The AFC West has been nothing if not interesting. Given the trajectory of the season five weeks into 2017, nobody would have expected the Week 15 bout between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs to be the likely determiner of the division winner.
While the Chiefs were turning heads with gaudy production from offensive stars quarterback Alex Smith and running back Kareem Hunt en route to a 5-0 start, the Chargers were baffling their fans with a disappointing 1-4 start. The secret to their comeback over the course of the season has been the slew of defensive playmakers who have picked up where they left off last season.
The book-end players for Los Angeles’ defensive line, Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, have combined for 21.5 sacks this season. In Week 15 however, their come-from-behind oriented season took a step backward.
Before their game against Kansas City, the Bolts have consistently showcased the passing game as their greatest strength, on both sides of the ball. After Week 14, they were only 15th in scoring, despite being 24th in the league in rushing yards per game. The biggest reason? The passing game led by veteran quarterback Philip Rivers and a resurgent Keenan Allen is third in the NFL in passing yards per game.
Meanwhile, the defensive side of the ball was second in points per game, and fifth as a team in total sacks. Sure, there are weaknesses. The team has been exposed by the run, ranking 29th in rushing yards allowed on defense, compared to their fourth ranked passing defense. How does this compare to other successful defenses around the league?
For a reference point, we do not need to look much farther than their division rival in the Denver Broncos. The recent successes for Denver has been the model for many defenses, ever since the famed No Fly Zone defense carried the struggling offense to a Super Bowl win in the 2015-2016 season. That Broncos team ranked an impressive first in yards allowed per game, fourth in points allowed per game, and third in rushing yards per game. That defense simply stifled the opposition, and set themselves up to succeed for years to come.
Not only do the Chargers boast superior offensive firepower than the Denver team that would find postseason success, but they also have another hidden advantage. Even after the poor performance at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chargers rank fifth in the league in turnover differential at +0.8 – Denver, meanwhile, had a -0.2 turnover differential in its Super Bowl campaign.
Unfortunately, playoff success may be where the comparison ends. After their loss to the Chiefs, the Chargers find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. The head-to-head tiebreaker now means that the Chargers need for the Chiefs to lose out just to give them a chance at the division title. Even for the second wild card, just winning out does nothing for Los Angeles without some key losses for the other competing teams.
The ultimate undoing for the Chargers seems to be consistency, or the lack thereof. Inconsistency is three interceptions against the Chiefs from the otherwise reliable Philip Rivers. Inconsistency is signing your fourth kicker of the season the next day, after he connected on six of seven attempts.
The goal of the Chargers going forward, regardless of whether they make the playoffs or not, should be to establish that consistency they lack. They have the playmakers on defense, as well as offense. The numbers show they have the ability to completely lock teams down, and keep them off the board. Now, Los Angeles just needs to worry about making the right plays.
Philip Rivers and Co. head to the East Coast to take on the New York Jets in Week 16. They have their backs to the wall, as they need to win just to stay alive in the AFC.
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