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Are the San Diego Chargers contenders or pretenders?

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The San Diego Chargers are 5-2 and would be in the NFL playoffs if it started today, but will they make it there?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Let's get this stat out of the way before I start....

The San Diego Chargers are 5-2 this season.

They are 2-2 against teams that currently have a .500 record or better, making them 3-0 against teams that are currently below .500. Seven of their last nine games are against teams that are currently .500 or better.

The San Diego Chargers are pretenders. They're not as good as their record states. They're not even as good as last year's team. Here's why....

Penalties

Any guesses how many teams in the league have taken more penalties than the Chargers this year?

One. One team has been worse than Mike McCoy's at avoiding penalties. The Washington Redskins, with their 66 penalties and their 2-5 record, are that one team.

The Chargers are playing sloppy football this season. It hasn't seemed that way because they've done an excellent job of avoiding turnovers on offense (fourth in turnover differential at +6), but they have killed drive after drive (on both sides of the ball) with stupid penalties.

Offensive Line

I took some heat for saying in last week's BFTB Podcast that I thought last year's Chargers were better than this year's. Ben Higgins' argument against me was that this year's team has a better defense. My argument was that last year's team had a better offensive line, which put less pressure on their defense.

Want a clear picture on last year's team vs. this year's? Imagine the 2014 Chargers playing against the 2014 Cowboys right now.  Dallas has used the San Diego blueprint, and has catapulted from a mediocre team to a dominant one by doing one thing: improving their offensive line.

Dallas' offensive line is making the run game work, helping Tony Romo to his best season ever, and it's masking a mediocre defense. The Cowboys have also eliminated mistakes (turnovers and penalties) and are winning games with time of possession. They are a replica of last year's Chargers team.

The Chargers have lost the time of possession battle three times this year. Once it was due to the Jaguars turning the ball over three times and giving San Diego a short field each time. The other two times it resulted in losses for the Chargers against the Cardinals and Chiefs. They need to win the time of possession to win the game, and they can't do that with a weak offensive line.

The Chargers offensive line this year has been abysmal. They've been "saved" by Philip RIvers' ability to move in the pocket and Branden Oliver's ability to break tackles, but they're nowhere near as good as last year's line. King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker look like different players, Johnnie Troutman has somehow been worse than Jeromey Clary, and the team desperately misses Nick Hardwick in the center of the line.

Pass Rush

My hope, early in the season, was that an improved pass rush would hide the team's issues with penalties and the drop-off in offensive line play. For a few weeks, I even believed it was happening.

Then Melvin Ingram got injured and Jerry Attaochu stayed injured.

I'm not ready to take on some of the smart Ingram detractors around here, but the proof is in the pudding. When Ingram plays, the Chargers pass rush is much better. When he doesn't, it all but disappears. Dwight Freeney has not been able to do it all by himself, nor should he be asked to.

San Diego sits and waits for Ingram and Attaochu to get healthy. They'll need them both at the top of their game if they hope to win a playoff game.


The rest of the season

I think there's enough room in the playoffs for the Chargers to squeak in as a Wild Card team once again, and from there it's anyone's game. However, after watching this team crumble over the last two weeks under the weight of all of their injuries, it's hard to imagine them making a run at the Super Bowl.

Also, I should state that I don't think any of the above issues are the fault of the coaching staff or the players. The team is missing its two starting RBs, its starting Center, a starting ILB and OLB, and hasn't had a fully-healthy secondary in a month. That's not even to mention the next-level guys who are hurt. This team just isn't healthy enough to be considered a contender at this point, and they haven't been able to fight through their injuries and recreate themselves yet.