Are the Chargers the NFL’s Best Super Bowl Sleeper?
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers smiles on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong )

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Because they’re only the second-most popular and second-most talented team in their city and arguably the least popular and second-most talented team in their division, the Los Angeles Chargers continue to fly under the radar.

But the Super Bowl-contending Bolts look like the real deal, and it starts with Philip Rivers.

Of course, because it’s 2018, it almost always starts at quarterback. If you’ve got a good one, you usually have a chance.

The Chargers have a great one, and he’s playing the best football of his Hall of Fame-caliber career.

That alone gives the Bolts a shot as at least a second-tier Super Bowl contender. But when you consider the talent that surrounds Rivers, you’re liable to wonder why the Chargers aren’t emerging as one of the favorites.

Five teams had significantly better Super Bowl odds entering Sunday’s games, and the Chicago Bears also had stronger championship odds despite a considerable lack of experience with a second-year quarterback and a first-year head coach.

Is it that nobody trusts a team that has a reputation for shooting itself in the foot? If so, maybe Sunday’s dominant victory over the Arizona Cardinals will help.

Nobody expected the Chargers to lose to Arizona, but it was fair to fear a crash after they dropped to 7-3 with a disheartening Week 11 home loss to the inferior Denver Broncos. That marked the first time this season Los Angeles lost a game it was supposed to win.

Facing that adversity Sunday against Arizona, with defenders Denzel Perryman and Corey Liuget now on injured reserve and likely Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon hurting, the Chargers came back from a 10-0 first-quarter deficit to demolish the Cards 45-10.

Rivers completed an NFL-record 25 consecutive passes to start the game and finished with the highest completion percentage in league history (96.6) among quarterbacks with more than 10 attempts. He also threw three touchdown passes in an interception-free performance.

He’s just the fourth player in NFL history to complete more than 90 percent of his passes for 250-plus yards in a game, and the Chargers became the sixth team this season to win a game by 35 or more points.

Indeed, this was about more than Rivers. The Chargers outgained the Cardinals 414-149 and became the first team in the AFC this season to register 30 or more first downs on offense while surrendering 10 or fewer first downs on defense in one game. An increasingly healthy Joey Bosa had a pair of sacks and brought plenty of pressure in his second game back from injury, defensive backs young (Derwin James) and old (Casey Hayward Jr.) shined, and Gordon averaged 6.1 yards per carry while scoring twice despite dealing with hamstring and knee injuries.

It was a reminder that the Chargers are loaded—Rivers, Gordon, wide receiver Keenan Allen, pass-catching back Austin Ekeler, supporting receivers Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams, Bosa, James, Hayward and Melvin Ingram III are all rolling. Although a fresh knee injury could cost Gordon some time, Ekeler is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. They’re built to survive his absence, just as they survived Bosa’s for the first 10 weeks of the season.

So if the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams (both 10-1), Kansas City Chiefs (9-2) and New England Patriots (8-3) are considered the top-tier faves to reach Super Bowl LIII, has this statement game earned the Chargers the title of “best of the rest”?

The only other teams within a game of 8-3 L.A. in the standings are the 8-3 Bears, the 7-3 Houston Texans and the 7-3-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. But Chicago and Houston don’t have established quarterbacks like Rivers, Houston has yet to convincingly beat a quality opponent and the Steelers are coming off back-to-back unimpressive performances against sub-.500 opponents.

The Bears and Texans have Bosa-like defensive leaders in Khalil Mack and J.J. Watt, respectively, but their quarterbacks both ranked out of the top 12 in terms of passer rating entering Sunday. Pittsburgh lacks a superstar defensive player, and its quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has a lower rating than both Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky. Big Ben is more accomplished than Rivers and the aforementioned sophomores, but he also threw a game-icing interception in the end zone Sunday against the Denver Broncos.

Rivers’ 115.7 passer rating ranks third in football, behind only perceived MVP front-runners Drew Brees of the Saints and Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs. And he ranks in the top five in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio.

And yet the Chargers might continue to garner less hype than teams like Chicago, Houston and Pittsburgh, possibly because they have a limited fanbase while playing in a temporary home stadium following last year’s move from San Diego.

The fact that they’re the only fringe Super Bowl contender (aside from maybe the Minnesota Vikings) that isn’t leading its division might also be a factor, and it should be acknowledged that the Bolts haven’t defeated the AFC West-leading Chiefs in their last nine tries.

This was a statement win, but it wasn’t a signature win. The Chargers have played only two games that could have produced signature wins, and they lost both (to the Chiefs in Week 1 and the Rams in Week 3).

But that could be about to change. If they can beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh next Sunday night, they’ll likely be viewed across the board as the top AFC Super Bowl candidate outside of Kansas City and Foxborough. And if they can finally get the K.C. monkey off their back two weeks later on Thursday Night Football, we might have to consider the Chargers a prime title contender.

Because the Chargers have made fools of us many times before, you’re allowed to distrust this team unless or until it slays Pittsburgh and/or Kansas City. But right now, following their fourth beatdown performance in a seven-game span, it’s impossible to ignore what the “other team” in both Los Angeles and the AFC West is doing.

        

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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