Chargers' Surprise Playoff Berth Destined to End in Failure

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystDecember 30, 2013

Dec 29, 2013; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) celebrates after a win against the Kansas City Chiefs at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers won 27-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

The San Diego Chargers made the playoffs with an overtime 27-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs’ backups on Sunday. At one point, the odds that the Chargers would make the postseason were worse than the odds of an average guy ever dating Kate Upton, but they clawed back into the playoff hunt by winning five of their final six games.

Getting hot at the right time and playing the Philadelphia Eagles in their home opener has been the key for the final four Super Bowl champions. Based on this anecdotal evidence, the Chargers should actually be the favorites to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy this February.

More realistically, the Chargers' improbable postseason run is likely to end in failure. Probably even soul-crushing, bone-chilling failure, because the Chargers will probably not get blown out.

For the Chargers even to make the playoffs, it took two other teams losing on Sunday and the Kansas City Chiefs resting nearly all of their starters.

Despite a gift from the football gods, the Chargers came out flat on Sunday and nearly lost the game.

If not for a missed 41-yard field goal by Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop with eight seconds left in the game, the Chargers would be sitting at home next week. They got lucky on Sunday, and luck is what they will need to win in the playoffs.

It’s tough to imagine a playoff team needing to run a fake punt on 4th-and-2 in overtime just to kick what turned out to be the game-winning 36-yard field goal against a bunch of backups to make the postseason, but that’s what happened. The Chiefs also had nothing to lose or gain in the game, so they played to win in overtime instead of trying to extend the game by setting up a game-tying field goal.

Against TeamsWLMOV
At or above .50063-16
Below .50034+32

On the other hand, the Chargers have a reliable quarterback and have already beaten three of the five other AFC playoff teams. In the Chargers’ six games against AFC playoff teams, they are 4-2 with a margin of victory in those games of eight total points.

The Chargers have proven they can play with the best the AFC has to offer, for whatever that is worth in the postseason.


Philip Rivers

As good as Rivers has been in December, he hasn’t been nearly as good in January. Rivers is 30-6 in the month of December and 29-4 in the final four weeks of the season, but he is just 3-4 in the playoffs.

In fairness, wins and losses aren’t always on the quarterback and shouldn’t be used to measure his performance. Rivers played well in at least one of the Chargers’ four postseason losses.

Philip Rivers Career Stats vs. Playoff Performance
SpanTD %INT %
2013 Season5.92.0
Final 4 Weeks6.51.9

What is true is that Rivers has thrown 59 touchdown passes to just 17 interceptions in 33 career games in Weeks 14 through 17, but he has thrown just eight touchdowns compared to nine interceptions in seven career postseason games.

It’s obvious that Rivers will have to carry the Chargers in the postseason, but there’s not much evidence that he can consistently win in the postseason.

The Chargers also haven’t been to the playoffs since 2009. What was true a few years ago may not be true today. That leaves some reason for hope in San Diego, but only because Rivers has proven so capable this season and at times during his career.

Unfortunately, even when Rivers carries the team, there is always the risk that the defense will blow it for the Chargers. On Sunday, Rivers was 22-of-33 for 229 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, but the starting defense allowed a bunch of backups to score 24 points over three quarters.


The Defense

In terms of yards per play allowed, the Chargers were last in the league coming into Week 17. Opponents were averaging 6.2 yards per play and the Chargers had the third-fewest forced turnovers in the league.

If the offense has even an average game, the Chargers are going to be in serious trouble in the postseason.

The Chargers have made it work defensively by controlling the ball and keeping the defense fresh. Coming into Week 17, the Chargers led the league in plays per drive, yards per drive and time of possession per drive and were second to the Denver Broncos in points per drive.

Defensive Performance
As of Week 16StatRank
Yards Per Play6.232
Plays Per Drive6.031
Yards Per Drive35.832
Points Per Drive1.9724

Opponents haven’t had many opportunities to expose San Diego’s defense, so the players have been able to stay fresh. Coming into Sunday, the Chargers had held their opponents to the fewest number of drives in the NFL by a wide margin.

And they still aren’t very good on defense.

In the playoffs, the Chargers are going to run into other good offenses that are also capable of controlling the clock. These offenses are capable of scoring early and often, which could put the Chargers at a disadvantage because it would take away their running game.

The biggest issue for the Chargers has been in the secondary.

The Chargers had to bench Derek Cox and are barely getting the job done with Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall at cornerback. Outside of the Kansas City Chiefs and maybe the Indianapolis Colts, the AFC playoff teams have passing offenses that can expose the Chargers in coverage.

While the Chargers have proven that their offense is good enough to hang with good teams and even beat them on occasion, they'll have to string together impressive performances on defense in the playoffs just to compete.


The X-Factor

Do the Chargers have a player who can come up with game-changing plays?

Offensively, the Chargers may have to rely on their rookie receiver Keenan Allen or their two running backs, Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews.

Unless the Chargers can lure big performances out of veteran tight end Antonio Gates, they lack a player they can really trust to make a big play when it matters most. The Chargers have a collection of very good offensive players, but they may not have that one player who can put the offense on his back if Rivers isn’t playing his best football.

In a way, the offensive players rely totally on the performance of Rivers. That’s not uncommon, but good players have a way of making even an average quarterback look good. With the exception of the Patriots, there may not be another AFC team that relies more on their quarterback to elevate the talent.

As much as the Broncos rely on Peyton Manning, he wouldn’t have broken all the records he did this season without great players. Maybe Keenan Allen is on his way to stardom, but he has to prove it first.

Eric Weddle was San Diego's X-factor on Sunday.
Eric Weddle was San Diego's X-factor on Sunday.Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Defensively, safety Eric Weddle is supposed to be that impact player, but he’s had a down year. On Sunday, Weddle came through on special teams and also had a team-high nine tackles and three assists. The Chargers are going to need that in the playoffs from him, as well as impact players from other players on defense.

Lacking a player that can really carry the team, the Chargers may have to rely on their coaching.

It’s not a stretch to say that coaching was the reason for several of the Chargers’ losses this season. Coaching decisions and suspect play-calling are only magnified in the playoffs, as head coach Mike McCoy is fully aware.

McCoy was criticized as the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos last year for handing the ball to running back Ronnie Hillman on 3rd-and-7 with two minutes left and a chance to kill the clock to seal a victory. Hillman was stuffed for no gain, the Broncos punted, and Jacoby Jones caught a 70-yard touchdown a few moments later.

From the Chargers’ collapse in Week 1 against the Houston Texans to their Week 15 win over the Broncos, questionable coaching decisions have been a constant problem. The Chargers abandoned the run in the second half against Houston with a big lead, which opened the door for the Texans to make their comeback. Against the Broncos a few weeks ago, the Chargers chose to kick a field goal on 4th-and-4 instead of trying to win the game.

The latter decision didn’t cost them the game, but those are just two examples of coaching decisions that could come under fire in the playoffs if the Chargers don’t win. They will probably keep games close, which will give them a chance, but this team just has too many flaws to be a legitimate contender.  

 Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via and


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