Following Sunday’s loss to Miami, the Chargers hopes for making the playoffs are on life support. At 4-6 the Chargers would have to run the table to make the postseason. With one game each against Denver and Oakland, plus two games against Kansas City, that is not an impossible task but it is an unlikely one. Losing to Miami gave away their margin for error. A win would have put the Chargers at 5-5 and in the thick of the wild card race. Instead, the Chargers now sit two games out of the wild card and in last place in the AFC West.
Lost in the ugliness of their record is the fact that this is a good team. Considering the magnitude of the injuries that have cost them big name players on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball the team has played very well. The Chargers have not been blown out this season, their worst loss was by ten points to the Raiders in a game that started after most of them go to bed. They are in every game in the fourth quarter. The knock on this team is the same as it has been since they were making the playoffs every year. This is not a mentally tough team. The Chargers have beaten themselves more than the other team has beaten them.
The Miami game is a great example of that. Corey Liuget’s inexcusable hit on quarterback Ryan Tannehill cost the Chargers a key turnover on the goal line. The Dolphins scored a touchdown on that drive. In a game decided by four points, that is a huge swing in momentum. Similarly, Philip Rivers’ decision to throw the ball after crossing the line of scrimmage resulted in loss of down and penalty yards on a play that began with goal-to-go at the Dolphins 5-yard line. The Chargers had to settle for a field goal.
The play in the secondary was horrible, especially from Derek Cox who dropped a sure interception that would have been six points as there was nothing but grass between him and the end zone. Cox missed open field tackles and gave more than enough cushion all game long to Brian Hartline, possibly one of the slowest wideouts in the league.
All season the defense has given up key plays at the end of the game. Against Houston and Tennessee they gave big chunks of yardage that allowed those teams to get the game-winning scores as time expired in the fourth quarter. Against Oakland, the offense turned over the ball late in the fourth quarter to allow the Raiders to score and seal the game. In Washington the offense couldn’t convert on goal-to-go from the ONE yard line to win the game. The Redskins took the ball and the win in overtime.
Both sides of the ball has given away the game deep in the fourth quarter. That’s four wins that would have the Chargers near the top of the playoff race with Denver and Kansas City. Those mental mistakes are what need to be corrected. Championship teams make those plays. Championship team get the key stops and score touchdowns with four downs inside the opponents 5-yard line. The good news is mental mistakes can be corrected and coached up. The bad news is it can take time to usher in that championship level of football to a team that has few players left with championship level experience.
So, what should we expect from the Chargers for the duration of the 2013 season?
The Chargers need to finish the final six games strong to end the season. There is not a game on the schedule they can’t win. Four wins in their last six games would get them to 8-8, an improvement from last year’s 7-9. Five wins could possible get them in the playoffs if the right teams lose at the right time. If the Chargers can beat their division rivals that would give Denver another loss and Kansas City two losses. Those wins would pull Denver and KC back to the pack and improve the Chargers chances of getting in. Their two non-division games, the New York Giants and Cincinnati, are back-to-back home games that they can definitely win.
If the Chargers can fix the mental mistakes and play to their capability instead of to the level of their opponents as they tend to do, they can possibly run the table. The Chargers swept the same Kansas City team that is 9-1 right now just last season. All that has changed is their coach and quarterback. They can sweep the Chiefs again if they bring their A-game. The Chargers held Denver to their then season low in points (28) until Sunday night against KC where the Broncos scored 27.
We all want to see this team right the ship and get into the playoffs. We also know this team is in the midst of a massive rebuild and not even the most tunnel-visioned fan sees the Chargers winning the Super Bowl this year. What we want to see is improvement. What we want to see is a better team and an offense that makes us want to watch it. What we want to see is a team that plays with its full complement of weapons instead of an all-star team on the injured reserve list. These are all things that can and will happen but it will take time. The amount of time it takes is up to the team and the organization.
If you improve it, they will come.
The Greg One