25 years ago, the San Diego Chargers made NFL History. The team started off an abysmal 0-4, but found its way to the playoffs on an 11-5 record, marking a league first. No team that started the season 0-4 came back to make the playoffs before that season. It was an impressive feat, showcasing an 8 game win streak and a dominant defense.
History seems to be repeating itself this season. After a 0-4 start, the L.A. Chargers are tied for 1st place in the AFC West. However, that’s the floor for this team. It’s ceiling? The Super Bowl.
Talent on Both Sides the Ball
For the first time in his career, Phillip Rivers has a supporting cast that he doesn’t need to carry. The Chargers have built one of football’s most potent offenses, and it starts with its playmakers.
The skill positions are the fuel of the fire that is the Chargers offense. Keenan Allen is having a tremendous second half of the season. Allen was quietly very productive in the team’s first eight games but struggled to find the end zone. Towards the bye week, Rivers and Al
len’s chemistry began to kindle and help spark the offense. Since the Chargers bye in week 9, Allen has been one football’s most valuable receivers. Football Outsiders uses DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) to measure the total value of a receiver over the average receiver. Keenan Allen is currently the 3rd most valuable wide receiver in the league with a score of 272, trailing only DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown. Since Week 10, Allen has garnered 484 yards with a 121 yard per game average. One of the NFL’s best in that span. Not only has Allen put up league-high production in yards, he has started to find the end zone. Allen has produced a touchdown four times in the past three games. Averaging over 10 targets per game, Allen will continue to feast on opposing defenses as long as Rivers is the quarterback.
Did you know Antonio Gates played basketball? Yeah? Well, let me remind you again. The former basketball player has continued to be one of River’s most reliable targets. The two are a record-setting duo, and that repertoire will continue well into the playoffs. However, one of River’s best weapons has been 2nd-year tight end, Hunter Henry. Henry is a 2nd round pick out of Arkansas and is certainly not bereft of talent. At 13.2 yard per catch, Henry helps the offense as a constant threat to the middle of the field and is mismatch maker for offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt oversaw the Steelers Superbowl run in 2004 that saw Heath Miller be a huge contributor for Ben Roethlisberger. It appears Whisenhunt has found a new, more dynamic Heath Miller.
The Chargers offensive line has been mostly mediocre for the year. It has the leagues 3rd lowest sack rate at 3.8%, and the league lowest sack count at 13. This goes to show the talent of the pass blocking. However, the Chargers have a notable time struggling to run the ball. The Chargers rank 28th in Football Outsiders run blocking ranks but excels when running towards left tackle Russel Okung. Melvin Gordon has performed well, and rookie Austin Eckeler is reminiscent of King of Grit Danny Woodhead. However, if the run game does not improve the offense could struggle. Health is important, and as the unit gets healthier rushing efficiency should improve.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Chargers boast their best players. Joey Bosa is one of football’s premier pass rushers, and rightfully so. Bosa has posted 11.5 sacks so far and continues to get to the quarterback faster than anyone. He has produced some of the NFL’s fastest sacks at 2.25 seconds and continues to draw double teams. Paired with Melvin Ingram (8.5 sacks), the Chargers have the pass rush to get to any quarterback, including Tom Brady. Brady again leads the NFL in Time to Throw (TT) with an average of 2.68 seconds. Both Bosa and Ingram have shown they can make it home on a Quarterback in that throwing window. No quarterback is safe with these two playing.
On the back-end of Football Outsiders 11th best defense is cornerback Casey Hayward. He has been arguably the NFL’s best corner. Hayward is currently Pro Football Focus’ number 1 overall corner, grading at a 96.7. With a lockdown corner, the rest of the secondary is able to play more aggressive. L.A.’s secondary has accounted for 15 interceptions, while its opponent only accounts 7 interceptions. 5th round pick Desmond King has been a playmaker, and the safety combination of Jahleel Addai and Tre Boston have been explosive pieces for the aggressive defense.
The Chargers are notorious for a weak rush defense, and nothing has changed in that regard. L.A. is currently rated 27th in Football Outsiders nonadjusted rush defense. This is without a doubt the defenses Achilles heel. Gus Bradley is going to have to make adjustments down the stretch if the rush defense is going to improve to at least to a mediocre level.
According to Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart, ANY/A (Average Net Yard per Attempt) is one the best metrics to measure Super Bowl contenders and favorites. Last year, the top 2 teams in ANY/A met in the Superbowl. More often than not, the winner of the Super Bowl is the leader in ANY/A. Why does all this matter? Well, the Chargers are one of the leagues highest rated when it comes to ANY/A over the course of the season. The team has averaged 7.4 ANY/A, ranking 6th in the league. However, the last three weeks, the Chargers have averaged a whopping 9.3 ANY/A, the leagues highest by quite a margin during that time span. The AFC West is showing to be one the weakest in football, and at this continued rate, the Chargers will be able to take control of the AFC West and ensure a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
Finally, the competition is weaker in the AFC than usual. Before the Chargers win streak, their previous 3 losses were all within a late-game possession to some of the NFL’s best teams. L.A. loss to the Eagles by 2 in a late game contest. L.A. came within 1 possession of New England. Phillip River’s had the ball with two minutes left, but couldn’t get into the end zone. The Chargers then completely choked away what would have been an impressive victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. L.A. led by 3 with less than two minutes to go, and then coughed up the ball twice in that span. Jacksonville kicked a field goal, forcing overtime and eventually winning the game. Two of L.A.’s early season losses were due to missing last second kicks, another close game that could go either way. Anyway, the point is this: L.A.’s never been bad, they just have failed to finish, or had an unlucky finish. What are the odds you lose two games because of a kicker back to back weeks like that? The Chargers took the bye week to reset, and have been hitting on all cylinders since then. The team has been producing efficiency highs on both sides of the ball and is showing the mark of a true Superbowl contender.
Final Piece to the Puzzle
History is weird the way it reveals itself to us. The current Chargers win streak is oddly reminiscent of the comeback in 1992. However, there is one major difference: Phillip Rivers. The 1992 Chargers trotted 6th round pick Stan Humphries as the quarterback due to injury. The 2017 Chargers trot out borderline Hall of Famer Phillip Rivers every Sunday. Rivers is playing extremely well and is rated as the 4th most valuable quarterback in the league according to DYAR and DVOA rankings. He’s thrown 21 touchdowns with only 7 interceptions and is currently in the top 10 in total yards thrown (3170). Rivers is having a tremendous season. Despite his age, he continues to propel the Chargers offense to league-high numbers. However, numbers aren’t the only thing favoring Rivers this season.
There’s no statistical way to value fate and destiny, but dare I suggest some might in be in line for Phillip Rivers? River’s has been a tremendous quarterback throughout his career and is currently flirting with the Hall of Fame. However, winning a Superbowl has escaped Rivers throughout his career as he watched fellow class of 2004 QB’s Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger both get the illustriousSuperbowl ring(s). It’s no secret Rivers is getting older, and this could be one of the last chances for him to get the ring that would catapult him into the hall of fame. River’s has one of NFL history’s worst winning percentage when coming to games decided by 8 points or less, a statistical outlier when looking at how well he performs in other categories. Perhaps Rivers is finally regressing to the mean of winning these close games?
Either way, fate has aligned for Rivers and his Bad News Bears Chargers.