The San Diego Chargers are the best AFC team that no one is talking about, and it frankly isn't that close.
In Week 1 of the preseason, the Chargers starters put on a show against the Dallas Cowboys defense. Eventually, the Chargers won 27-7, and the overwhelming moral of the night was that they need to be taken seriously.
Now, a couple caveats here: First, this is the preseason, and the preseason is neither definitive nor meant to be the only piece of evidence we're considering in these matters. Don't think that this opinion was fleshed out for the first time in the second quarter of this meaningless game.
No, rather, it was just a reminder.
Also, the other big neon flashing light in the otherwise darkness of this preseason matchup is that the Cowboys defense isn't quite ready for prime time. The Cowboys had the worst defense in football last year and have had a bunch of injuries already this year. We're at the point that the kids from that Hyundai commercial could've probably put up big yards here.
Still, in a division that already has a Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos team and a Kansas City Chiefs squad that generated a ton of hype while going undefeated for a huge chunk of last season, it's easy to see why the Chargers might be a little lightly regarded.
That's a big mistake.
Philip Rivers Can Get It Done...and He Has Some Weapons
Peyton Manning was the best quarterback in the NFL last year.
I don't think I'm talking out of turn there, but if we can all be on that page to start this conversation, we'll all be better off for it. We're at the point where that isn't even really an opinion, more of an objective fact that you either accept or get the side-eye from all your football-loving buddies.
After Manning, though, I would argue that Rivers was easily the second-best quarterback in football.
In fact, I would argue that the distance between Manning and Rivers' play last season was shorter than the distance between Rivers and whomever you'd like to put at No. 3. Rivers was, simply, that good, and it's a testament to the work that Mike McCoy and Frank Reich have done not only with the entire offense but also in getting Rivers' head screwed back on the right way.
Rivers was never the problem in San Diego—not even close.
For years, Rivers floundered on a team with little-to-no help around him and certainly none in front of him. Former general manager A.J. Smith let the talent level on the team atrophy to sickening levels, and Rivers was tasked with covering over far too many of his GM's mistakes.
The biggest mistake may have been the lack of quality investment in the team's offensive line, but we'll save that for a little bit later (foreshadowing!). Not far behind that gigantic error, though, is the consistent failure to keep talent around.
For years, Smith ran this team as if it were a minor league farm system for the rest of the league.
Michael Turner, Darren Sproles and Vincent Jackson are just a few names making up a small sample of the kind of talent that Rivers would've loved to have around when just about everyone else on the offense seemed to have no idea what was going on.
New GM Tom Telesco is doing his best to restock the shelves.
Keenan Allen was just a rookie last year and a third-round pick to boot. While I can pat myself on the back for consistently being high on his prospects during the draft process, I have to admit that even I didn't foresee that whole rookie of the year thing.
Think of it this way—as a rookie, Allen didn't get a whole offseason. As a mid-round pick, Allen had to earn snaps and the trust of his quarterback early on in last year's preparation for the season. This year, that isn't the case. It's an entire offseason knowing that this is the money pairing that needs to be fine-tuned even more than it already was last season.
That should scare AFC defenses.
At running back, another storyline out of both training camp and the first preseason game was that the Chargers are back to having the kind of running back depth that they were once so accustomed to. Heck, the oft-maddening Ryan Mathews (who ran well but fumbled over the goal line) might not even be needed after this season—he's a free agent anyway—with the hard-running Donald Brown, the multipurpose Danny Woodhead and the shifty Branden Oliver around.
I know...Dallas Cowboys defense. I remember.
Offensive Line Is a Bunch of Well-Coached Overachievers
It will be easy for the Chargers offense to continue to perform if the offensive line keeps improving.
The Norv Turner offense didn't seem to do Rivers any favors, and Rivers spent most of his time wondering how in the world he was supposed to pass the ball down the field in Turner's vertical offense with defenders firmly planted in his grill.
It gets better.
In 2013, the Chargers had one of the worse pass-blocking lines in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (paid link). However, with a cumulative rating of -33.4 (ranked 25th), that's still a ton better than the 2012 offering of -44.0 (ranked 29th). That step up was the difference between being a middle-of-the-road passing offense in 2012 and being the second best in 2013.
Another—even minute—step forward for the line in terms of meshing or simply just understanding their respective roles in the blocking scheme better could send the passing game into the stratosphere.
Rivers passed for almost 4,500 yards last season. This year, 5,000 should be well within reach.
Bet on this unit taking that step forward.
Joe D'Alessandris has been coaching offensive lines for over 35 years and is generally considered one of the very best in the business. He spent years in the college ranks turning groups of little-recruited prospects into finely tuned machines. During his time in the NFL, he's improved every single group while he's been at a stop.
It isn't all sunshine and puppy dogs, though. Right guard Jeromey Clary is currently a question mark for the season opener, and the team is still a few years away from having the depth to make it through any serious injuries along the line.
Eric D. Williams of ESPN listed that very thing as a cause for pessimism in his Camp Confidential:
Along with defensive back, the Chargers also have some concerns with depth and experience along the offensive line. Rookie Chris Watt is the projected starting right guard with Clary out. Although the third-round selection out of Notre Dame has looked solid in training camp, Watt still has not played a meaningful snap in a regular-season game.
The Chargers also have question marks behind left tackle King Dunlap and right tackle D.J. Fluker. Mike Harris was solid when called upon last season, starting in two games at left tackle. However, he finished the 2013 season on injured reserve with an ankle injury and has yet to test the issue in a game.
Overall, I think Williams is a little tough on the line in that write-up. Dunlap wasn't a question mark last season when PFF rated him as one of the top offensive tackles in the entire league (paid link). Fluker also acquitted himself well as a rookie and brings a toughness this team has too often lacked in the recent past.
Most importantly, one has to remember that the Chargers don't need to have the best offensive line on the block. McCoy's offense isn't the long, vertically based offense that Turner pressured this team with. Rivers was as efficient with shorter, quicker passes last season as he's ever been, and that takes some pressure off of the line.
This isn't me overreacting to a preseason game against a bad defense, nor am I telling Chargers fans to start booking hotel rooms for the Super Bowl either. Instead, with help around Rivers and a better line in front of him, it might be time to start talking about this team a little more in 2014.