In 2016, there hasn’t been much of a difference between a win and a loss. Through six weeks, we’ve seen more NFL games finish within one score (50) than in any other season since the turn of the century. And no team knows the volatility of results as well as the 2–4 Chargers, who, with one or two fewer blunders and a couple more balls bouncing their way, could be 6–0 at this point. It’s almost never a good idea to play the what-if game, but San Diego’s path to four losses in their first six weeks has been extraordinary.
In Week 1, the Chargers led the Chiefs 27–10 with 13:24 remaining before surrendering 23 unanswered points and losing 33–27. In Week 3, they couldn’t hold on to a 22–20 fourth-quarter lead with less than two minutes remaining and lost to the Colts, 26–22. In Week 4, they blew a 34–21 lead with less than seven minutes left to drop a game to the Saints, 35–34. And in Week 5, they lost an eight-point third-quarter lead and fell 34–31 to the Raiders.
This isn’t your garden-variety bad luck either; it’s some sort of cosmic grudge. As the The Wall Street Journal notes, the odds that the Chargers would lose all four of those games comes out to about 1 in … 30 million. Per Pro-Football-Reference’s win-probability model, two-thirds of the time, San Diego would’ve won all four.
So, uh, Chargers fans, maybe God really doesn’t want your team to win. Or, maybe there’s another, less deterministic way to look at it: Your team is actually pretty good — Philip Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Joey Bosa looks like a breakout star — and things should start falling the Chargers’ way soon.
At 2–4, the Chargers sit alone at the bottom of the AFC West, but they’re not your typical last-place team. Their four losses came by a combined 14 points. They’ve been in the lead 62.9 percent of the time this year, fifth most in NFL. Most importantly, they’re actually built for consistent success. They feature a top-tier franchise quarterback in Rivers. They’ve got talent and depth on defense, including rookie phenom Bosa. And despite losing their best receiver (Keenan Allen) in Week 1, their best pass-catching running back (Danny Woodhead) in Week 2, and their star shutdown cornerback (Jason Verrett) in Week 4, they own the eighth-ranked offense and the 12th-ranked defense, per Football Outsiders DVOA. If you need any more convincing, just look at their 21–13 win over the defending Super Bowl champs last Thursday.
Of course, no amount of talent will matter if the Chargers can’t start playing better late in games. Through three quarters, there might not be a better team in the NFL: San Diego has averaged 24.2 points through the first three frames — second only to the Falcons — but when it comes to the fourth quarter, both sides of the ball fall off a cliff. Their 4.7 points in the final quarter ranks 28th, they’re converting third downs just 17 percent of the time in the fourth (29th in the NFL), and their four fourth-quarter turnovers are fifth-most in the league. When the offense can’t convert third downs late and gives the ball away, it makes life rough on their defense: San Diego has given up an average of 11.3 points per game in the fourth quarter, second-worst in the NFL.
Most of the fourth-quarter struggles can be ascribed to a combination of untimely mistakes and bad fumble luck. In Week 1, Josh Lambo left the door open when, with the Chargers leading 27–10 at the 11:25 mark, he missed a 54-yard field goal that would’ve pushed the lead to 20. Later in the quarter, after Kansas City had crept back to within seven, Drew Kaser shanked a punt from his own 25-yard line, netting just 17 yards, setting the Chiefs up for their game-tying drive. In Week 3, with the Chargers trailing the Colts by four, a Hunter Henry fumble with 1:11 remaining killed any chance at a game-winning drive. And in Week 5 in Oakland, a pair of special teams errors — another 16-yard punt shank by Kaser late in the third quarter, followed by his fumbled snap on a 35-yard field goal attempt that would’ve tied the game at 34 with 2:07 remaining — sealed the San Diego’s fate.
There is some hope that San Diego’s turnover problem could improve. Fumble recoveries are mostly random, and the Chargers have been incredibly unlucky when it comes to tracking down loose balls. They’ve fumbled a league-high 16 times and lost 10 of them (most in the NFL) to their opponents. Compare that to the Browns, who have fumbled 13 times but have lost just three to the defense. With any regression to the mean, the Chargers’ numbers will even out.
Still, this isn’t totally random. San Diego needs to stay aggressive late in games, and head coach Mike McCoy may have learned that lesson last week. In the big win over the Broncos, San Diego went into conservative run-the-clock-out mode holding a 21–3 lead early in the fourth. Rivers dropped back to pass just one time the whole quarter, and he was sacked. Of course, this allowed Denver to chip away at the lead, but the Chargers held on to win 21–13 when a Hail Mary on the final play fell incomplete. They got the meltdown monkey off their backs — but just barely.
At 34 years old, Rivers hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down, and as long as he’s under center, the Chargers are going to score points: They’re third in the league in scoring with 28.8 per game. Rivers has overcome a mostly bad offensive line (which ranks 22nd in both adjusted line yards in pass protection, per Football Outsiders) to complete 67.2 percent of his passes, throw 12 touchdowns to just three picks, and average 8.2 yards per attempt (tied for second in the NFL). He remains one of the best pocket passers in the NFL — rarely fazed the pressure around him — and he’s an aggressive thrower down the field.
What’s more, he’s doing it all without his top two targets from last year in Allen and Woodhead, while the trusty Antonio Gates has been banged up for much of the season as well. But the transition to a passing game featuring Travis Benjamin and the duo of… [puts on bifocals, sifts through notes] … two people named Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman, has been seamless. Additionally, tight end Hunter Henry, a second-round pick out of Arkansas, provided a huge boost when Gates missed two games. He’s caught 19 passes for 310 yards and a team-high three touchdowns and has replaced Gates as the Chargers’ no. 1 tight end. Thanks to his ability to line up all over the field, he’s already developed a nice rapport with Rivers.
Henry has shown remarkable ability (for a tight end) to take a short pass and turn it into a big gain. Against the Raiders, he took a quick slant over the middle and rumbled for 59 yards. Then against the Broncos, he made a similar play to pick up 27 yards.
He’s displayed the ability to make tough catches …
… and he’s also a precise route runner.
Perhaps most importantly, Henry’s shown that he can be a red zone threat. In Oakland, he ran off of a rub route from the wing and caught a pass in the back of the end zone. Against Denver, the rub-route roles changed: He moved to the slot as the inside man on the combination route, and when the Broncos switched, he looped around, got leverage on Denver corner Chris Harris, boxed Harris out, and caught the pass.
The emergence of Melvin Gordon as a reliable, three-down running back for the Chargers’ ground game has been a big boost, but Rivers not skipping a beat despite throwing to a group fresh faces, led by Henry, has been the most impressive thing about the San Diego offense.
The Chargers defense has made big improvements over the 2015 squad that ranked 24th in defensive DVOA. Part of it has been the continued development of key starters like outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Kyle Emanuel and defensive linemen Corey Liuget and Tenny Palepoi. San Diego’s spending spree in free agency this past offseason is paying dividends, too: Nose tackle Brandon Mebane has been a physical force on the inside of the line, blowing up run plays by shooting into the backfield, and cornerback Casey Hayward has been an excellent cover man in the secondary, helping to account for the loss of Verrett. But it’s the rookie class that’s really stealing the show for San Diego’s defense.
Inside linebacker Jatavis Brown — a fifth-round pick in April — has been all over the field, and he leads the team in tackles after racking up 14 on last Thursday against the Broncos. Despite the hostile contract standoff between Bosa and San Diego’s front office, the third-overall pick has been as good as advertised, too. Bosa has lined up at defensive end on both sides of the line, where he’s collected 14 quarterback pressures and two sacks in just two games after missing the first four to a hamstring injury. His speed and power gives the Chargers defense a new complexion: Bosa is a three-down player that can rush off the edge, change speeds to anchor against the run, and loop around to the inside on stunts to get to the quarterback.
His two sacks were based more on coverage and team effort to collapse the pocket, but in them, you can see his unrelenting motor in action. He sticks with both plays, keeping his eye on Derek Carr to prevent him from escaping to scramble.
Against the run, he’s already shown the value in having a 269-pound defensive end that can provide some power on the edge. Against the Raiders, we saw that twice: In the first quarter, he took on Oakland left tackle Donald Penn, stopped the block in its tracks, then made the tackle when running back Jalen Richard cut the ball inside. In the second quarter, he swatted Denver Kirkland aside to loop inside and stop Richard for a 2-yard loss.
Bosa’s best play so far wasn’t a sack or a run stop, though. It was this play in the second quarter against Denver, when he tracked down Trevor Siemian from behind on a third-and-11, preventing him from scrambling for the first down. That drew emphatic fist pumps from McCoy and forced the Broncos to kick a field goal.
Their record might not say it just yet, but the Chargers are a good football team. The next two weeks, though, should tell us just how good. They hit the road on Sunday to face off against the high-octane Atlanta Falcons passing game before heading to Denver for a rematch with the Broncos. It’s as challenging of a road trip as you could find in the NFL right now, but if it seems like the Chargers have already dug themselves into an inescapable hole, we don’t have to look far to see why that’s not true. Last year, the Chiefs started out 1–5 before winning 11 straight and going to the playoffs, and the Seahawks found themselves at 2–4 last season before winning eight of their final 10 games to secure a playoff berth.
San Diego has the talent to contend for a playoff spot in the AFC if it can fix its late-game issues. The Chargers are a good team that hasn’t been executing in all the wrong spots. It’s an important distinction: They’re not fundamentally flawed, they don’t lack depth, and they’re not running with a bunch of developmental projects in key positions like many of the other cellar-dwelling teams of the league. With a combination of skilled young players and experienced veterans, San Diego has a great chance to turn its season around — unless, of course, someone else is pulling the strings.