Are they the NFL’s best flip-the-switch team? Sure. Do they clean up around the holidays like a Times Square sanitation crew? Of course they do. The Chargers are 25-5 under Norv Turner in November or later, including a staggering 17-game winning streak. But past performance is no guarantee of future success. Ask Wall Street if you don’t believe me.
The previous three seasons have seen the Chargers turn the late-season playoff push to an art form. Essential to their season’s arc is a quintessential knack for giving away early season games, as they managed repeatedly this year with turnovers and special teams gaffes. Each year, the Chargers have found a way to fall behind the eight-ball like a frat kid in Biology class, only to rocket to a division title. Assuming the Chargers will do the same this year might be putting the cart before the horse.
Here are six reasons why it’s too early to pencil the Chargers in for a playoff run.
Other professional sports are year-to-year leagues, where a team can gradually change fortunes by adding or subtracting pieces. Not in pro football. In the NFL, a team like the Titans might just have the fifth-rated passer in the league and a contending record one week, then Vince Young might throw his uniform in the stands and back-up Kerry Collins might tweak his calf muscle while walking. Season over. Three weeks ago the Dolphins lost their starting and back-up quarterbacks in the same game. Despite a 6-5 record, their season is officially on life-support.
After Week 12, the Chargers are riding a four-game win streak, with three consecutive home games on the horizon and a lengthy history of winning this time of year. But fortunes change in this league every Sunday. Just ask the Raiders, Cardinals, Buccaneers, or Texans—all teams that saw first place in their divisions earlier this year.
Wait, there’s a good team in this division this year? Say hello to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs have a beast wide receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in Matt Cassel. Add 1,000-yard rusher Jamal Charles and a solid offensive line and you have the fourth highest-scoring offense in the NFL. Yes, the defense is just okay, but they are in first place with a 7-4 record.
While the Chargers have been dropping the hammer on AFC rivals the last two weeks, the Chiefs have been doing the same on NFC rivals—putting up 42 points on the Seahawks and 31 on the Cardinals.
The Chargers boast a weak schedule the remainder of the season, but the Chiefs do too, including three home games against inferior competition. Their one tough game left is on the road against the Chargers, a team they beat earlier in the year. With the wild-card berths likely emerging from the AFC East and North, this Week 14 game could be for the playoffs.
Most NFL fans watched the Chargers dismantle the Broncos and/or the Colts on consecutive prime time weekend games. These two wins have catapulted the Chargers up the experts’ power rankings. However, the Broncos and Colts are not the playoff barometers they once were.
The Broncos were a good test for the Chargers until the second quarter of their match-up two weeks ago, when they lost the ability to block, run, tackle, or throw. Riddled with injuries, the Colts played their worst home game yet under Peyton Manning. They looked like a middle school football team, except with worse uniforms and in a dome. I’m not saying the Colts have lost their swagger but, during the second half of their 36-14 loss, stadium management no longer had the need to place their famous moratorium on crowd noise when the offense was on the field.
Gone are the veterans that led the Chargers on their late-season streaks. LaDainian Tomlinson, Shawne Merriman, Jamal Williams, and Antonio Cromartie have all been shipped elsewhere, leaving the team with talented but untested replacements.
These Chargers are not without leadership in Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates on offense, and Shaun Phillips leading one of the league’s top defenses. But this team will need Mike Tolbert, Larry English and Antoine Cason to fill in where their predecessors left off to put together the two-month rally they’ll need to make the 2010 playoffs.
Gates, Vincent Jackson, Buster Davis, Ryan Mathews will all either miss time or play at less than 100 percent down the stretch. The big question is Gates, who has a torn plantar fascia and sprained ankle. He limps with a boot during the week and has trouble walking to his car, but finds a way to play every Sunday. He likely will be playing hurt for the rest of the year, and how effectively he can fight through the pain will go a long way in determining the outcome of the Chargers’ season.
Vincent Jackson is out with a case of the Greedy Agents and Ryan Mathews has struggled with rookie-itis all year. The Chargers have featured a revolving door policy at wide receiver and running back most of the year with great success, thanks to the outstanding play of Rivers. However, it is well-known that December football favors the healthier teams, and the Chargers have been healthier the last two years than they are now.
The Chargers' fortunes have risen and fallen with the running game, and though Rivers remains near a record-setting pace for yardage, Turner is determined to run the ball. He was quick to compliment Tolbert and the offensive line following their win over the Colts, a game in which they dominated in every facet.
The Chargers’ last three wins have come against a roll call of the league’s worst run defenses: the Texans, Broncos and Colts. With the sledding only slightly tougher the rest of the way and Mathews on the verge of coming back, the Chargers have a good chance to continue their emergence on the ground. But it’s too soon to say it will be enough to make a playoff push.