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The Chargers might be the only team that wants to win the AFC West

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A veteran quarterback, a stout pass rush, and a total inability to win close games.

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

The Chargers probably aren’t going to the playoffs.

At 4-6, Los Angeles only has a 13 percent shot to qualify for the postseason, per the New York Times playoff predictor. The only gimme win on the final six games of its schedule is a showdown with the Browns. The only game the franchise has won against a team with a current non-losing record came Sunday over a Bills team that defied the football gods to start bad Ryan Fitzpatrick cosplayer Nathan Peterman at quarterback.

And yet, despite all that, the Chargers may be the AFC’s most interesting team.

In Week 11, they were the only club to step up in a suddenly rudder-less AFC West. A recharged Philip Rivers has cut down on turnovers to give the team a solid offensive foundation. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram lead a ferocious pass rush that’s getting sacks approximately once every 12 dropbacks. Despite a losing record, the Chargers — losers of four games by three points or fewer — have the talent to take any team to the limit.

Beyond the eye test, advanced stats think this team is more dangerous than it’s actually been. Pro Football Reference’s expected win-loss record, a formula based on points scored and allowed in a given season, pegs LA as a six-win team — good enough to land in the thick of the AFC playoff race.

The Chargers are only one game behind the Bills and Ravens for the conference’s last wild card slot. While last week’s performance against Buffalo probably isn’t sustainable — even DeShone Kizer won’t throw five interceptions in one half — the state of the AFC means its time to seriously evaluate whether or not they can make some noise in the postseason.

What are the Chargers doing right?

Philip Rivers may no longer be a top-tier quarterback, but his performance in close games as he nears age 40 is actually better than it was when he was a Pro Bowl regular.

Philip Rivers' performance in one-possession games

Year Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds/Game TD Int Rate Y/A
Year Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds/Game TD Int Rate Y/A
2006-2009 19W, 12L 617 985 62.64% 245.8 51 29 91.5 7.74
2014-2017 14W, 24L 958 1492 64.21% 292.2 76 34 94.1 7.44

While his team has had less success, the blame can’t be laid at Rivers’ feet. The late-stage Brett Favre impression of 2016 has been replaced with a more conservative approach, and the return of Keenan Allen — on pace for a 1,200-yard season — and growth of Hunter Henry have boosted the team’s passing offense.

Add in steady performances from Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler in the backfield, and you’ve got the makings of a competent offense. That’s all the Chargers may need if their defense continues to level up.

Los Angeles’ defensive core is built around three All-Pro caliber players — pass rushers Bosa and Ingram and cornerback Casey Hayward. Solid performances from Tre Boston and Jahleel Addae have bolstered a top=10 passing defense that allows fewer than 210 passing yards per game. Unfortunately, that talent doesn’t translate when it comes to stopping the run; the team has allowed nearly five yards per carry this fall, the second-worst mark in the NFL.

Which leads us to the other side of the coin ...

There’s plenty working against the Chargers

Let’s start with the elephant in the room; moving from San Diego has cost the franchise any semblance of a homefield advantage. The 27,000-seat StubHub Center, the team’s temporary hope, has become a haven for visiting fans. The Chargers are exactly as good at home (2-3) as they’ve been on the road (2-3).

The other intangible racking the franchise is its inability to win close games, even with an improved Rivers behind center. The team has lost 29 games since 2015; 23 of those defeats were by three points or fewer. In the past two years, Los Angeles/San Diego is 6-14 in one-possession games.

In 2017, the team’s 0-2 start came by five combined points. Their Week 10 overtime loss to the Jaguars was the result of a pair of last-second Josh Lambo field goals. Their comeback effort against the Patriots fell short when Rivers’ final-play touchdown pass fell to the turf.

Some larger trends have contributed to that disappointing record. The Chargers kicking game, for example, has been a smoldering garbage fire for the past two seasons. In 2017, Nick Novak and Younghoe Koo have connected on fewer than 65 percent of their field goals; Koo missed a pair of game-winning or tying kicks early in the season that could have put his team squarely in the playoff discussion.

More importantly, Los Angeles has invested heavily in creating a hostile environment for opposing quarterbacks, but at the cost of a diminished run defense. The Chargers are soft up the middle, with Corey Liuget struggling to stand his ground between Bosa and Ingram and an anonymous linebacking corps proving ineffective. The only opponents to fail to gain at least 100 rushing yards against LA this fall are a pass-heavy Patriots team and the tailback-needy Broncos.

Can Los Angeles make a run — or even win the West?

This seemed like an absurd question in the preseason or even four weeks ago, but Kansas City and Denver have each spun out of control and Oakland has failed to gain any traction from last year’s 12-win campaign. That’s made what looked like the NFL’s most competitive division into a wide open race the Chargers will have several opportunities to disrupt.

The Chiefs looked like the AFC’s top team earlier in the year, but have lost four of their last five as a once-explosive offense has looked lost -- including a tragic defeat against a disheveled Giants team in Week 11. They would be vulnerable at 6-4, but the rest of the West has languished.

The Raiders haven’t gotten better with a healthy Derek Carr back in the lineup, alternating wins and losses after a 2-4 start. On Sunday, Carr could only hang eight points on an underwhelming Patriots defense. The Broncos have lost six straight, are on the brink of moving on to their third starting quarterback of the season, and have been called out by their own GM.

It won’t be easy. Los Angeles has several tough games on the schedule and trails the division-leading Chiefs by two games. Five of the six remaining matchups on the Chargers’ slate are against teams with at least four wins. Next, they face a desperate Cowboys team in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.

Fortunately, Los Angeles has proven it can handle bubble teams in 2017. The team’s victories over Denver and Buffalo dropped those squads to .500, and an early-season win in Oakland is something that can resonate into future success. While the Chargers’ resume won’t scare anyone yet, the combination of a fearsome pass rush, capable secondary, and dangerous offense makes LA a contender in a suddenly-weak AFC.

The Chargers aren’t a postseason threat yet, but Week 11 presented a world where they may be the AFC West’s best team. That’s something Rivers and Bosa can build from.


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