Playoff spots are up for grabs in the AFC, where wild-card positions currently belong to the vulnerable 6-4 Tennessee Titans and a 5-5 Baltimore Ravens team that is being “chased” by the free-falling 5-5 Buffalo Bills along with exactly six teams with 4-6 records.
Among all seven AFC teams that sit within a game of a wild-card spot, the one that quietly might have the best chance to make a run is the Los Angeles Chargers.
It’s easy to forget about the Chargers. They don’t really have a home, or any fans. They’ve been to the playoffs just once this decade and won just 13 games since the start of 2015. Plus, nobody finds comical and improbable ways to lose like the Bolts, who were essentially counted out after an 0-4 start this season.
But those tough-luck losses have always been a sign that this team is better than the standings indicate, and that has to cause one to wonder if the law of averages will eventually bless them with better breaks. If that happens over the course of the next six weeks, they could sneak into the postseason.
Look again at those first four losses. One came in typical Chargers fashion in a tough prime-time opener in Denver, and another came when they missed a 44-yard field goal as time expired against Miami. Those losses were by a combined total of five points. And in the last nine weeks, nobody has come closer to beating the league’s best team than the Chargers did when they fell to the Eagles, 26-24. The other loss came against the league’s hottest team at the time, the Kansas City Chiefs.
They easily could have won two or three of those games, but they’ve been much better since anyway. They took care of the Giants, beat the talented Raiders on the road, shut out the Broncos in a three-score victory and absolutely hammered the Bills.
The problem is two more Chargers-type losses were wedged in there, both of which came at the hands of AFC division leaders. And they should have won both. Los Angeles handed the Patriots a one-score victory on a silver platter in Week 8, and then fell in overtime in Jacksonville after their Week 9 bye.
The Chargers could have had as many as nine wins right now, and probably should have at least six.
Based on their points differential last year, Football Outsiders notes that the Bolts should have won eight games rather than five. And again, that’s a disturbing trend. But again, it might change. And if it does, watch out. This is a forgiving season and the Chargers play in a forgiving conference.
This is a team with a six-time Pro Bowler at quarterback, and he’s surrounded by more talent now than in recent years. We know Philip Rivers has got enough weapons in the backfield and the receiving game, but then there’s an offensive line which has suddenly turned a corner, surrendering just 12 sacks in 10 games.
The defense has also become an asset, thanks to the emergence of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram as one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL. Those two have a combined 19 sacks, and Los Angeles is one of 11 teams that have allowed fewer than 20 points per outing.
The Chargers are — I can’t believe I’m writing this — good. And they’ll have a chance to make a run, especially with their remaining schedule. On Thanksgiving, they play a Dallas Cowboys team without three of its most important players, then they get the winless Browns, followed by a Redskins squad that is running out of players. After that, it’s a Chiefs team which has lost four of five, a Jets team that has lost four of five as well, and a Raiders team that has lost six of eight.
The Chargers could win four or five of those, which this season might be enough to remain alive in the new year.
As tempting as it is, don’t overlook the nomadic, self-loathing Los Angeles Chargers.