Can the Los Angeles Chargers Make Their Way Into the Playoffs?
Prior to the start of the 2017 NFL regular season, the Los Angeles Chargers had the look of a playoff contender. Much of that was because statistics and analytics easily made a case as to why Los Angeles' newest football team would make a leap forward this year.
Using a team’s expected Pythagorean record based on point differential is a better way to predict a team’s future record than a current win-loss record. By that metric, the Chargers had underperformed greatly over the previous two seasons. In 2015, they won four games while having a point differential of a six-win team. Among the eight teams that finished 2015 at least one win below their expected record, five of them increased in wins during the 2016 season. The average increase was 2.5 wins.
Last season, the Chargers did increase their win total to five, but they played like a 7.7-win team in the process.
Los Angeles was the only squad to fall below their expected record by two wins in each of the last two years. The thought was they had to improve in one-score games after going 7-18 during this period of time.
Well, 2017 started off with more of the same. Los Angeles limped out to a 2-4 record, with five of the six games decided by one score. Since then, the Chargers have added two more losses -- both by one score -- and they sit at 5-6 with the point differential of a 6.8-win team.
Early on, it looked like this was a team destined to underperform again, but the Chargers are coming off their two best wins of the season -- a 54-24 blowout courtesy of Nathan Peterman and the Buffalo Bills, along with a 26-8 trouncing of the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving that featured Philip Rivers putting up the second-best quarterback performance of the season by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.
Even at 5-6, Los Angeles is just a game out of both a wild card berth and the AFC West lead. Heading into Week 13, they rank seventh in nERD and have a 46.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, while their chances of winning the division currently stand at 35.2 percent. After looking like another disappointing Chargers season just a few weeks ago, they have a real shot to make a run at playing some January football.
The past few seasons have seen the top teams with dominant units on one side of the ball. Last year’s Atlanta Falcons ruled the regular season the league’s best offense, but struggled for much of the year on defense. The year before, the Denver Broncos and their league-best defense helped pull a sluggish offense to a Super Bowl win.
This year, though, there’s been a return to balance at the top of the league.
A number of the NFL's top teams have been among the league’s best on both sides of the ball in 2017. There are currently five teams in the top-10 of Adjusted NEP per play on both offense and defense -- a list that shouldn’t be all that surprising. It includes the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
|Team||Adj. NEP/Play||Adj. D NEP/Play||Record||Playoff Probability|
All of those teams are virtually guaranteed a playoff spot at this point in the season and only one is in the AFC. The fifth team is the Chargers.
The Chargers might be a balanced team, but they still have a passing offense that can go out and carry them to wins. Los Angeles is currently sixth in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, and that’s not even inflated from the Dallas game -- they were eighth after Week 11. However, that game did showcase what the team has the potential to do through the air.
Rivers is fifth in Passing NEP per drop back, and even when the team was struggling early on, it wasn’t because of him. The Chargers ask a lot of Rivers -- in his age-36 season, he has the seventh-most drop backs among quarterbacks. Much of that is because the passing game has to carry a running game that has been among the league’s worst this year (23rd in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play as a team).
Still, Rivers has a productive safety net in Keenan Allen -- third among all receivers in Reception NEP -- along with tight end Hunter Henry and a deep threat in Travis Benjamin, all of whom can keep the ball moving through the air.
This also helps because there are few real dominant pass defenses in the AFC outside of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens, who rank first and second in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, respectively. Los Angeles has already played Jacksonville and managed to throw for 235 yards, the third-most yards the Jaguars have allowed this year. The Chargers would only play Baltimore if they win the division and the Ravens sneak in as a wild card, but the advantage on the other side of the ball would be massive.
This defensive unit is built off sacks and turnovers, and to this point, they've been pretty good at creating both. Los Angeles has the fourth-highest turnover rate on defense, with 15.2 percent of drives ending in one. Both cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Tre Boston are tied for third in the league with four interceptions each.
When the ball isn’t getting picked off, the quarterback is probably getting pressured. The Chargers are only 17th in defensive pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, but it’s done masterfully by the two edge rushers, Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Individually, Ingram is 5th in the league with 35 pressures and Bosa is tied for 12th at 28.5. Their 7.8 percent team sack rate is tied for fifth in the league.
What really will help the Chargers make a run toward the playoffs is their remaining schedule. Three of their final five games are at home against the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins, and Oakland Raiders. The two road games come in Weeks 15 and 16 against the Chiefs and New York Jets.
Only the Chiefs have a winning record among those teams, and they appear to be getting worse every week. It’s possible that their Saturday night showdown could be for the division. Washington is the only other team in the top half of nERD, but they've suffered so many injuries over the past few weeks that they're a barely recognizable squad from earlier in the year.
It’s no lock this Chargers team actually makes this run, but it’s far more possible than it was after Week 6. The talent has started to break through and they finally look like the team many believed they could be to start the season. Time will tell if that breakthrough was too late.