Are the San Diego Chargers a Trick or a Treat?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystOctober 31, 2013

Philip Rivers has been a treat, but San Diego's defense has been a trick.
Philip Rivers has been a treat, but San Diego's defense has been a trick.Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

The San Diego Chargers are coming off the bye week a respectable 4-3. In two of the losses they melted like a fun-sized Snickers on a hot summer day and in Oakland they flamed out like an Atomic Fireball, but the Chargers have still been above average overall.

No one is under the assumption the Chargers are the Reese's of the NFL, but maybe they can be a Kit Kat or a Twix. Maybe the Chargers are a satisfying treat you plucked easily from the top of your child's overflowing bucket of sugary goodness. 

But maybe it's a trick and we're the suckers. Maybe the Chargers' first seven games have been nothing more than a Bit-O-Honey.

Are we the Dum Dums for believing the Chargers can make a serious push for the playoffs? It's a question that must be analyzed with the same care and intensity that goes into candy trading.

The Past

In order to know where you are going, you also have to know where you have been. Changing costumes midseason to play the weak part of the schedule again is not an option. 

The Chargers have four wins, one against the Philadelphia Eagles on the road, one against the Dallas Cowboys at home, one against the Indianapolis Colts at home and one against the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road.

It's hard to give any team credit for beating the Jacksonville Jaguars. So what if the Chargers beat a team that is 0-8 and hasn't really been close to winning any game? Big deal.

The Eagles haven't won a home game in over a year. In the last two seasons the Eagles have two wins at home. In Week 2 of 2012 the Eagles beat the Baltimore Ravens 24-23 and in Week 4 of 2012, the Eagles beat the New York Giants 19-17. 

For whatever reason, the Eagles stink at home. Winning on the road is hard, but I'm not sure the Chargers deserve a ton of credit for beating a 3-5 team with a horrid defense that only has wins against the 2-5 Washington Redskins, the 2-6 Giants and the 0-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2013 Opponent Records
WeekTeamResultRecordQuality Wins
1TexansL2-51 (vs. Chargers)
5RaidersL3-41 (vs. Chargers)

The Chargers beat the Dallas Cowboys at home, but the Cowboys have the reverse problem as the Eagles; they can't win on the road. The Cowboys are 4-4 with one road win over...the Eagles.

At home, the Cowboys are 3-1 and nearly beat the red-hot Denver Broncos. The Cowboys' wins include one over the Redskins, Eagles, Giants and the 3-5 Rams. Not a single win over a team with a record above .500.

The Chargers did beat the 5-2 Colts, which is their lone quality win. The Colts have three quality wins as they beat the Broncos, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.

For whatever reason the Colts couldn't get the ball into the end zone against the Chargers and lost in San Diego 19-9. The Chargers played a fantastic game and you can't take that away from them.

Does a home win against the Colts make the Chargers contenders, is the sample size too small or does it depend on the teams the Chargers play over the final nine weeks? All of the above.

The Schedule

It doesn't matter if the Chargers don't have quality wins on the schedule if they don't have to beat quality teams to get to the playoffs. It typically takes about nine or 10 wins to make the playoffs—probably nine this year—so the Chargers simply need five more wins. 

With two games each against the 8-0 Chiefs and the 8-0 Broncos, the Chargers have a much more difficult second-half schedule. The Chargers also play just four non-division games the rest of the way.

Remaining Schedule
WeekTeamRecordQuality Wins
9@ Washington Redskins2-51
10Denver Broncos7-10
11@ Miami Dolphins3-41
12@ Kansas City Chiefs8-00
13Cincinnati Bengals6-23
14New York Giants2-60
15@ Denver Broncos7-10
16Oakland Raiders3-41 (vs. Chargers)
17Kansas City Chiefs8-00

The Chiefs and the Broncos have both played similarly weak schedules this season, but it's still hard to imagine the Chargers pulling off more than one win, two at the most against those two teams.

If the Chargers are going to make the playoffs, they are going to need to beat Washington and Miami  on the road and the Giants and Raiders at home in addition to getting two wins in five total games against quality opponents like the the Chiefs, Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals

Three of the Chargers' next four games are on the road, including a trip to Washington this week, a trip to Miami in Week 11 and a trip to Kansas City in Week 12. If the Chargers are legitimate contenders, it should become perfectly clear over the next month.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Every team has strengths and weaknesses. The Chargers certainly have their fair share of issues, but they have a few very notable strengths as well. Particularly notable strengths are the the coaching and a good quarterback. 

Good coaches scheme in a such a way to hide weaknesses and accentuate strengths while trying to expose their opponents' weaknesses. For example, in candy trading you have a huge advantage trying to score Reese's Pumpkins if you know your opponent has a peanut allergy.

Selected Defensive Stats
Points Per Game20.69
Yards Per Play6.332
Points Per Drive1.7815
Plays Per Drive6.332
Yards Per Drive38.232
Turnover %5.8%31
Scoring %36.2%24
Average Drive StartOwn 23.02

San Diego's defense is the most suspect, but it has been able to keep teams from scoring touchdowns. The Chargers are currently seventh in the league in points per game allowed despite allowing a league-worst 6.3 yards per play.

The Chargers are 31st in turnovers forced per drive and last in plays allowed per drive and yards allowed per drive. That's not good, but the Chargers have only allowed 1.78 points per drive, which is 15th in the league.

San Diego's offense and special teams have saved the defense, forcing opponents to start drives at the 23-yard line on average. Only the Chiefs' opponents have a worse average drive start in the NFL. The other factor in these numbers is a league-low 69 drives against their defense. 

It's going to be very hard for the Chargers to sustain this performance. Regression toward the mean is likely, which means their suspect defense is only going to become a bigger problem. 

Selected Offensive Stats
Points Per Game24.014
Yards Per Play6.14
Points Per Drive2.334
Plays Per Drive6.61
Yards Per Drive39.22
Turnover %12.5%17
Scoring %44.4%3
Average Drive StartOwn 25.327

The major positive is an offense that is scoring 24 points per game, tied for 14th in the league. While quarterback Philip Rivers is enjoying one of the best years of his career, the offense has been just a notch above average overall in terms of points per game.

However, the Chargers are scoring on 44.4 percent of their drives and average 2.33 points per drive, both are in the top five. The Chargers have a league-high 6.6 plays per drive, which has resulted in the longest average drive in the NFL. The Chargers are also second only to the Green Bay Packers in yards per drive.

The thing that may be holding the Chargers back offensively is an average drive start of their own 25.3, 27th in the league. The field-position problem is a product of the defense and return game, and highlights how both the offense and defense are connected.

With a good offense and an equally bad defense, the Chargers are likely to finish the season much like they have started it—about average. On a positive note, there are a cluster of average teams in the AFC and the Chargers have by far the best point differential of all of them. 

Although the Chargers are obviously flawed, they just might be the least flawed of all the teams vying for the last couple playoff spots. Last year one of those teams was the Baltimore Ravens and they won it all.

The expectations for the Chargers have shifted quickly thanks to the wild, wacky NFL. The Chargers might not be perfect, but there is no reason they shouldn't be able to Skor a playoff berth in the AFC.  


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