Just three short weeks ago the 5-1 Chargers were considered one of the elite teams in the NFL while in the midst of a five-game winning streak. At that point they were tied with the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles for the best record in the league.
As they prepare to travel to Miami this week to face the Dolphins before their bye in week 10, many fans are wondering which Chargers team is the real McCoy (no pun intended) – the 5-1 team that many pundits ranked a top five team or the 5-3 team currently on a two-game losing skid?
Truth be told, it’s hard to make any kind of assumptions on this team because it hasn’t played one game this season with its starting lineup intact. Head coach Mike McCoy insists that injuries are not an excuse and has nothing to do with poor play and lack of execution – and he’s right for the most part.
However, a wounded team might be able to get away with a few wins playing the likes of the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, N.Y. Jets and Oakland Raiders – each of whom have their own sets of problems. But when you face the better, more established opponents on your schedule (Cardinals, Chiefs, and Broncos), they have the speed and talent to dictate the pace of the game and exploit your weaknesses, thus bringing you back to reality.
Case in point…
In each of their five wins the Chargers won the time of possession battle, in their three losses the tables were turned where the defense was left on the field way too long to be effective – hence the statistics below.
Through the first six games the Chargers ranked fourth in the NFL with 12 takeaways, giving them a takeaway-giveaway ratio of +7. In their two-game losing streak they have committed three turnovers without creating any takeaways, dropping them to a +4 ratio.
Heading into the Chiefs game the Chargers defense had given up a league-low 19 points in the fourth quarter. In their last two losses the defense has given up 17 fourth quarter points.
Finally, when they were 5-1 the Chargers’ point scoring differential was the highest in the NFL at +73 (164 points scored vs 91 points allowed). During this two-game slide the differential is -17 (41 points scored vs 58 points allowed).
The bottom line for the Chargers is that their next man up philosophy worked fine during the first quarter of the season when the schedule was a lot less daunting. The problem is injuries have turned the next man up into the next men up philosophy and the team simply doesn’t have enough healthy players to circle the wagon at this point – no excuses, just fact.
Help on the way?
In addition to getting some well-needed rest – they have one game to play over the next 23 days – the Chargers should be getting back some healthy players to hopefully go on another late season run.
Although the of story undrafted running back Branden Oliver has been great (316 yds. rushing; 4.4 avg; 2 tds), a return trip to the playoffs likely hinges on the return of Ryan Mathews. Suffering an MCL knee sprain in week two against the Seahawks, Mathews appears likely to return against the Raiders after spending the last six weeks as a spectator.
Mathews’ 534 rushing yards during the month of December last season led the NFL and sparked the Chargers four-game win streak which propelled them into the post season.
Defensively, as bad as they have played the last three weeks appearances can be deceiving. In their 23-20 loss to the Chiefs the Chargers had a number of opportunities to win the game and the 35-21 loss to the Broncos wasn’t as lopsided as the score indicates.
With their best cornerback, Brandon Flowers, not playing (concussion) and their no. 1 draft pick, cornerback Jason Verrett, leaving the game early with a shoulder injury, the Chargers still held a Peyton Manning-led Broncos team scoreless in the first quarter (the last time that happened was Manning’s first game as a Bronco in 2012). And if it wasn’t for a controversial reversed call of a Chargers’ fumble recovery on a kickoff that gave the Broncos the ball back deep in their own territory on the 28 yard line, it could have been the Chargers taking a 14-7 or 10-7 lead into halftime rather than the Broncos up 14-7.
Regardless of the outcome this weekend versus the Dolphins, whether the Chargers are 6-3 or 5-4, the defense should be much improved after the bye. Depending on when they are healthy, the return of Flowers, Verrett, Melvin Ingram, Jerry Attouchu and Manti Te’o will hopefully provide the depth and speed the team is counting on to carry them through the season.
With the toughest part of their schedule coming in the next two months one thing is for sure – the Chargers will not have to play another three games over a 12-day span. It’s hard enough to win an NFL game each week let alone having to play three divisional games in 12 days with two of your opponents coming off a bye (makes one question the NFL’s concern over player safety). After setting career-highs in carries (285) and yards (1,255), Mathews was the recipient of the Rodney Culver Memorial Award as the Chargers’ Offensive Player of the Year. His return to the field should bolster the teams rushing attack which is currently a league worst 3.1 yard per carry.