless and a little gummy, but fine. This story really shouldn’t be about him at all, but first I have to point out how novel that is.
The last Chargers playoff game was five years ago, and Rivers was fine then, too. In fact better than that, except that he was sacked four times by a Broncos defense that got up 17-0. The Chargers were dead last in the NFL in defensive DVOA that season and were generally hosed even when Rivers was pretty good.
Ditto the 2009 season when the Chargers were fourth in offensive DVOA but 23rd in defensive. Those guys lost to the Jets in the Divisional round. Or the 2008 season when the Chargers were third and 22nd. They lost to the Steelers. You have to go back to 2007 for the last time a Chargers playoff defense (sixth in DVOA) was on par with its offense (14th), but alas, Rivers was the lede again when he completed barely 50 percent of his 37 attempts for 211 yards, two picks, and no touchdowns in the AFC Championship against the Patriots.
Point is, this is the time of year when — if we’re talking about the Chargers at all — it’s in terms of what Rivers did do, or didn’t do, or what does it matter to him, or how are we supposed to judge his legacy or read into that weird thing he did. Is he always like that? Oh OK he’s always like that.
It’s nice that, for now — there’s a calm.
The Chargers could have blown Sunday’s game in several dozen ways. In the first half, they earned brilliant field position off two turnovers and one great punt return, only to convert those drives into 56 yards and three field goals. Their first two drives of the second half ended in a blocked field goal and a fumble. Their last two non-kneel-down drives of the game went three-and-out as the Ravens charged back with two long touchdown drives.
And yet, all these events that could have been, and have been, negative inflection points, weren’t. The Chargers made their field goals! Well, five out of six, but the miss was a block and Mike Badgley also hit a 53-yarder, all of which is a far cry from the Chargers’ usual place in a pit of woe. The defense turned up, too! They needed to because the offense was off its tracks against a very good Ravens defense, and things got hairy at the end, but they frustrated Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense, a unit that had averaged 230 yards rushing per game while winning six of its last seven.
On Sunday, the Chargers won a rock fight. It’s the type of game they were well-equipped to win. The thing is, if they had been playing the Chiefs instead and needed to keep pace in a shootout, they would have been well-equipped to win that game, too.
The Chargers are the only team in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive DVOA. There isn’t really anything definitively wrong with them. One example: SB Nation’s Bill Connelly called the Chargers’ propensity for facing third-and-long a potential fatal flaw in the playoffs, but then noted in a subsequent article that their impressive ability to convert those situations makes them one of the most dangerous teams in the field, too. Especially on the road.
By the measures that correlate most to success, the Chargers are least decent, if not very good:
And of course, we saw that Chiefs matchup just a few weeks ago, when the Chargers offense stopped punishing itself and lit up in the second half, scoring a last-second touchdown and two-point conversion to steal a win from a red-hot division rival away from home. It was one of seven one-score wins for the Chargers this season, and yet another way we can safely say these aren’t the same ‘ol Chargers.
Fittingly, they play the New England Patriots next week, a team that only ever seems to stay the same ‘ol: Reliably innovative and sound, maybe a little gummy, but inevitably complete. The Pats this year are flagging a bit, winning a first-round bye but not looking convincing in their usual role by losing three of their last seven games.
If you didn’t know their history nor the Chargers’, you’d probably like the away team here. The Patriots’ offense is significantly ahead of their defense, which ranks 16th by DVOA and seems particularly ill-suited to face a balanced attack like the Chargers’. The Patriots don’t force a lot of third-and-longs (19th in the percentage they force) and they’re no good at applying pressure (19th in success rate and 29th in sack rate on blitz downs). The Chargers could have their full playbook at their disposal, and they’re happy with any page they turn to.
Of course, the Patriots are the Patriots — Lombardi Trophies, etc. — and the Chargers are the Chargers — a suck hole of bad luck, bad management, bad stadiums, and only a few good stories to tell from it all. If the Chargers lose, no one would, nor should, bat an eye at the result, especially if it occurs in calamitous fashion.
But if the Chargers are in the business of exorcising their demons — and it sure seems they’ve made a point of it this season — they could take no bigger step than beating the one team that tends to make good teams look awful in the playoffs.
It’d be a nice thing to do for Philip Rivers. Finally. For god’s sake, someone has to.