Going into Sunday afternoon's game, I was convinced that this would be the first Chargers game decided by more than three points. Clearly, I'm a genius, except for the part where I didn't think it would be close because I thought the Cowboys would win by double digits. Well, if you're going to be wrong about a prediction, hopefully it's due to being overly pessimistic. This way, I get to be happy about it.
It's worth looking at why I was wrong, though. There was plenty of reason to think Dallas was the better team going into the game, but they only flashed that superior talent a handful of times throughout the entire game.
An offensive line made up of Mike Harris, Johnnie Troutman, Nick Hardwick, Rich Ohrnberger, and D.J. Fluker kept Philip Rivers upright and comfortable enough to have what was arguably his best game as a professional. They did this against a Cowboys front seven that was third in the NFL in adjusted sack rate through three weeks. Part of this is the scheme. In Ken Whisenhunt's offense, linemen don't have to block nearly as long as they did in Norval Turner's offense. People got upset with our Fearless Leader when he asserted that the offensive line would be irrelevant this year, and maybe that's just because people don't understand hyperbole, but I think yesterday's game makes a strong case for that general point.
It's not just the scheme, though. Harris is not the same player he was in 2012. He has improved so much, it's incredible. I suspect that Joe D'Alessandris deserves a lot of credit for this. That he and Fluker held up so well against the likes of DeMarcus Ware and George Selvie is truly remarkable. The primary reason I flipped from picking the Chargers in a close game to picking the Cowboys in a blow out was that Harris was starting. It's time to start giving Harris the credit he's earned.
The offense, when it's really cooking, is the Danny Woodhead and Antonio Gates show. Whenever either of them is matched up on a linebacker, it means good things for the Chargers. They're matchup nightmares and Rivers can trust them to be where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there. Also, Rivers has been consistently getting them into position to be successful.
The biggest difference between last year's offense and this year's offense, at times, seems to be that they're getting to the line with a lot of time left and letting Rivers change the play after reading the defense. He's excellent at this, and it's a crime that Turner didn't let him do it more often. Rivers' greatest strength is his football intelligence, and he's played most of his career without being able to take full advantage of it. That he has been so successful despite being handicapped that way makes him look better in retrospect.
Keenan Allen had himself a bit of a coming out party against Morris Claiborne and the rest of the Cowboys defense. His first big reception down the sideline included a really clever veteran move in which he used the defender's momentum against him and subtly created space with his arm while turning and attacking the ball. He looked like the player so many draftniks thought was a first round talent.
Vincent Brown continues to lack the quickness and agility needed to succeed on underneath routes and screens, and yet for some reason continues to be asked to run these routes and be targeted on them. Maybe someone smarter than I am can explain this to me in the comments. He remains a solid talent that can get open on intermediate and deep routes, though. In particular, he looked great on a corner route a couple times.
Early in the game, the defense looked very aggressive and almost dominant. Then, having seen that this was working, John Pagano stopped trying to scheme pressure in the 2nd quarter and promptly gave up the only two touchdowns his defense would surrender in the game. It's difficult to be upset with Pagano after this one, though. His injury ravaged defense (including an injury to Dwight Freeney) pitched a shutout in the second half when the lack of depth really should have shown up. I need to go back and rewatch to see how he did it, but at this point I'll let the results speak for themselves.
Corey Liuget looked like Corey Liuget for the first time this season. Perhaps he's finally healthy. I'm going to hope that's what we saw and not just that the Cowboys are much worse than we thought. It was also nice to see Kendall Reyes generate some pressure finally. This defense isn't going to have too much success if those two can't be productive players.
Manti Te'o looked fine for a rookie playing in his first game. I don't have much else to say about him, but I've been conditioned to think I need to mention him at every opportunity. Donald Butler did not look fine. Hopefully that was just rust after missing last week combined with the fact that Jason Witten and co. are very good.
Eric Weddle is back in so much as the defense finally let him do what he does best, and he responded by doing it at an All Pro level like he always does.
Finally, Mike McCoy punted on 4th & short again. I'm hoping this is just a lack of trust in the 60% backups offensive line and not the beginning of a trend we'll all learn to hate over the next few years. Now isn't the time to harp on that, though. The Chargers handily won a game we all thought they'd lose. Today is a good day.