LA Chargers Emerging as Hottest Team in Muddled AFC Playoff Race

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 23, 2017

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 23:  Keenan Allen #13 of the Los Angeles Chargers runs the ball in for a fourth quarter touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on November 23, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Chargers made it official Thanksgiving Thursday in Dallas. Regardless of their still-sub-.500 record, their dominant performance in a 28-6 victory over the Cowboys confirms that the Chargers are a playoff-caliber team and a legitimate contender in the wide-open AFC. 

Entering Week 12, the Bolts were one of six teams in the conference at 4-6, one victory back of the flawed Baltimore Ravens and the free-falling Buffalo Bills, who are tied for the second wild-card spot. But they were also just two games back of the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs, who are vulnerable following four losses in a five-game span. 

The window was open more than a crack for a team that has plenty of talent but has in recent years underachieved in somewhat tragic, somewhat comedic fashion. If they could stop beating themselves, they just might have a chance to beat somebody else in January. 

Now, after dominating a desperate Cowboys team on the road, two time zones over and on short rest, it looks as though Philip Rivers and Co. are finally ready to do that. 

Los Angeles converted nine of 14 third downs while outgaining the Cowboys, 515-247. They controlled the ball for more than 60 percent of the game, with Rivers completing all but six of 33 passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns in what was the third-highest-rated performance of his 14-year career. 

Philip Rivers: Highest-Rated Games
GameComp.Att.YardsTD-INTRating
2007 at DEN13182702-0151.4
2010 vs. SF19252733-0150.5
Thursday at DAL27334343-0149.1
2010 vs. ARI15202412-0148.1
2011 at JAX22282943-0146.1
Pro Football Reference/NFL.com

For the third time in five weeks, they didn't commit a turnover. And they gave up zero sacks, marking the fourth consecutive outing in which they surrendered either one or zero quarterback takedowns. 

And it would have been a lot more lopsided had they not experienced significant problems in the red zone, which were compounded by the loss of kicker Nick Novak.

But this didn't come out of nowhere. The Chargers have rather quietly won five of seven games after an 0-4 start, and they're a hell of a lot better than their 5-6 record. 

That's not just because of what they've done for us lately, but also because their tough-luck losses have outnumbered their lucky wins. In fact, it's hard to remember the last time the Chargers won a game they weren't supposed to, while tough breaks might have been the difference in a three-point Week 1 road loss to the Denver Broncos, a two-point Week 2 loss to the Miami Dolphins, a one-score Week 8 road loss to the New England Patriots and an overtime road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 10. 

Since-released rookie kicker Younghoe Koo's game-tying field-goal attempt was blocked in the dying seconds in Denver. One week later, Koo missed a 44-yarder that would have beaten the Dolphins after Los Angeles collapsed in the second half. They might have even beaten mighty New England had they not become inexplicably conservative and had Travis Benjamin not committed one of the dumbest mistakes of the year. And they probably would have beaten the talented, AFC South-leading Jags had rookie running back Austin Ekeler not fumbled when they were essentially running out the clock with a late lead.

The Chargers could have four or five more wins than they do right now, and probably should at least have a winning record. 

Yes, I'm making excuses for the Chargers, and that's because it's important to note that those were all winnable games. If we're going to try to predict what might happen to this team over the next five games, it's worth considering that they've lost just one game all year by more than a score and that nobody has come closer than they have to beating the first-place Philadelphia Eagles during Philly's current eight-game winning streak (they fell 26-24 in a Week 4 thriller). 

Based on Football Outsiders' estimated wins metric, which—as it notes—"projects a number of wins adjusted to a league-average schedule and a league-average rate of recovering fumbles," the Chargers should have had 11.3 wins since the start of 2016 entering Week 12. Instead, they had just nine. They had terrible luck with fumble recoveries and late-game developments last year, and the football gods haven't been much kinder to them this season.

But the law of averages—"the principle that supposes most future events are likely to balance any past deviation from a presumed average," per the Oxford Dictionary—eventually has to give them a hand. 

If that happens, watch out.

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

But the Bolts might not even need luck, because their schedule between now and Dec. 31 is as soft as the Cowboys offense without Ezekiel Elliott. 

The Chargers now get to host the winless Cleveland Browns on extra rest. After that, they draw the corpse of the Washington Redskins. Then it's the panicking Chiefs, a New York Jets team that has lost four of five and an Oakland Raiders squad that has lost six of eight.

Those teams are a combined 5-20 in each of their last five games, and the Chargers probably don't even need to run the table anyway. They can likely still afford to beat themselves one more time, maybe even twice, and still sneak into the playoffs in the jumbled mess that is the AFC. 

Chargers' Remaining Schedule
WeekOpponentOpponent's last 5 games
Week 13Browns0-5
Week 14Redskins1-4
Week 15Chiefs1-4
Week 16Jets1-4
Week 17Raiders2-3
Combined5-20
Pro Football Reference

That should scare the rest of the league, because there are no major weaknesses on this roster. Rivers is a six-time Pro Bowler due for a big run, he's well-supported by star receiver Keenan Allen (11 catches, 172 yards in Week 12), running back Melvin Gordon and a group of pass protectors that has allowed him to be sacked just 12 times in 11 games.

Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram make up one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL, rookie cornerback Desmond King—who had a 90-yard pick-six to cement Thursday's victory—has emerged as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate as part of one of the strongest secondaries in football.

Only five teams have surrendered fewer points per game, and only the Eagles and Jaguars have better turnover differentials. 

Because of how much they've lost and the way they've gone about doing so, it's become easy to mock and overlook the somewhat nomadic Chargers in their weird, temporary home. But while they still have a losing record and remain outside the playoff picture, counting the Bolts out now would be a tremendous oversight. 

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.