Are the San Diego Chargers serious contenders in the AFC? With the way that Philip Rivers is playing, anything is possible.
A week ago, the Chargers let another 4th quarter lead slip through the cracks, as Jake Locker led the Tennessee Titans on a game-winning 94-yard drive to seal San Diego's fate, 20-17. This team had many fans shaking their heads, and wondering if this is just the same Chargers team as the last two seasons. Not only that had people worried, a week from then, the extremely talented Dallas Cowboys would be coming to town, fresh off of their first complete game in the destruction of the St. Louis Rams. Anybody could question the Chargers chances, and everybody thought that Dallas would drop the Bolts to a dismal 1-3 record at the quarter mark of this 2013 football season. What transpired was anything but what the "experts" expected. Here are some key takeaways from yesterday's showdown:
- Philip Rivers is playing quite possibly the best football of his career. Yesterday, against an extremely talented defense led by Monte Kiffin, Rivers went 35-42, for 401 yards, 3 touchdowns, and just one interception. His 35 completions mark a career high for the veteran out of N.C. State. His 401 yard output against Dallas is already his second 400-yard game of the season, and his 3 touchdowns give him 3 games of at least 3 touchdown passes. Philip threw his 200th career touchdown, to none other than Antonio Gates, who history shows is by far Rivers' favorite target. The Chargers' quarterback's 83% completion rate marks the highest completion percentage in NFL history for a quarterback that threw for at least 400 yards. The next best percentage was 81.8 by former 49ers' quarterback Jeff Garcia in 2000 against the Chicago Bears (36-44). Another surprising statistic? There are just two quarterbacks in the entire league who have throwm for double-digit touchdown passes. One of them is obviously Peyton Manning, who is on a record-shattering pace. The other? Philip Rivers, who's thrown for 11 touchdowns already. Also, Philip has a 74% completion percentage on the season. He, in that regard, has surpassed the expectations of Mike McCoy, who stated that his goal for Philip was to have him complete 70% of his attempts. Philip Rivers, at this point, is leading the Comeback Player of the Year race, and is easily in the discussion for MVP. Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt were hired to "fix" Rivers. Philip Rivers did not need fixing, but they have put him in the best possible position to succeed. He is getting the ball out quick, and is getting the ball to everybody. If you are a Charger fan, you have to be excited about the rest of this season for Philip Rivers and Co.
- Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt have undoubtedly done what they were hired to do- and more. This offense as a whole is absolutely amazing. For the second time already this season, the Chargers offense has managed to put up over 500 yards of offense, for the second time this season, Philip Rivers has thrown for over 400 yards, and for the second time this season, Antonio Gates has gone over the 100-yard barrier catching the ball. This new scheme that Whisenhunt and McCoy brought is perfect for Philip Rivers. He runs the no huddle, but lets the play clock run down to under 5 seconds before snapping the ball. This gives him more time to analyze what the defenses are doing, and also at the same time wearing down the defense. After the ball is snapped, Rivers is getting the ball out quickly, which gives the opposing pass rush almost no chance of getting to him. He is on pace for by far his best season as a pro, projecting to pass for 4,796 yards and 44 touchdowns to only 8 INT's. Another Charger on pace for a career year is Antonio Gates. You know, the Antonio Gates that everybody thought was done? Yeah, that guy. He's on pace to catch 100 passes, and 1,456 yards. All in all, the Chargers have 11 different players with a catch, 5 players with at least 100 yards, 5 players with at least 1 TD catch, 4 players with at least 15 reception, 2 of which have over 20 on the season. Also, San Diego is averaging over 100 yards on the ground per game. Sure, we haven't had a 100-yard game for years, but it is also improving. Ryan Mathews is running with confidence. All of the backs have contributed, and I think that the ground attack will get better week by week, which will scare any opposing defensive coordinator. This offense is playing the best football since 2006, the great LaDainian Tomlinson's dominant MVP season. Kudos to McCoy, Whisenhunt, and Tom Telesco for putting quality players on the field, and using each player to their strengths. Just another random stat, the Chargers are converting on 50% of thier 3rd downs (25-50).
- The depth. Both the Chargers starting left tackle, King Dunlap, and the starting left guard Chad Rinehart, missed the game due to injury. Starting right guard Jeromey Clary also missed the game. That put 2nd-year undrafted-free-agent Mike Harris at starting left tackle (which didn't work out well at all last year), and second-year man Johnnie Troutman at starting left guard. Two players with minimal experience were essentially protecting the blind side of Philip Rivers yesterday, and they did extremely well. The whole unit protected well, which was surprising to me. I thought Demarcus Ware and his fellow Cowboy defenders were going to have a field day. Cornerback Shareece Wright missed another game due to injury, and Derek Cox left the game after he got hurt. That put one of the newest players on the team, Richard Marshall, in the starting lineup, and Johnny Patrick opposite him after Cox got hurt. The player who costed the Bolts a win a week ago, Crezdon Butler, more than redeemed himself yesterday after forcing rookie wideout Terrance Williams to fumble at the 1-yard line with the game on the line. He stepped up huge for the defense, and Richard Marshall recovered said fumble in the end zone to seal the victory. With Malcom Floyd out, there was more pressure put on the other wide receivers to make plays, and they made the plays. Keenan Allen had the best game of his short career, putting up 80 yards, and hauling in a deep ball from Philip. Vincent Brown had a long catch on a key 3rd down to move the chains. Eddie Royal also raked in a deep pass from Rivers as the Bolts were marching to put up points in the final two minutes of the first half. Basically, down three starting offensive lineman, the Chargers still held Dallas to one sack. Without one of their premiere weapons, Malcom Floyd, the Chargers offense still moved the ball at will. The receivers still made big plays. When this offense heals up, we will be that much better in the long run, knowing the backups can contribute.
- The Chargers' defense. John Pagano's defense played a lot better than expected yesterday against the Cowboys. The defense tallied 3 sacks, by Kendall Reyes, Corey Liuget, and Jarret Johnson, respectively. The Cowboys were held to 44 total yards in the 1st period. The only efficient quarter of the game for Dallas was the 2nd quarter, and they gained 115 yards and scored two touchdowns. For an injured defense, holding them to just 159 yards of total offense was impressive. In the 2nd half, the Chargers clamped down, and shut out the Cowboys. That is astonishing, considering how badly the defensive unit was playing coming into the matchup. Superstar wide receiver Dez Bryant was held to just 6 catches for 84 yards, but he did make his plays and score touchdowns on 2 of them. Eric Weddle, 3-time All-Pro, basically shut down Jason Witten, who had 5 receptions for only 43 yards. Demarco Murray only got 70 yards for the game. San Diego successfully took away the Cowboys best threats, and that's why San Diego won.
- Danny Woodhead is more than Darren Sproles was for this team. He already has 22 receptions on the season, 2 TD catches, and is averaging almost 5 yards per carry. If he continues on this pace, he'll have 88 catches, 648 yards, and 4 touchdowns through the air, and 360 yards on the ground, which would bring him to 1,008 yards of total offense. I believe his chemistry with Philip Rivers is still blossoming, so he could easily have more than that by season's end. He is one of Philip's favorite targets on 3rd down, and has made the clutch catch whenever his number was called. He had a career day yesterday, with his 2 touchdowns on the season being against Dallas. He'll only gel more, and he'll get more and more opportunities to make plays. This signing by Tom Telesco is paying dividends.
- Keenan Allen keeps getting better. He's making big catches on 3rd downs to move the chains, and is averaging a healthy 13.8 yards per catch. As he continues to develop and learn, he will get more playing time, and push Vincent Brown for the number 3 wideout spot on the depth chart. I look forward to seeing the former Cal standout grow and flourish in this system.
- Antonio Gates. Antonio F'ing Gates. He had his best game in 6 years against Dallas. He showed his old moves, and showed he can still run the seam route effectively. He could easily have his best season ever if he continues this pace and stays healthy. Having Gates at 100% makes this offense that more scary. He also had a historic day yesterday, along with his quarterback. He is now 4th, all-time, in receptions by a tight end. With his 10 catch output, he passed Ozzie Newsome. Last week in Nashville, he passed Lance Alworth for 2nd place in total touchdowns in franchise history. The franchise leader, LaDainian Tomlinson, will not have a player challenge his career numbers challenged, maybe ever. Anyways, Antonio Gates is still the matchup nightmare he has always been known as, and it has helped this team win this season.
- The injury bug is biting hard this season. The only offensive lineman to not miss extensive time is center Nick Hardwick. All of the other starting lineman have missed a game. Malcom Floyd and Shareece Wright have both missed two games, Manti Te'o missed all of the Chargers games leading up to yesterday, and Derek Cox got hurt in the game yesterday, and I'm unsure what his status is at this point. There is another injury I will touch on later, but the amount of injuries is astounding. I'm not even counting Melvin Ingram's and Danario Alexander's ACL tears. Regardless of how impressive the backups played, or how long they can play at that level, if the normal starters don't get healthy, things could get ugly down the road. San Diego still has to play Denver and Kansas City twice, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts are coming to town in primetime in a couple weeks, we have to travel to the nation's capital to take on RGIII and the Redskins, we have to play the Bengals at home, and despite their 0-4 record, Eli Manning and the Giants have good talent. Going against any of them at anything less than 100% may hurt us in the long run. This team needs to get healthy soon.
- Earlier today, the Chargers found out that they have lost pass rush specialist, and future Hall-of-Fame player Dwight Freeney for the remainder of the season with a torn quad. This is a huge blow for a defense that hasn't consistently brought the quarterback down. He was the most consistent rusher they had, although he has only recorded a half a sack. This leaves the Chargers with no proven pass rushers outside of Corey Liuget. Kendall Reyes did bring Tony Romo down yesterday, and he did finish last season strong, but he isn't a known commodity in that phase of the game yet. The Chargers can't hardly catch a break with injuries, as promising young linebacker Melvin Ingram tore his ACL in a freak accident in OTA's. Now the Bolts do not have an outside linebacker capable of bringing consistent pressure on the quarterback. On the open market, there doesn't seem to be any player worth taking a chance on. The only way Tom Telsco can re-solidify the position is to make a trade. Even then, I don't see any player being available any time soon, either. Larry English and Tourek Williams are not enough to get the job done. Having lost Freeney for the year, all we can do is hope Melvin Ingram's recovery is speedy and he can come back and contribute. I have my fingers crossed that something happens to help this defense out.
This week, Philip Rivers and an extremely hot offense travel upstate to take on the division-rival Oakland Raiders. The Chargers have won three straight- and 16 of the last 19- meetings against the Raiders. One of Philip Rivers 5 career 400 yard games came against Oakland a few short years ago. Malcom Floyd also had over 200 receiving yards in the same game. The last three meetings have been won by a combined 23 points. Offensively, the Raiders have talent at key positions. Terelle Pryor has been exceeding expectations thus far, although he missed yesterdays game against the Redskins with a concussion. Pryor threw for nearly 300 yards a couple week ago in Denver. He has passed for 624 yards and a couple touchdowns through the air, and he's accumulated nearly 200 yards on the ground. His passing hasn't been eye-popping, but it has been better than anticipated. He is however, a huge threat both passing and rushing once he escapes the pocket. He is on pace for nearly 1,000 rushing yards, for a quarterback. That is jaw-dropping. Denarius Moore is a constant deep threat, as he has the speed to get by almost any defender and blow the top off of defenses. The same goes for Jacoby Ford, as well. On any given play, he could break one and take it the distance. Darren McFadden has been impressive as well, and he even threw for a touchdown in Denver. Their offense is dangerous if you underestimate them. Kickoff time for the game is unclear. It is supposed to start at 4:25 ET, but a Major League Baseball game could push kickoff time to 11:25 ET. My prediction before the season started had the Bolts tearing through the Raiders 31-10. With injuries, a change at quarterback for Oakland, and a better-than-expected Raider team, I don't think that the score will be as lop-sided. I do believe, however, that Philip Rivers will keep this hot start to the season going. I think that San Diego WILL win, but by a closer score, though. Terrelle Pryor's dual-threat capabilites matched with a Charger defense that just lost their best pass rusher added to the injuries on defense will keep the game closer. Oakland's defense is no joke either. Lamaar Houston is a legit pass rusher, and 1st-round pick D.J. Hayden is showing promise. Charles Woodson still has something left in the tank, as well.
Prediction: I think the Chargers win 35-21. I think Philip has another field day of sorts, throwing for 345 yards and 3 TD's, with no turnovers. Ryan Mathews will have his normal kind of game, and he'll run for 72 yards. Antonio Gates will be Rivers' favorite target yet again, and he'll catch 8 passes for 118 and a TD. Terrelle Pryor will pass for 220, with a touchdown and a pick, and he'll run for 59 yards and a touchdown. Run DMC will go for 69 and a touchdown, while Denarius Moore will lead the Raiders with 5 catches, 135 yards and Pryors only touchdown pass.
How do you feel about the Chargers this year? What do you think about Philip Rivers and his resurgence? How much longer do you think he can continue this level of play? What do you think the Chargers should do about the loss of Dwight Freeney for the season? Comment below, please.