With a new coaching staff and general manager in place, there were minimal expectations for a Chargers team that finished 7-9 a year ago and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season. The hope was that Tom Telesco would make the necessary personnel adjustments to turn the team around and Mike McCoy would come in and put forth a respectable finish in his first season as head coach.
Clearly, this team exceeded those initial expectations and rode a 9-7 season all the way to its first postseason berth since 2009.
San Diego charged into the playoffs in the most unlikely of scenarios, getting help from other teams along the way. By way of a missed field goal in one of the most entertaining games of the season, the Chargers took their four-game win streak into Cincinnati and pulled off one of their many upsets during the year.
Needing a win against the Broncos, the same team they beat in Denver on a memorable Thursday night, the Chargers were unable to have lightning strike twice despite a valiant fourth-quarter effort. A touchdown would have kept bolo-tie fever in play for at least overtime, but fans should take on the optimistic perspective of San Diego's players.
While losing a big game may hurt now, it must be satisfying to know what the future holds for this team as it attempts to come back in 2014 and make another run with a solid core of veteran players and young studs. The Chargers battled plenty of injuries throughout the year, but the absence of certain starters opened the door for a lot of young players, including a potential Offensive Rookie of the Year winner in Allen.
Allen, a third-round pick in the 2013 draft, finished his rookie year (including the postseason) with a jaw-dropping 79 receptions for 1,209 yards and 10 touchdowns—numbers that far surpassed any of the receivers taken ahead of him.
In Sunday's loss to Denver, Allen went out with a bang, catching six passes for 142 yards and two scores—the sixth time he's finished with over 100 yards receiving and third time with multiple touchdowns.
In Allen alone, the Chargers struck gold in the draft. Add in D.J. Fluker (a first-round pick who locked down the right tackle spot) and Manti Te'o (who played well at inside linebacker down the stretch), and you have an impressive young core of players in the first three picks capable of helping the Chargers make another run.
Also take into account how well Philip Rivers played in a bounce-back year. With the help of McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Rivers got his groove back and finished with numbers that were second only to Peyton Manning. Ryan Mathews had a similar type of year, bouncing back from an injury-prone season to cross the 1,000-yard rushing mark and played a big role in getting the Chargers into the playoffs.
For a team that was once 5-7 with losses to the Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins (just to name a few), the Chargers have to be pretty content with finishing how they did with the players they had.
This team hit road road bumps early with the losses of Malcom Floyd (last season's leading receiver), Danario Alexander (last season's second-leading receiver) and Dwight Freeney (San Diego's biggest free-agent acquisition) to injury.
Other than veteran tight end Antonio Gates, Rivers had little familiarity with his receiving group. Still, he had one of the best seasons of his career throwing the ball and helped the development of players like Allen and second-year tight end Ladarius Green. San Diego's offensive line was also a suspect piece of the offense, and yet it held up pretty well compared to last season (35 sacks in 2013, 49 in 2012).
There were so many things that were supposed to go wrong for the Chargers, but they prevailed and turned heads in doing so. While fans may feel grief in their team missing out on a trip to the AFC Championship, looking ahead to the future could be the medicine they need to heal quickly.
Watch out for the Chargers in 2014 and keep those bolo ties handy.