The Los Angeles Chargers are 4-2. They’re stuck behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West race, but they’ve got a solid line on a wild card spot behind an MVP candidate quarterback, a blossoming running game, and a defense that’s built to improve as the season wears on.
So is 2018 the year Philip Rivers breaks into the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning/Ben Roethlisberger stratosphere and pushes Los Angeles to an AFC title? Or are the fates just waiting to conspire against the Chargers, like they have so many years before?
Let’s look at the good and bad behind LA’s 4-2 start and its road to a potential playoff berth.
Pro: The Chargers are loaded with talent, and Rivers is playing his best football
Through six weeks, Philip Rivers has a legitimate claim as 2018’s best — or at least, most important — player. The 37-year-old quarterback has thrown 15 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. He’s completed 68.6 percent of his attempts and is responsible for more than 283 passing yards per game.
That’s a leap from Rivers’ typical numbers, but it’s a sustainable one for several reasons. In the eight seasons between the Chargers’ last 10-plus win campaign and 2018, he’s been an oft-overlooked star, toiling away in relative obscurity in front of a San Diego market that eventually lost its franchise and a Los Angeles one that can’t be bothered to care. Between 2010 and 2017, he’s averaged 4,424 passing yards and 30 passing touchdowns per season, only to watch his teams top out at nine wins, max. His 94.4 passer rating in that span is higher than the career ratings of players like Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Brett Favre.
He’s playing above that baseline this fall thanks to a supporting cast that has largely avoided injury and lived up to its potential. Melvin Gordon has proven himself worthy of a 2015 first-round pick at tailback. He’s on pace for more than 1,200 rushing yards and nearly 750 receiving yards. Just as importantly, he’s showcasing an uncanny knack for the end zone. With three more touchdowns against the Browns, he’s found the end zone more since 2016 than anyone in the league not named Todd Gurley.
Melvin Gordon scored 0 TD as a rookie in 2015.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 14, 2018
Since then, he has 33 TD, trailing only Todd Gurley (34) for the most in the NFL.
And he’s not the only Charger who is coming up big. Keenan Allen is healthy again and building off last year’s Pro Bowl campaign, looking like a true WR1 in the process. Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams are solid complementary pieces next to him. And while losing tight end Hunter Henry for the season with a torn ACL still hurts, Antonio Gates and Virgil Green have been useful, if unimpressive, in his absence.
Those guys are finding the space to break off big plays thanks to a rejuvenated offensive line. Los Angeles has only allowed Rivers to be sacked seven times this fall — a 3.6 percent sack rate that ranks fourth in the NFL. The Chargers are also clearing enough room for Gordon to rip off 5.1 yards per carry.
Con: The Chargers’ don’t have a championship-caliber defense (right now)
The 2017 Chargers rebounded from an 0-4 start to a 9-7 finish thanks in part to a strong, bend-don’t-break defense that gave up the third-fewest points in the league. But last year’s 17 points allowed per game had swelled to 24 this year. Part of that is due to a schedule that featured the league’s top two offenses in the first month of the season (the Rams and Chiefs), but there have been gaps that have left this year’s defense lagging behind its 2017 version.
Joey Bosa hasn’t seen the field this season yet due to injury. Neither has former Pro Bowler Jason Verrett, who will miss the season with a torn Achilles (and has played just five games over the past 2+ seasons). Tre Boston, who had five interceptions last year, is now an Arizona Cardinal. Rookie Kyzir White, who started the first three games of his NFL career at outside linebacker, has missed the team’s last three games with a knee injury. Dynamic, space-clogging tackle Corey Liuget missed the first four games of the season due to a PED suspension.
Some of those losses are more painful than others, but the final result is a not-yet-ready-for-primetime unit. Los Angeles has only played two teams that currently have winning records. It gave up 73 combined points in those two games. Football Outsiders currently rates the Chargers as the league’s No. 18 defense and particularly deficient against the rush. That’s not awful — but it’s not the kind of performance on which you can stake a Super Bowl run.
Pro: Help is on the way
The Chargers are 4-2 even without one of their best defensive players. Bosa has 23 sacks over the course of 28 NFL games, and when he’s healthy he’s a pass-rushing bookend who destroys pockets and allows players like Melvin Ingram to shine. With him in the lineup in 2017, Los Angeles ranked third in the league in scoring defense.
But Bosa hasn’t played a single snap this fall and is expected to miss at least half the season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While players like Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, and Derwin James have kept the LA secondary solid, the lack of a push up front — the Chargers rank 16th in the NFL in sack percentage after ranking fifth last season — has kept the defense from reaching its full potential.
Having a great pass rusher creates a rising tide that lifts every other position across the defense. He shrinks pockets, shortens the amount of time a quarterback has to make his reads, and blows up rushing lanes, creating a strain of chaos that makes everyone else’s jobs easier. When Bosa returns, the Chargers will have two of those guys and a high-value secondary led by All-Pro Hayward behind them. Stopping the run will still be a concern, but the return of the 300-pound Liuget — who had 1.5 sacks and a pair of QB hurries against the Browns — is already paying dividends.
And even if that defense doesn’t rise to its level of pure talent, one of the league’s most potent offenses can paint over their mistakes:
The Chargers are the only NFL team that has scored at least 3 offensive touchdowns in every game this season.— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) October 15, 2018
Con: The Chargers haven’t really beaten anyone yet
Los Angeles’ four wins to start the season look like this:
The Chargers have beaten some bad teams to start 2018
|4||San Francisco 49ers||1-5|
That’s a combined record of 6-17-1. The Chargers have beaten Josh Allen’s Bills, the C.J. Beathard-led 49ers, Jon Gruden’s Oakland exercise in hubris, and the Browns, who remain the Browns. They’ve been tested against good teams twice, losing by double digits to the Chiefs and Rams.
And the Chargers might not get an opportunity to prove themselves for a while. Los Angeles won’t see an opponent with a winning record until Week 13. That could give the team enough of a runway to build up a contender — or it could create a false sense of accomplishment just waiting to be punctured by an actual postseason threat.
Pro: That weak schedule is going to make a postseason berth nice and easy
But, geez, just look at the remainder of this schedule. The bulk of 2018’s rebuilding clubs either have gotten or will get the chance to face Rivers:
The Chargers upcoming schedule is not intimidating
|15||Kansas City Chiefs||5-1|
It’s not difficult to look at that lineup and find six more wins for the Chargers. There’s a lot of time for Los Angeles to clean up its problems and live up to its potential. And that Week 15 showdown with the Chiefs could determine the fate of the AFC West — though it will come on the heels of tests against the Steelers and Bengals.
Con: The football gods hate the Chargers, and they still don’t have a reliable kicker
To take advantage of that light schedule, the the Chargers will have to avoid the injuries that have derailed their seasons so often in the past. That’s been a constant theme that has chased the club from San Diego to Los Angeles, taking players like Allen, Henry, Bosa, Gordon, Antonio Gates, Jatavis Brown, Manti Te’o, Denzel Perryman, and other starters out of the lineup for long stretches. There’s no scientific way to quantify this, but based on years past, it feels like the Chargers are either due for some uncharacteristic injury luck or a devastating season-ender, with no middle ground between.
Then there’s the other curse that’s been killing Los Angeles: horrible kicking. The Chargers lost their first two games last season due to missed field goals from then-rookie Younghoe Koo. His eventual release led to a revolving door that saw four different players attempt kicks for LA in 2017. They combined to make just 20 of their 30 attempts and were 3-11 from 40+ yards.
This year, kicking duties have mainly fallen to Caleb Sturgis, who has made only three of his six attempts from 40+. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence — nor does his quad injury. Last week, the Chargers decided to carry two kickers in case Sturgis couldn’t play. They signed Mike Badgley, who filled in for Sturgis against the Browns. Badgley was perfect, making all five of his extra-point attempts and his lone field goal attempt, a 44-yarder.
Sturgis is going to have to prove he’s not just Nate Kaeding in disguise or else Badgley might win the job outright. Having a reliable kicker is especially important for a franchise whose had just 1-of-4 on field goals in its last two playoff losses.
Overall, yes, it’s a good season to buy in on the Chargers postseason hopes. But we don’t have enough data yet to be confident in their chances of sending Philip Rivers to his first Super Bowl. A wrecking-ball Joey Bosa could be the difference between a loss in the Wild Card Round and a path to the league’s final weekend.
So long as he can avoid running afoul of the football gods’ fickle hands, who lie in wait to ruin the Chargers’ season. And that would be an entirely familiar way to end Los Angeles’ run.