Heading into Week 17, I kept hearing that the San Diego Chargers were "the one team that nobody wants to see in the playoffs." I thought this was fairly odd, considering the Chargers and the Green Bay Packers had the two worst defenses in the league. If you'd want to face any team in the playoffs, you'd rather it be the one with the terrible defense than the one that's strong on both sides of the ball, right?
However, I've decided to dig a little deeper. What makes a playoff team dangerous, and do the Chargers have it?
That sound you hear is the collective sigh of just about everyone that was reading this article and hoping that I avoided the big M word.
Look, momentum is important, but not in the way that most people discuss it. For decades, sports analysts and commentators have talked about the momentum swinging in one team's favor because they had a couple of good plays in a row. The thought never runs any deeper than that, really. They're playing well now, which is making the players feel confident, which is making them play even better. That holds almost no meaning at all right now.
What I want to talk about is late-season runs and where they come from. If you were to try and figure why the 2013 Chargers won their final 4 games, and 5 of their last 6, where would you start? I'd start with travel.
In the first 11 weeks of the season, the Chargers have traveled round trip to...
- Philadelphia (5,928 miles)
- Tennessee (4,042 miles)
- Oakland (982 miles)
- Jacksonville (4,672 miles)
- Washington, D.C. (5,372 miles)
- Miami (5,304 miles)
For a grand total of 26,300 miles traveled. That's a lot and comes out to an average of 2,390.9 miles traveled per week by the team.
In the final 6 weeks of the season, the Chargers have traveled round trip to...
- Kansas City (3,116 miles)
- Denver (2,156 miles)
For a grand total of 5,272 miles. Still nothing to sneeze at, but their average has dropped to 878.6 miles traveled per week. Think they're feeling a little fresher?
Melvin Ingram/John Pagano
I don't want to overstate the fact that the Chargers are 4-0 (and the defense has played its three best games of the season by DVOA in weeks 15, 16 and 17) since Melvin Ingram's return, but it at least needs to be pointed out.
Sure, the Chargers defense has been terrible for most of the season, but they finally seem to have found their identity in December. Derek Cox is a distant memory, the pass rush is improved, Jarret Johnson is on the field shutting down the run and Marcus Gilchrist has once again proven to be the best nickel corner on the team.
They've gotten lucky with health, both with the return of Ingram and all of the starters being relatively healthy, and it's allowed John Pagano to get a little more creative in his gameplan.
Pre-Melvin Ingram: San Diego defense allowed 23.08 points per game
With Melvin Ingram: San Diego defense allowed 17.75 points per game
Is it a small sample size? Absolutely, but it's still hard to doubt that the defense that faced the Broncos is drastically different than the one we saw giving up 30 points to the Houston Texans in Week 1.
Ryan Mathews/Ken Whisenhunt
This one has been a bit easier to see. In fact, I can tell this entire story with just stats.
First 12 games: Ryan Mathews averaged 75.78 total yards per game
Final 4 games: Ryan Mathews averaged 134.25 total yards per game
Not surprisingly, the offense has jumped from 23.25 points per game in the first 12 games to 29.25 points per game in the final 4 games of the season.
So, it's not so much that "momentum" is building in the Chargers favor. It's that San Diego has fallen into the perfect storm of health and timing (first year coaches figuring things out). The way in which this helps them is that they're a better team now than at any other point in the season, and their bodies are ready for a tough game on Sunday.
This may seem a little nuts, but the Chargers being the 6th seed makes them one of the single most dangerous teams in the playoffs. This article does a great job of explaining why, but I'll do my best to sum it up:
Many teams in the Chargers' position, winning 5 of their last 6 games, often end up as division winners. Since the institution of the wild card, most of the teams that have earned those final two playoff spots are as good as the top teams. However, some struggles during the course of the season for whatever reason (typically injuries) have kept them out of that spot. While they may lose the home field advantage, wild card teams have already been playing "playoff" type games for weeks.
This is a big reason why the Chargers beat the Broncos a few weeks back. San Diego needed the win and Denver didn't. The Broncos, and other top seeds, have gotten used to being on top and being "in the playoffs". They didn't have to fight to get in. They haven't had to battle in a meaningful game in months. This is a big reason why top seeds don't do so well in the playoffs. Well, that and coaches having no idea how to manage bye weeks.
As far as bye weeks go, I think the Chargers are glad not to have one. Right now, the offense and defense are working, and they want to play football every day. More than that, they're eager to prove to the Bengals that their Week 13 win was over a different Chargers team.
Dominance (Sort Of)
In my mind, the playoffs is when the teams that can do one thing really well become more dangerous and the teams that can do a bunch of things sort of well become less effective.
For instance, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks. They made the playoffs despite having a losing record (and Charlie Whitehurst as their starting QB for a few games!), but they could do one thing really well. Well, it wasn't a thing they did really, it was their home crowd/stadium. The thing is/was very loud.
In 2010, the Seahawks were a terrible team. They went 2-6 on the road, but saved their season by somehow pulling out 5 wins at home out of 8 during the regular season. Then they rode their home crowd to a win over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
The 2007 New York Giants weren't much on offense, but my goodness could they rush the passer on defense.
So, what's the Chargers thing? Offense, of course. While Peyton Manning has been breaking records, Philip Rivers has quietly been the 2nd best QB in the league this year. While the Detroit Lions sit idly by with a contract in hand, Ken Whisenhunt continues to amaze with his offensive gameplan that has "fixed" Rivers, Ryan Mathews, Eddie Royal, the entire offensive line and anybody else that he decides to put on the field that isn't named Vincent Brown or Jeromey Clary.
Other teams knew that they were more well-rounded than the 2007 Giants, but that pass-rush was enough to win a Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. The Saints knew that they were a better team than the Seahawks, but that home crowd was too much to overcome. If the Chargers offense comes out firing on all cylinders, there aren't many teams that can keep pace with them.
Who's More Dangerous?
Alright, so now I've created a bit of a formula for a "dangerous team".
- The Chargers are slotted low, but have been playing "playoff games" for week and reside in the toughest division in the league.
- The Chargers are playing their best football heading into the playoffs
- The Chargers are healthy, and well-rested
- The Chargers have a dominant offense
Who else in the 2013 NFL Playoffs fits that description?
Well, the San Francisco 49ers were in the Super Bowl last season. The only thing that kept them from winning their division, and getting a bye week, was the dominant Seattle Seahawks. The Niners have to be considered a very dangerous wild card team.
The Philadelphia Eagles just barely won their division, after winning 7 of their last 8 games at the end of the season. Like the Chargers, they have a first year head coach that seems to be getting better as the season goes along. They're also quite healthy and have a dominant offense.
The Green Bay Packers are 6-2 this season with Aaron Rodgers as their QB. They may not be playing their best football, but they'll be getting better quickly as Rodgers has more time to practice. Like the Chargers, they have a dominant offense and have been playing playoff football for a month.
I'm not sure which is these teams is the most "dangerous". They all have their issues, but it's likely that at least two of them will win their games this weekend. Why not the Chargers?