The Chargers are 3-2, have lost only to the NFL’s two undefeated teams, look talented and balanced enough to be a real contender in the AFC … and yet are generating basically zero hype. For a team that is a perennial Super Bowl dark horse, the Chargers are now in an odd position of being decent, but also overshadowed from all sides. Part of that is due to where the Chargers are uniquely situated: They are playing second-fiddle to the Patrick Mahomes II Show in the AFC West and the the dazzling, juggernaut Rams in their own city. More than that, though, no one wants to get too excited about a team that’s self-destructed so many times in the past few years. We’ve seen this show before; no matter how many times you rewatch the Mountain vs. the Viper, it always ends the same way.
The irony in the current state of Chargers hype-fatigue, though, is that Philip Rivers is playing playing the best football of his career. The 36-year-old signal-caller is setting new career benchmarks for efficiency and accuracy, and is ranked second in the NFL in touchdown passes (13, behind only Mahomes), third in passer rating (116.4), third in accuracy rate (81.4 percent), and fifth in yards per attempt (8.6). Through five weeks, Rivers has demonstrated a new level of command in offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt’s scheme. But could that be enough to finally push the Chargers over the top and into true contention?
There are no major weaknesses on this Chargers offense, which ranks first in big plays, third in yards per play (6.6), fourth in percentages of drives that ended in a score (45.5 percent), and eighth in points per game (27.4). The skill-position corps, even without star tight end Hunter Henry, is stacked―featuring elite route runner Keenan Allen (32 catches, 372 yards, one touchdown), athletic red zone threat Mike Williams, reliable deep threat Tyrell Williams, slow-but-tough future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, and one of the most dynamic one-two punch backfields in the league with Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. Even the team’s subpar offensive line hasn’t held them back much: Rivers is tied for second in sack rate (3.3 percent) behind only Tom Brady, thanks to his ability to quickly diagnose where to get rid of the ball. And both Gordon and Ekeler are among the league’s best in picking up yards after contact.
That group of playmakers gets some help from Whisenhunt, who’s designed a balanced, smart scheme this year that gives Rivers plenty of wide-open targets and gets Gordon and Ekeler out into space. It has a few similarities to Sean McVay’s unstoppable Rams offense, in fact: For starters, the Chargers have employed more pre-snap sweep motion this year, an effective measure meant to stress defenses horizontally with fakes or by getting Gordon and Ekeler out on the edge. And when you pop on the tape, it’s clear that the Chargers favor many of the reduced-split formations—when receivers line up closer to the ball—that their crosstown rivals lean on. Those formations are typically meant to create room on the outside, giving pass catchers the space to draw the defense toward the middle of the field before breaking toward the sideline. Rivers has always excelled throwing pinpoint lasers toward the sideline, so these types of throws come naturally.
Like the Rams, the Chargers have also used those tight-split formations to set up in-breaking routes as well—running first toward the outside to create room down the middle. Rivers shows no fear in attacking defenses vertically.
The Chargers can’t quite match the Rams in screen-game creativity, but they’ve certainly tried, throwing changeups to aggressive defenses with screens designed for receivers and tight ends …
… And, of course, running backs.
Rivers has leaned on Gordon as a receiver this year, and the third-year back is already on pace for 90 receptions for 835 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air—he’s essentially turned into Rivers’s de facto no. 2 receiver—and his ability to pick up big yards with simple dump-offs, swing passes, and angle routes all across the field has been a major boost for the veteran quarterback.
Ekeler is talented as a pass catcher too, whether that’s as a security blanket dump-off option …
... Or as a legit downfield route runner.
Ultimately, the Chargers offense rises and falls around Rivers—and the veteran passer is playing with more control than ever before. He ranks fourth leaguewide in passer rating from inside the pocket, boasts the league’s best passer rating outside of it, and has been accurate throwing deep down the field. He’s first in the NFL in passer rating off play-action (153.5), per Pro Football Focus, averaging 11.5 yards per attempt with a 76.7 percent completion percentage on those throws. His four play-action touchdowns so far—including this bomb to Mike Williams—ranks tied for second behind only Russell Wilson.
Where Rivers really stands above the rest this season, though, is his ability to throw under pressure. The veteran has posted an absurd 121.2 passer rating under pressure in 2018, per PFF, first in the league by a long shot (the next closest is a 99.0 rating by Ryan Fitzpatrick followed by 98.4 by Kirk Cousins). He’s thrown five touchdowns under pressure (tied for second), completing 37 of 57 passes for 490 yards (fourth). Rivers always seems to feel where the rush is coming from, and keeps his eyes downfield and moves around to avoid the sack before somehow finding a pass catcher downfield. He practically thrives more in a muddied pocket at this point. It helps that he’s got a psychic connection to Gates, too, obviously.
The Chargers’ top-tier offense gets a big test Sunday when they take on a tough Browns defense that ranks second in DVOA. It’d probably surprise no one if L.A. lost in classic fashion on fourth-quarter kicking misadventures or something fittingly tragic, as they did in Cleveland two years ago when they handed the Browns their only win of the season when a field goal attempt that would’ve sent the game to overtime sailed right.
But for a team that’s always seemed to lacked stability, whether due to injury or hilariously inept special teams play, Rivers’s next-level mastery this year has been a steadying force. Much has been made of the Rams’ and Chiefs’ impossibly explosive offenses this year, and deservedly so—they rank first and second in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, respectively. But the league’s third-ranked offense—this Rivers-led Chargers group—has the firepower to overwhelm its opponents, and if they keep playing like they have through the first five weeks, it might be time to get the Chargers hype train rolling again.