I don’t really know what to make of the Chargers at this point. I bounce somewhere between cautiously optimistic and downright cynical most of the time.
The beginning of the season served to fuel that cynical side, with an opening including closer-than-should-be wins over the Raiders, losses to any winning team they faced, and a host of issues within the roster.
Now they are sitting at 6-3, tied with Denver for the Division lead coming off big wins against a pair of solid NFC East opponents.
After the Giants game, I thought I had the team mostly pegged down. They could keep a passing attack mostly in check, but would be gouged by the running game giving up over 100 yards on the ground to nearly every team.
They then proceed to go against the Eagles and give up well over 400 yards through the air while only allowing 29 net yards on the ground (granted a Westbrook injury and Andy Reid playbook were major factors for the ground game, but I digress...).
I figure Rivers can put up great games (which he did again with a hyper-efficient game and a passer rating of 130!) but that the running game was a keep-em honest ploy where anything over 50 yards from a back was an aberrance, LT then proceeds to stomp out just short of 100 yards.
Between Denver losing against one of the league’s bottom-dwellers in a Washington team sans starting running back and tight end, and the Chargers victory against a strong Eagles team, I no longer look to the wild-card picture; I have both eyes on the division.
Next week’s game against a skidding Broncos team will put either team in the driver’s seat for the division title, and all momentum is San Diego's way right now.
I’m not sold on LT’s game being more than a blip yet, and the defense will continue to miss Jamal Williams dearly, but this team looks to be ironing out many of their bugs and becoming dangerous in the process.
The defense is not perfect, but a big reason for the turnaround has been a newfound capacity to make big plays. They are finally getting a few picks when the turnover battle had been hurting them dearly.
They have also continued to bring pressure to the QB. They only had two sacks this week, unlike the five-sack outings before, yet it brings the three-week tally to 12, witness to improved playcalling from Rivera with more aggression and blitzing.
This in turn has been brought about by improved secondary play. Jammer has always been reliable but everything else was a mess. Now Hart is gone, they have found a group of three safeties that will never be eyeballing pro bowls but are no longer a liability.
Cromartie, on the other corner, has improved his own play as well. Early season rumblings started for Cason to supplant Cromartie in the starter’s role (Cason has since lost his nickel spot to safety Stephen Gregory), yet Cromartie has persevered and shaped himself into an adequate coverage guy (I still would like to see a mid-tier veteran come in as insurance, not sold on Cromartie putting it all together, but he isn’t a complete mess a la last season and early this year).
Where does the team go? Dallas and Denver look much more beatable after big losses, the Cinci game looks tough as ever, but a loss to the orange and black shouldn’t hinder things too much.
I went from hoping for a wild card after 2-3 to pretty confident in the sixth seed at 5-3, now I would be very surprised if they let Denver take back the Division, too much momentum has shifted for both teams.
The question then becomes the playoffs.
If all goes as expected it will be a tough road for San Diego. Indianapolis and Cincinnati look to hold the first round byes. This means it will be vital to keep pace with the now 6-3 Patriots and grab the No. 3 seed.
This begs the question of round two, and frankly, I feel more confident facing Indianapolis over the Bengals. Cinci is far more physical, and the biggest weakness of San Diego is the capacity to be pushed around.
Regardless of end-of-the-season records, I think the Chargers simply don’t matchup as well against the AFC North.
Do they have what it takes to win a second playoff game? I am not sure, but after this team continues to astound me, I have grown more confident that it is possible. Good luck, and go Chargers!