If the Los Angeles Chargers weren’t in their incredibly strange situation after relocation, maybe we’d hear more about them.
Among all the top teams in the NFL, the one with the least buzz has to be the Chargers. Their appearance on “Sunday Night Football” was notable because it was their first on “SNF” since 2014, and they only got that spot because their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was flexed to prime time. Because the Chargers alienated San Diego by moving and were an afterthought in Los Angeles, especially with the Rams moving back a year before, they’re in a weird situation of playing in a massive market with a tiny fan base. That’s why they’re not at the front of the NFL conversation.
That appearance on Sunday night should bring more attention to the Chargers, who have the talent to make a deep playoff run (and a history of finding ways to screw it up).
The officials clearly played a part in the Chargers’ comeback win, considering two of Los Angeles’ touchdowns came on plays in which there were missed calls. Still, the Chargers out-executed the Steelers in just about every way over the final half of the game to win 33-30. It’s also important to note they did so without injured running back Melvin Gordon, a huge part of their offense. It was an impressive win.
Most people realize how good the Chargers are, even if they slip in and out of our consciousness because they’re rarely on national television. Since last Nov. 19, the Chargers have gone 15-4. Two of those losses were to the Chiefs and one was to the Rams (another was to the Broncos a couple weeks ago … hold that thought). The offense and defense rank in the NFL’s top 10 in points, yards and in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. The Chargers special teams aren’t good (they ranked 32nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA before Week 13) and that could be an issue in the postseason. But if the Chargers’ special teams don’t ruin them, the offense and defense won’t either. Philip Rivers is having a season that puts him just outside the MVP conversation, Keenan Allen is perhaps the hottest receiver in the NFL and as Joey Bosa gets more comfortable in his return from injury the defense will get even better. It’s a deep, talented team.
There are a couple of issues with the Chargers, of course. One is that they’ve blown so many winnable games the past few years, it’s hard to believe that some massive disappointment isn’t around the corner. Just two weeks ago they lost at home to the Broncos after some clock mismanagement and a long Broncos drive that ended in a field goal. Maybe we can write that off as a weird result that most teams will have, but that’s not a loss many elite teams will take. That makes it harder to trust the Chargers.
Also a problem: The Chargers play in the AFC West with one of the best teams in football. To beat the Chiefs for the division title they’ll likely need to win at Kansas City on Dec. 13, a Thursday night, and still get additional help. Los Angeles trails Kansas City by a game in the standings. The loss to the Broncos is especially costly because divisional record is the second tiebreaker after head-to-head. The Chiefs don’t have a divisional loss yet and the Chargers have two, including their Week 1 loss to the Chiefs.
The most likely outcome is the Chargers will have to go on the road and they’ll need to win three road games against Kansas City, New England, Pittsburgh or Houston to make a Super Bowl. The Chargers showed with the win at Pittsburgh they’re capable of beating very good teams on the road, but that’s still a lot to ask.
Maybe there’s more lurking for the Chargers this season, but that probably depends on them being two games better than the Chiefs over the last four weeks. If that doesn’t happen however, they’ll still be a team worth watching in January, even if they don’t have much of a fan base watching along.
Here are the power rankings after Week 13 of the NFL season:
32. Oakland Raiders (2-10, Last Week: 31)
The Raiders acquitted themselves fine against the Chiefs. Derek Carr played well. Jared Cook had 100 yards. Everyone expected the Raiders to get blown out, and they lost by only a touchdown, 40-33. Hey, it’s all about small victories.
31. San Francisco 49ers (2-10, LW: 30)
Rookie Dante Pettis’ 129-yard, two-touchdown day was a nice highlight. Pettis has played well with Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin out of the lineup. He was a second-round pick, and it’s nice to see him paying off.
30. Arizona Cardinals (3-9, LW: 32)
First-year coach Steve Wilks needed that win on Sunday. Maybe he wasn’t going to get fired after one season, but it reportedly wasn’t totally off the table either. You’d assume a big win at Green Bay quiets any of that talk.
29. New York Jets (3-9, LW: 29)
Josh McCown was a nice story last season. But the Jets will be very happy when Sam Darnold can play again (it looks like it could be this week).
28. Cincinnati Bengals (5-7, LW: 25)
No Andy Dalton, no A.J. Green and a defense that has just cratered. Bengals tickets should be pretty cheap the rest of the season.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8, LW: 28)
Did the defense really just quit on Blake Bortles? I mean, it’s either that or their first good effort in two months happened coincidentally right after Bortles was benched.
26. New York Giants (4-8, LW: 27)
Odell Beckham averaged 49 yards per attempt. Eli Manning averaged 4.9 yards per attempt. Just some funny symmetry. It was a good for the Giants to beat the Bears. If nothing else, it helps build more confidence in what Pat Shurmur is doing.
25. Buffalo Bills (4-8, LW: 26)
As I touched on in Winners and Losers from Sunday, I’m impressed with what the Bills have done. Their offense has been terrible most of the season, but that’s a talent issue. Buffalo fights hard every game. The Bills probably should have won at Miami on Sunday. They’re going to add some more wins before the season is over. I figured after two weeks they’d hold the No. 32 spot all season, but they’re not anywhere close to as bad as teams like the Cardinals, Raiders or 49ers, and those other teams probably have more talent.
24. Detroit Lions (4-8, LW: 23)
On Sunday the Lions’ leader in rushing yards was LeGarrette Blount, the leader in receiving yards was Levine Toilolo and the leader in receptions was Bruce Ellington. Matthew Stafford is struggling, but look at what he’s working with.
23. Atlanta Falcons (4-8, LW: 21)
Baltimore has a good defense, but how does an offense like Atlanta post 131 yards at home? That’s incredibly poor. You have to wonder, now on a four-game winning streak, if the Falcons are going to mail in the rest of the season.
22. Washington Redskins (6-6, LW: 15)
On Nov. 18, Mark Sanchez was a free agent, out of football all year. He signed with Washington the next day, after Alex Smith’s injury. Two weeks later, Sanchez became Washington’s starter when Colt McCoy broke his leg. It’s hard to see the Redskins winning another game.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7, LW: 24)
Two starts for Jameis Winston on his latest chance: 49-of-68, 561 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 116.1 passer rating. This is going to be one interesting ride, as it pertains to his future.
20. Cleveland Browns (4-7-1, LW: 20)
There is going to be a lot of Mike McCarthy-Browns speculation, given John Dorsey’s past connections to Green Bay. However, the main criticism of McCarthy in recent years has been that his offense is entirely stale, and that was with Aaron Rodgers. So would hiring him actually be the best move for the Browns?
19. Green Bay Packers (4-7-1, LW: 18)
Much was made out of the Packers saying Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t be involved in the search for Mike McCarthy’s successor. But why won’t he be? This is a fairly unusual situation, with an all-time great player about to enter a relationship with what could be his final NFL head coach. I’m not saying to let Rodgers make the final call, but why wouldn’t you want his educated input on who his next head coach should be? It’s not like he hasn’t earned it either.
18. Miami Dolphins (6-6, LW: 22)
The Dolphins pretty much escaped on Sunday. If Josh Allen’s fourth-down heave was a little further or Charles Clay had managed to cradle it for a touchdown, Miami would have been dealt a brutal loss. But instead the Dolphins are 6-6 and one of the strangest wild-card contenders you’ll find. I don’t think they’re good, but they’re still alive.
17. Denver Broncos (6-6, LW: 19)
Phillip Lindsay’s rookie season is why teams should always think twice about drafting a running back in the first round. Not that undrafted success stories like Lindsay are easy to find, but it can happen at that position. Lindsay is a really good player, probably the Broncos offensive MVP this season.
16. Carolina Panthers (6-6, LW: 12)
My guess is we’re in for a few weeks of discussion on Ron Rivera’s job security. The Panthers’ season has turned south (though there’s still time to save it), but the college football mentality of firing a coach anytime anything goes bad isn’t always the right path. Rivera is a good coach. He has lost his defensive coordinator in each of the past two offseasons, and that seems to be catching up to the Panthers. Cam Newton’s shoulder clearly isn’t right. The Panthers have lost some close games. None of that indicates Rivera has forgotten how to coach. Firing Rivera would just be a reactionary move that serves little purpose.
15. Indianapolis Colts (6-6, LW: 14)
The Colts were on a roll, then just had a bad day against a Jaguars team that finally decided to play hard for the first time in two months. The problem is the rest of the AFC wild-card contenders all took a step forward at the same time, and the Texans are now practically out of reach in the AFC South too.
14. Tennessee Titans (6-6, LW: 17)
The Titans looked terrible in the first half against a bad Jets team, then rallied in the second half and won in the final couple minutes. That’s symbolic of how wildly unpredictable this team is. Yet, they’re still alive.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (6-6, LW: 16)
Even if the Eagles beat the Cowboys on Sunday, they still have the Rams and Texans after that. But if the Eagles win at Dallas, at least they’d have a chance to make something out of a disappointing season.
12. Minnesota Vikings (6-5-1, LW: 9)
When the Vikings got blasted by the Bills in September, that was a sign of where this season was headed. None of their other losses are bad (Rams, Saints, Bears, Patriots) but their best win is probably against the Eagles. They’re just a mediocre team, a season after they were really good.
11. Baltimore Ravens (7-5, LW: 13)
Another week, more reason to keep Lamar Jackson as the starter. Why not see where this goes? It’s working so far.
10. Seattle Seahawks (7-5, LW: 11)
Bobby Wagner’s line on Sunday: 12 tackles, one sack, one interception, two passes defensed, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown. He’s pretty good.
9. Dallas Cowboys (7-5, LW: 10)
There won’t be many better wins in the entire NFL regular season than the Cowboys beating the Saints last week. I’m not sure that means the Cowboys are a contender to win the NFC, but it might end up being the win that gets them a division title.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1, LW: 5)
As Warren Sharp of SharpFootballAnalysis.com pointed out, the Steelers for some reason thought it was a good idea to defend Chargers star receiver Keenan Allen with a linebacker most of Sunday night. NFL Next Gen Stats said seven of Allen’s catches came against linebackers. That’s a really strange coaching decision, to be polite as possible.
7. Chicago Bears (8-4, LW: 6)
Losses like Sunday happen. The Bears were on the road with a backup quarterback and lost in overtime. They were fortunate to force overtime, but it’s still not the worst loss. Also, nobody else in the NFC North is good enough to catch them.
6. Houston Texans (9-3, LW: 8)
Lamar Miller is having a renaissance season. He has gone from 3.7 yards last season to 5.0 this year (a 97-yard touchdown helps). Miller has 100 yards in four of the Texans’ last six games, and an 86-yard game too. He’s having a career year after it looked like he might be done as an effective back.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (9-3, LW: 7)
How did Chargers cornerback Desmond King fall to the fifth round of the draft a year ago? He won the Jim Thorpe Award at Iowa and was a great playmaker there. He didn’t run well before the draft but he’s obviously fast enough to be a nice piece for a good Chargers defense.
4. New England Patriots (9-3, LW: 4)
The Patriots have been a different team at home. They’re 6-0 at home and 3-3 on the road with three double-digit losses to questionable teams (Jaguars, Lions, Titans). Meanwhile they have four double-digit wins at home and close wins against the Texans and Chiefs, and they’re both first-place teams. What seed the Patriots end up with could determine if we’re spending another Super Bowl Sunday with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-2, LW: 3)
If we’re simply talking about the loss of Kareem Hunt in a football sense, I don’t think it’s that big of a blow to the Chiefs. Hunt is a very good player, but Spencer Ware is capable. He has a 4.6-yard career average. He looked like a pretty good back in 2016, then he got hurt and Hunt took off. Depth is now an issue at tailback for the Chiefs, and it’s not ideal to go forward without Hunt, but I don’t think it’s a loss that fundamentally changes the Chiefs’ chances to win it all. However, Ware has to stay healthy.
2. New Orleans Saints (10-2, LW: 1)
Life in the NFL is tough at times. The Saints’ loss on a Thursday night at Dallas wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. But now, unless the Rams lose at Chicago this week, New Orleans is looking at the very real possibility of having to go on the road if they make the NFC championship game, even with a 14-2 finish. If a 14-2 Saints team loses a conference championship game on the road, that’s a really rough ending to a great season. Yet, it seems like a reasonable prediction.
1. Los Angeles Rams (11-1, LW: 2)
It stinks that defensive players practically can’t win the MVP. Because I think Aaron Donald might deserve it. I don’t think there has been a better player in the NFL this season, and he plays for the only 11-1 team. The best player in the league on the best team in the league should get more MVP consideration than he’s going to get.
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