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Shutdown Countdown: San Diego Chargers go for another playoff berth

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

Mike McCoy got almost no buzz for coach of the year at the end of last season. But McCoy, a first-time head coach, did a phenomenal job.

San Diego's roster, on paper, wasn't impressive. Quarterback Philip Rivers was in a multiple-year slide. The defense looked like a mess ... and it ended up being a mess. With a rookie head coach the Chargers went 9-7, were the only team to win at Denver all season, beat a tough Cincinnati team on the road in the playoffs and gave Denver a good game the following week before falling.

And San Diego was on the verge of having a much better record, considering it had brutally close losses to Houston, Tennessee and Washington. The Chargers also had a four-point loss at Miami in which their final drive stalled on the Dolphins' 25-yard line. So they were a bit unlucky to be just 9-7 last year. And give McCoy a lot of credit for not letting the Chargers get down after a few crushing losses early on.

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Mike McCoy (USA Today Sports Images)

Mike McCoy (USA Today Sports Images)

McCoy's smartest move was changing the offense to better suit Rivers, putting more emphasis on getting rid of the ball quicker behind a terrible line that couldn't protect him the previous couple seasons. Rivers' numbers improved dramatically from 2012. He threw for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns. The defense wasn't good, but that didn't prevent the Chargers from getting a playoff spot.

Hiring McCoy, the former Broncos offensive coordinator, looks like one of the best moves of the 2013 offseason, even if it didn't get enough attention.

2013 review in less than 25 words: At 5-7 the Chargers' season looked finished, but they won four straight and got a ton of help to get a wild card.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The Chargers had a bit of an odd offseason. It seemed like they would try to fix a defense that was below average at best, but the main free-agent addition was ... running back Donald Brown. The move was strange because running back was a position of strength. The team didn't lose anyone of note, and re-signed linebacker Donald Butler before he hit free agency, so the roster is about the same. But I still didn't like their offseason plan.

Best offseason acquisition: Cornerback Brandon Flowers seems to fit that defensive need the Chargers had, and he is an upgrade. But before anyone gets excited, let's keep in mind that the Chiefs, who have plenty of cap space and didn't add anyone noteworthy this offseason, cut Flowers in June because they didn't think he was worth the money. Maybe the Chiefs were wrong about Flowers, but this isn't exactly the Patriots signing Darrelle Revis. Still, between Flowers and first-round pick Jason Verrett, San Diego's cornerbacks will be better.

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Achilles heel: There were four defenses that gave up more than 6 yards per play last season: Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and San Diego. The Chargers ranked 29th in yards per pass attempt allowed and 27th in yards per rushing attempt allowed, so they were bad all around on defense. San Diego's defense ranked 32nd in Football Outsiders' DVOA per-play metric. Make no mistake, the Chargers went to the playoffs in spite of their defense. They were good at keeping teams out of the end zone (11th in points allowed) but you can keep that up for only so long if you're giving up a ton of yards.

The defense needs to improve for the Chargers to get back in the playoffs.

Position in flux: For years, Antonio Gates has been Philip Rivers' best target in the passing game. Now, there's a fair question if Gates is even the Chargers' best tight end.

Gates isn't going anywhere after a solid 2013 season, but he had 550 yards in the first half of the season and just 322 in the second half. When he slowed down, Ladarius Green took off. He averaged 22.1 yards per catch, a ridiculous number for any player and an otherworldly figure for a tight end. Green had a playoff touchdown and Gates had just three catches for 15 yards in two playoff games. Gates is 34, and while he's a Hall of Famer, the Chargers might have to make tough decisions about how to use both tight ends, and which one helps them more now.

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Manti Te'o (USA Today Sports Images)

Manti Te'o (USA Today Sports Images)

Ready to break out: Now that we've reached a point where Manti Te'o is a football player and not an easy subject for bad amateur comedians on Twitter, it will be worth watching what kind of strides he makes his second season. As a rookie, Te'o was set back by a foot injury he suffered in preseason. He missed San Diego's first three games, and had surgery after the season. He still had a fair rookie season and one would assume he'll be better this season.

The Chargers didn't trade up to take Te'o in the second round to have him be a career-long two-down linebacker, which he was as a rookie, so expect an expanded role too. Te'o was one of college football's all-time great linebackers, and he has a chance to be a good pro as well.

Stat fact: Keenan Allen was just the fifth rookie receiver since 2000 to reach 1,000 yards, he set Chargers records with 71 catches and 1,046 yards and added eight touchdowns too. Even more remarkable, through three games Allen had three catches for 30 yards. So he did some impressive damage in what amounts to a 13-game season. The Chargers will feature him early and often this season, and his numbers should improve significantly.

Schedule degree of difficulty: The bad news is the Chargers are tied for the fourth toughest schedule in the NFL. It won't be nearly as easy to make the playoffs with a slate that includes four games against the NFC West. The Chargers' final five games are at Baltimore, vs. New England, vs. Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City. Good luck.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: The Chargers could have easily won a couple more games and not had to sweat out a playoff berth last season, barely beating a Kansas City team that played virtually no starters in Week 17. The decisive win against the Bengals validated their playoff spot and should give the team confidence this year. Rivers has seemingly been reborn (the emergence of Green and Allen helped), and if the defense improves some, there's no reason the Chargers can't be just as good as last year and make the playoffs again.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: If the defense isn't better, it's hard to live on the "bend and don't break" model forever. Especially against a schedule that will be much tougher. If running back Ryan Mathews, who was the MVP in that late-season run, remembers that he's supposed to be injury prone, the defense isn't any better and the points allowed match up with the yards allowed, the Chargers won't be going back to the playoffs.

The crystal ball says: The Chargers' schedule is a lot tougher. But this team showed last year that it's pretty good, and there just aren't many quality teams in the AFC this season. Someone has to grab the wild-card spots, and the Chargers are as good of a bet as any. This is a well-coached team with a good offense (albeit one that lost coordinator Ken Whisenhunt in the offseason). If the defense is better, San Diego will be one of a few teams in the hunt for the sixth seed.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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