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The Chargers Can’t Lose Close Games Forever … or Can They?

Our understanding of football indicates that the talented team should improve, but that’s little consolation for long-suffering fans

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s an old saying: You can take the Chargers out of San Diego, but you can’t take the inevitability of devastating, soul-crushing defeats out of the Chargers. I think that’s how it goes, anyway.

Prior to the start of the season, the Chargers looked like a team that had the potential to go from worst-to-first in the AFC West. They had the chance to start with a new energy, in a new city, and with a new head coach; featured a top-flight veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers; had plenty of talent on defense in pass rushers Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and others; were getting key players, like receiver Keenan Allen, back from injury; and were about to throw an exciting and talented draft class into the mix. But two weeks into the season, the team still feels cursed. Los Angeles has yet to embrace its new team, the top two picks from that exciting rookie class are injured, and they’ve already suffered a pair of their signature last-second defeats. Overall, the Chargers seem sadder than ever before. Worse yet, they draw the Chiefs this Sunday, a team that, so far, looks like the class of the AFC.

On paper, a game pitting a 2-0 squad that’s off to the hottest start in the league against an 0-2 team that’s started its season in chaos isn’t typically going to generate much excitement. But it’s worth keeping an eye on the Chiefs-Chargers tilt this Sunday, because—and believe me, I know we’ve all said this before countless times—the Chargers are better than their record indicates. And a win this week could be exactly what this squad needs to break the curse that apparently followed them to Los Angeles.

The Chargers are a good team. Or, they should be a good team. OK, maybe more accurately, they continue to be the best bad team. And look, we’ve been down this “the Chargers are better than you think” road before. I wrote about this squad last year at the Week 6 mark. At the time, they were 2-4 and in last place in the AFC West. But coming off of a big win over the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos, the Chargers looked like a team that just suffered from a spell of bad luck but was good enough to be a legit playoff contender. Their four losses to that point had come by a combined 14 points. In each, they’d given up late leads—including a 33-27 Week 1 loss to the Chiefs in which they had squandered a 27-10 advantage with 13:24 to go and a 35-34 Week 4 loss to the Saints in which they’d given up a 13-point lead with less than seven minutes left. As The Wall Street Journal noted then, based on each of the team’s late-game win probabilities, the odds that San Diego would lose all four of those games came out to about 1 in 30 million.

It looked like the Chargers should bounce back from there, but instead, the season snowballed. On the year, they won just five games and finished with a 1-8 record in single-score (seven points or fewer) games.

Generally, teams’ records in close games are wildly inconsistent and unpredictable. As Justis Mosqueda of Setting Edge notes, they’re essentially “a coin flip,” with most teams gravitating toward a .500 win percentage in those games over a long enough time frame. (You might be surprised to learn that the Raiders at 13-6, Dolphins at 12-5, and Texans at 12-5 are the league’s best teams in close games since the start of 2015.) That’s why the Chargers’ terrible record in those one-score games last year could’ve led you to expect a bounce-back toward normalcy in that area in 2017.

Uh, that has not happened so far. In Week 1, rookie Younghoe Koo’s field goal try with five seconds remaining, which would’ve tied the game and almost surely sent it to overtime, was blocked, giving the Broncos a narrow 24-21 win. In Week 2, with nine seconds left on the clock, Koo pushed a potential game-winning kick wide right, preserving the Dolphins’ 19-17 victory. Those two losses pushed the Chargers’ record in one-score games dating back to the start of 2015 to 4-18, the worst win-loss record in one-score games of any team in the league in that time … by far (with the Browns and their 2-11 record a distant second). These games further strengthened what was already pretty compelling evidence that the football gods just really hate the Chargers.

But I don’t believe in football gods. I’m a closer adherer to the religion of regression toward the mean. Which means, I think, that at some point, this Chargers team has to start winning some of their close games. The first test of this hypothesis could come on Sunday against Kansas City, and based on their first two games, it wouldn’t be surprising if it came down to the wire. Through two weeks, Los Angeles ranks 13th in Football Outsiders DVOA, ahead of 10 teams with 1-1 records thus far. In both of their games this season, the Chargers have finished with a better DVOA than their opponent. If you’re not convinced by that, their two losses have come by a combined five points, and they’re two good kicks and a solid overtime showing away from a potential 2-0 start.

Going forward, though, Los Angeles still has what could be a winning formula: a good defense, an explosive pass offense, and, assuming the team can get it going under run-game guru Anthony Lynn, a dangerous ground attack. Rivers represents the most important commodity in the game of football: a franchise quarterback. He might have had a down year in 2016, but through two weeks, he has looked like a top-10 passer again. Rivers has completed 73.6 percent of his passes (fourth) for 523 yards (ninth) at 7.3 yards per attempt (10th) with four touchdowns (tied for fifth) to just one pick and a 106.4 rating (seventh). He has his number-one pass-catcher back in Allen, a future Hall of Fame tight end in Antonio Gates to throw to in the red zone, and a very good running back in Melvin Gordon to hand off to in the run game. On the defensive side, Bosa and Ingram represent the second-most important commodity in the game of football: a top-tier pass rush. With that duo lining up on opposite edges or pairing up together on the inside, the Chargers have the ability to consistently disrupt opponent game plans and create turnovers—especially with players like Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett (though the latter is week-to-week with a knee injury) patrolling the secondary.

So far, it’s hard to believe what Lynn is trying to tell us—that these aren’t just the same old Chargers. But the all-too-typical first two games are in the books, and Sunday’s matchup with the Chiefs gives the team a chance to prove that Lynn is right. A loss would put the Chargers pretty close to “mathematically eliminated from the playoffs” territory before September even ends—just 3 percent of teams that start out 0-3 have gone to the postseason since 1990. But a win would help the Chargers exorcise some of their late-game demons, and put them right back into the race in the AFC West.