During the upcoming week, you'll hear or read it a thousand times: Next Sunday's tilt between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers is likely an AFC Championship Game preview. The AFC is about New England, Pittsburgh and then everybody else.
But emerging from the "everybody else" category are the Los Angeles Chargers.
Coming off a dominant 30-13 victory over the Washington Redskins, the Chargers have now won four straight games by a combined 78 points. It's been a month since they've won a game by fewer than nine points, and one can argue they haven't been outplayed since they lost 26-24 to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4.
The Bolts did suffer a pair of narrow losses to New England and Jacksonville since then, but they should have beaten the Jaguars before falling in overtime, and they fell by a single score on the road in a toe-to-toe matchup with the Patriots.
Combine those close calls with tough-luck losses to the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins in Weeks 1 and 2, and it's clear the Chargers, who are finally above .500 at 7-6 despite an 0-4 start, are significantly better than their record.
Entering the final three weeks of the regular season, that should make them the favorites to win the wide-open AFC West, which features a 7-6 Kansas City Chiefs team that has lost six of its last eight games, a 6-7 Oakland Raiders team that has been hammered in its last two matchups with playoff-caliber opponents and a 4-9 Denver Broncos team that has been eliminated from playoff contention.
The Chargers clearly have an advantage over Denver and Oakland, especially considering they beat the Raiders on the road in mid-October. But they lost to the Chiefs in September, so their Week 15 matchup in Kansas City could decide who wins the division.
On Sunday, the Chargers ensured they have an edge when it comes to momentum. But they also showed why they are better equipped to challenge the Pats and Steelers than anyone else in the AFC West, including Kansas City.
They have the better quarterback
Alex Smith has enjoyed a career year in KC, but Philip Rivers is capable of doing more than him. He's been a much larger deep threat than Smith over the course of their respective careers, which is why he's been to six Pro Bowls (compared to just two for Smith).
Smith was good but not great in a 26-15 victory over the Raiders on Sunday, completing 20 of 34 passes for 268 yards to go with zero touchdowns and an interception. In his last four games, he's thrown just five touchdown passes to four interceptions and has a passer rating of just 83.8 along with an uncharacteristically low completion percentage of 60.8.
Meanwhile, Rivers lit up the Redskins for 319 yards and two touchdowns. In his last four games, he's completed 69.1 percent of his passes for a silly 9.7 yards per attempt, eight touchdowns to zero picks and a 119.2 rating.
|Philip Rivers vs. Alex Smith, last four games|
|Pro Football Reference/NFL.com|
Smith attempted nine passes that traveled 15-plus yards Sunday. Three were completed, one was intercepted and another was picked off before a offside penalty negated the play. Rivers, on the other hand, was a perfect 5-for-5 on deep-passing attempts, including three 30-plus-yarders and a 75-yard touchdown bomb to Tyrell Williams.
On passes that traveled at least 10 yards, he was 11 of 13 for 268 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
They have more weapons
Rivers also has more to work with than Smith does in Kansas City, which was on full display Sunday. Both Williams and Keenan Allen went over 100 yards, marking the fourth consecutive week in which Allen has accomplished that.
NICK HAMILTON @NickHamiltonLA
Chk our the Tyrell Williams 75-yard catch from Philip Rivers #Chargers https://t.co/WhSVipc0XC2017-12-10 22:24:23
Top Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill is as explosive as anyone in football, and tight end Travis Kelce is a superstar, but KC doesn't have much firepower beyond that. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt has put up big numbers in the backfield, but the third-round pick notched his first solid performance Sunday since the start of November.
Top Bolts backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler combined for 127 yards on 26 carries Sunday, and Gordon now has 10 touchdowns to go along with over 1,100 scrimmage yards. Tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Travis Benjamin are secondary options, but Henry has 50-plus yards in three straight games (scoring two touchdowns in the process), and Benjamin had caught seven passes on nine targets for 118 yards in his previous two games entering Sunday.
They're healthier, which makes it easier to support their quarterback
The Chiefs are without All-Pro safety Eric Berry, which has crippled a defense that was ranked 30th in the NFL entering Sunday. They also miss running back Spencer Ware now that Hunt has come back to earth, and injuries to interior offensive linemen Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Mitch Morse and Bryan Witzmann have made it hard for the offensive line to stay in rhythm. Smith has been sacked eight times in the last three weeks.
Meanwhile, for the first time in years, injuries aren't derailing a Chargers season. They lost left guard Matt Slauson in October, but rookie third-round pick Dan Feeney has been an upgrade in that spot. The pass protection Sunday was once again exceptional for Rivers, who has been sacked just five times since Week 8. They miss cornerback Jason Verrett, who has spent virtually the entire season on injured reserve due to a knee injury, but veteran Casey Hayward deserves to be in the Pro Bowl, and rookie corner Desmond King should be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
That entire defense has become a tremendous strength, with elite edge-rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram combining for 20.5 sacks in front of a secondary has received fantastic performances from Hayward, King, second-year starting corner Trevor Williams and safeties Jahleel Addae and Tre Boston.
Only the Jaguars have allowed fewer points per game this season than Los Angeles (17.3), whose defensive unit has given up just 22 points in its last three outings. The Chargers didn't even allow the Redskins to reach the red zone Sunday, but when opposing offenses have reached their 20-yard line, they've scored touchdowns on just 11 of 29 occasions, per Pro Football Reference.
|Fewest points per game allowed, 2017|
|Team||PPG allowed||Red-zone TD%|
|1. Jacksonville Jaguars||15.5||36.8|
|2. Los Angeles Chargers||17.3||37.9|
|3. Baltimore Ravens||17.5||51.4|
|4. Minnesota Vikings||18.1||44.1|
|5. New England Patriots||18.6||45.7|
|Pro Football Reference/NFL.com (* Through three quarters of Sunday Night Football)|
It's hard to find a weak spot right now, and it's hard to see the Chiefs slowing them down Saturday night.
The Chargers have fooled us before, and nobody has beaten themselves as often as them in recent seasons. But when you look at what they're doing on both sides of the ball, you look at their counterparts and you consider the steam they're gaining, it becomes apparent that they've emerged as the top contender in the AFC West.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.