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The Chargers’ very good 2018 season, explained

The Chargers are no fluke. Bill Connelly dives deeper into three specific reasons why they’re the second best team in the AFC, with a chance to be No. 1.

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One could say that your record in games decided by more than one possession determine your ceiling, and games decided by one score determine your fate.

Be it in San Diego or Los Angeles, the Chargers have long been one of the best teams in the league from the former perspective; since Philip Rivers took over at quarterback in 2006, they have gone a remarkable 71-28 in two-score (or more) games and have finished above .500 in that regard in nine of 12 seasons, soon to be 10 of 13.

In that same span, however, they have finished .500 or below in one-score games ... in nine of 12 seasons, including five of six in the ill-fated, oh-so-close Norv Turner era (2007-12).

Despite three playoff bids and zero negative scoring margins, Turner was fired after the 2012 season and was replaced by Mike McCoy, who went only .500 in the multi-score games and an abysmal 16-26 in one-scores. And then the Anthony Lynn era began with three more creatively gut-wrenching losses among an 0-4 start.

The Chargers missed end-of-game field goals to drop games to the Dolphins and Broncos to begin the season. They out-gained the Chiefs in Week 3, but lost by 14 anyway because of three uncharacteristic turnovers.

One of the league’s true constants in recent times has been Charger pain. You can set your watch by offseason injuries and in-season stomach punches.

Sure, the injuries haven’t really stopped — there was a new batch this offseason, and the Chargers have played their last two games without star running back Melvin Gordon.

Still, Gordon has been merely lost to a temporary knee sprain, not a season-ending ligament tear. And no matter who’s on the field, they have been maybe the steadiest, most well-rounded team in a league suddenly trending toward offense. They are fifth in the league in scoring offense and seventh in scoring defense. They are deep, balanced, talented ... and lucky, maybe?

Since the 0-4 start to 2017, the Chargers are 19-6 — 11-3 in multi-score games and, gasp, 8-3 in the close ones. In two games without Gordon, they’ve won a downright lucky 33-30 shootout against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, in which a series of tight calls and funky bounces went their way, and they survived a dicey 26-21 home win over the increasingly lowly Bengals. Even in their iffier performances, they’ve figured out ways to get results.

The Chargers, eking out tight wins and getting bounces! What a world!

Sure, there could be another bad luck ambush in the playoffs. But they’ll be there. They’re 10-3, fourth in the NFL in ESPN’s FPI, and second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They’re a bit unlucky in that one of the only teams better than them — the Kansas City Chiefs — resides in their division and is ahead of them in the standings. But they’ll get a chance to avenge a season-opening loss by facing the Chiefs in Kansas City on Thursday evening (8:20 p.m. ET on Fox). And even if they end up second in their division, they’re still the second-best team in the AFC.

So how did we get here? What’s changed for the Chargers in 2018?

1. The best RB corps in the league

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Chargers
Melvin Gordon (28)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Things have clicked for Gordon in his fourth season in the league. After he terrorized the Big Ten for 4,196 yards and 41 touchdowns in two years as a feature back at Wisconsin, his pro career began slowly. He averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in his first three seasons, and while he did rush for 1,100 yards last year, it required a lot of touches.

Gordon has erupted this year, though. He’s up to 5.2 yards per carry, 5.5 since Week 3. And his repertoire has expanded as well. He was not only on pace for 1,300 rushing yards before his injury, he was also on pace for more than 700 receiving yards.

What’s really been different about 2018, though, is that it’s not just Gordon.

Austin Ekeler, in his second year out of Western State, has turned in nearly identical rate stats. In fact, Gordon and Ekeler are two of only three back in the league (along with San Francisco’s Matt Breida) averaging at least 5.2 yards per carry and 7.5 yards per pass target.

With Gordon out, Ekeler struggled a bit, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and 3.8 yards per target. No worries, though! Rookie Justin Jackson pitched in 117 yards in 18 intended touches (15 carries, three targets).

Ekeler is doubtful for Thursday night’s game in Kansas City due to a stinger, and Gordon is still listed as questionable. But the way things have gone, Jackson and fourth-stringer Detrez Newsome will probably combine for 150 yards all the same.

2. Philip Rivers is still Philip Rivers

Los Angeles Chargers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Philip Rivers

It’s one of the more mind-blowing stats in sports: since Rivers took over for the departed Drew Brees in the Chargers’ starting lineup in 2006, the team has played 205 regular season games and nine playoff games. Philip Rivers has started them all. In that time frame, the Browns have started 623 different guys (give or take), but Rivers has shown up for work and gone to the front of the stretch line every single day. The guy must really not like staying at home (and, um, I might have a decent idea of why).

In three games, he’ll catch Peyton Manning’s 1998-2011 streak for third all-time, and in the second game of 2019, good lord willing, he’ll catch Eli Manning’s 2004-17 streak for second. (He’d need another five years to catch Brett Favre, but hey, second’s good.)

While simply showing up every day for 13 years is indeed impressive in its own right, Rivers has put together a set of incredible career numbers: 4,455 completions (eighth all-time), 53,986 yards (eighth), 371 touchdowns (sixth).

He’s also putting together his best damn numbers in five years.

His 69.4 percent completion rate is his best since 2013, his current 114.5 passer rating and 8.8-yard Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANY/A) average his best ever.

Philip Rivers is ridiculous

Year Yds TD-INT Comp Rate Rating QBR ANY/A
Year Yds TD-INT Comp Rate Rating QBR ANY/A
2006 3388 22-9 61.7% 92.0 67.6 6.73
2007 3152 21-15 60.2% 82.4 52.8 5.67
2008 4009 34-11 65.3% 105.5 63.6 8.04
2009 4254 28-9 65.2% 104.4 76.9 8.30
2010 4710 30-13 66.0% 101.8 68.1 7.77
2011 4624 27-20 62.9% 88.7 64.1 6.64
2012 3606 26-15 64.1% 88.6 42.6 5.45
2013 4478 32-11 69.5% 105.5 75.3 7.79
2014 4286 31-18 66.5% 93.8 63.6 6.45
2015 4792 29-13 66.1% 93.8 55.7 6.45
2016 4386 33-21 60.4% 87.9 57.5 6.37
2017 4515 28-10 62.6% 96.0 64.1 7.60
2018 (Proj) 4478 36-7 69.4% 114.5 75.5 8.80

Be it the chicken or the egg, the run game’s explosion has complemented one of the best passing games in the league.

It was supposed to be a foreboding sign when tight end Hunter Henry (81 receptions, 12 touchdowns in 2016-17) became one of the preseason’s injury casualties. Instead, veterans Antonio Gates and Virgil Green have replicated Henry’s stats in his absence (36 combined catches, 447 yards), and 26-year old wideout Keenan Allen is on pace for career highs in both receptions and yards.

Allen has a touchdown in five consecutive games and put together maybe the biggest and most vital performance of his career in catching 14 of 19 passes for 148 yards and a deflected score against Pittsburgh in Week 13.

Allen, Gordon/Ekeler (83 combined catches), Tyrell Williams (32), Mike Williams (30), and Gates/Green have formed one of the deepest and most interesting receiving corps in the league, and Rivers and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have taken full advantage.

3. They tackle this year, too!

Cincinnati Bengals v Los Angeles Chargers
Derwin James (33)
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

On a recent episode of the Bill Barnwell show, I talked with Barnwell about defensive expectations in the changing NFL. It’s always been an overreaction in this, the Year of the Offense, to act like every NFL offense is exploding in unforeseen ways — the Cardinals and Bills are still part of the league, after all — but defining what a good defense is and isn’t has required a bit of an adjustment.

Allowing 20.8 points per game and 5.4 yards per play, as the Chargers have in 2018, might not seem inherently impressive, but those numbers rank seventh and 11th in the NFL, respectively, fourth and sixth in the AFC.

Combine that with an offense that is better than any of the teams above them defensively (dramatically so in most cases), and you’re in business.

The Los Angeles defense was a strange dichotomy in 2017 — third in scoring defense but 15th in yards per play allowed, in part because of some ill-timed big play issues. From this preseason’s Football Outsiders Almanac 2018:

The Chargers defense allowed 147 broken tackles last year, the second-highest total in the league. Their defense allowed broken tackles on 13.3 percent of opponent’s plays, the second-highest rate in the NFL. The Steelers topped the Chargers in both categories; the Steelers and Chargers were the only teams to allow broken tackles on more than 12 percent of opponent’s plays.

Eight of their defenders surrendered ten or more missed tackles. No other team had more than six such defenders. The Chargers could not bench a defender for bad tackling or schematically hide a weak link. Their entire defense was the weak link.

According to current data provided by Sports Info Solutions, the Chargers are missing tackles on only 8.1 percent of plays in 2018 (18th in the NFL) and have missed just 101 in all (19th). Those aren’t otherworldly numbers, but cutting the number of glitches and giving up fewer chunk plays has allowed the Chargers to force third downs and dominate in scoring opportunities.

The biggest difference (besides an offense that has given the D a lot more margin for error)? Probably Derwin James.

The Chargers went defense-heavy in the 2018 draft, but while second-round linebacker Uchenna Nwosu and third-round tackle Justin Jones have had roles to play (fourth-round linebacker/safety Kyzir White did, too, before a knee injury), and second-year DB Desmond King has stepped up, inserting James, a first-rounder from Florida State, into the lineup has resulted in instant credibility in the back. James was one of the headiest players in college football in 2017 and is maybe the best defensive rookie in the league this year.

(Thank you, Oakland.)

Joey Bosa’s recent return has been a boost, as well. The third-year end has only played in four games since returning from injury, but he’s already third on the team in tackles for loss and, per Pro Football Reference, fourth in QB hits.

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Chargers
Joey Bosa
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Adding James and Bosa to a lineup that featured veterans up front (Melvin Ingram, Damion Square, Brandon Mebane) and depth in the linebacking corps and secondary has made just enough of a difference that the Chargers could credibly be called the most well-rounded team in the league. They are the only team in the top 10 in both Offensive and Defensive DVOA, and the Chargers and the Rams are the only ones that can claim that designation in FPI.

Both DVOA and FPI rank the Chargers as the second-best team in the AFC. Of course, they’re also the second-best team in the AFC West. Unless they beat the Chiefs — two whom they’ve lost nine straight — on Thursday night in Arrowhead they’re likely doomed to the wildcard round in the playoffs, and while you can obviously make the Super Bowl while playing that extra game, it’s an extra opportunity for a loss and less chance of an extra playoff home game or two. (Not that “home field” really means a lot for the Chargers this year.)

A wildcard team hasn’t made the Super Bowl since the Ravens did it in 2012, and FPI gives the Chargers only a six percent chance of winning the title despite their No. 4 overall ranking (the top three teams have a combined 72 percent chance, and the No. 5 Patriots, cruising for a first-round bye, are at 10 percent).

That makes tonight’s game pretty big, yeah?