It took almost a full season but the San Diego Chargers are finally starting to become the team we envisioned at the beginning of the season. The possibility of a team that would once again become playoff relevant looked good but not great as the Chargers took a 4-3 record into the bye week. The bye week came as the Chargers had won two straight games against Indianapolis and Jacksonville. After the bye, the Chargers dropped three straight games to fall to 4-6. With that losing streak, all hope for a return to prominence looked lost.
The Chargers went to Arrowhead to face the Chiefs. The Chiefs were 9-1 and coming off their first loss at Denver. The Chargers took it to the Chiefs and won a shootout 41-38. That win began a Chargers run that has seen them win four of their last five games. The Chargers now sit at 8-7 with a shot at getting into the playoffs if they can beat the Chiefs at home and the right teams lose on Sunday.
What has been the reason for this turnaround? The offensive line has solidified and while it isn’t a list of marquee names, the same guys are suiting up every week and staying on the field. Last season the offensive line was a turnstile with a new starting five almost every week. First round draft pick D.J. Fluker has done a great job at right tackle, helping open holes for the running backs. When starting left tackle King Dunlap missed games because of a concussion, Fluker moved to left tackle and played just as well. Jeromey Clary has found new life at right guard, Nick Hardwick hasn’t missed a game at center. Rich Ohrnberger, Johnnie Troutman and Chad Rinehart have all played well at left guard. The unit is playing better as the weeks go by and it shows. Rivers has been sacked 27 times through 15 weeks this season. Last season, Rivers was sacked a league high 49 times, a drastic improvement.
Ryan Mathews has found his stride and has put together his best season as a pro. Whether it was a change in philosophy or the new system implemented by head coach Mike McCoy, Mathews has run with a purpose and was one yard away (he had 99 against Oakland) from tying LeSean McCoy with six 100-yard rushing games this season. Mathews has more 100 yard games than higher profile backs like Jamaal Charles(4), Arian Foster(2), DeMarco Murray(3), Alfred Morris(3), Matt Forte(4) and has as many Adrian Peterson(5).
Mathews has run for over 100 yards in five of the last ten games and has a 99 yard game as well. For the first time in his career, he is set to play all 16 games and has already posted a career best 1,111 yards rushing. The Chargers are 4-1 when Mathews rushes for 100.
As a result of the first two factors, Philip Rivers is having an All-Pro season. Only Peyton Manning has more 400 yard games(4) than Rivers(3). Rivers is the fourth highest ranked quarterback in the league.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen was rushed into the starting lineup after a season ending injury to Malcolm Floyd. Allen quickly became the number one receiver and has burst onto the scene over the last 11 games. If Keenan Allen isn’t the Offensive Rookie Of The Year, the award should be discontinued due fraud. Allen is going to be a big name in the NFL as he gets years under his belt.
A who’s who of big names on defense hit the injured list before the season began including Melvin Ingram, Dwight Freeney, Larry English and draft pick Steve Williams. Out of that necessity, lesser names have had to fill greater roles, thrust into the spotlight as starters. As a result, unknowns such as Thomas Keiser, Andrew Gachkar, Bront Bird, Sean Lissemore and rookies Tourek Williams and Mantei Te’o have logged significant playing time and thrived. Now the defense has solidified and become a cohesive unit. The defense now has 33 sacks, 74 passed defensed, 11 interceptions and forced 11 fumbles (recovering 6).
The Chargers have finally all come together and look like one of those teams no one will want to play should they get into the playoffs. They played as close to a perfect game as possible in beating the Giants at home and Broncos in Denver with only five days between games. They played sloppily in the first half of the Raiders game but took over the game in the second half and cruised to victory.
The story of the season is the Chargers have beaten Denver, Kansas City, Dallas, Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Each are teams who are now or were at the top of their division. Their quality of wins are excellent. They have lost to Washington, Oakland, Tennessee and Houston. Those teams are now or were last in their division. Questionable play calling, poor execution and mental lapses have made the difference in the Chargers being in the playoffs now as opposed to fighting for a spot at the end of the season.
The good news is the Chargers are finally playing together. The offense is on track and all the moving pieces on both sides of the ball are set in place and formed a solid wall instead of a Jenga building. The new faces on defense are making fewer mistakes as they get valuable playing time in and that on-the-field experience has made all the difference here at the end of the season. Those unknowns will make the Chargers a dominating defensive unit once the injured players like Freeney, Steve Williams and Ingram start next season healthy.
At 8-7 the Chargers are guaranteed at least a .500 season. Most (not me) expected the Chargers to finish with fewer than eight wins. The McCoy/Telesco era is already off to a promising start and as this program is reshaped, will only get better.