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The San Diego Chargers Will Win the AFC West In 2015

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One staff writer sees a tight division race this season involving four flawed teams. 3 of the 4 are capable of winning it; the other is getting closer to contention.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Summary

The 2014 season was disappointing.  Injuries hit just about every position group and after a good start in September and the first two weeks of October, the wheels came off and left the team at 9-7; one win away from a wild card slot.

My thought this year is "regression to mean".  I spend a lot of my Monday through Friday time involved in the investment markets.  It is often humbling, but I have noticed that negative outliers and exceptions tend to move back toward their average.   Often, those continue their progress into positive outliers and exceptions, before returning to that same mean.  (The converse is also true, unless you've made a pact with Beelzebub like a certain hoodie wearing coach in Foxboro.  But that's another discussion.)  The cyclical nature of things gives me some optimism for 2015.

It's reasonable to expect that the team won't start 7 different Centers this year, right?  And that a guy who has been solid for a couple of years in the league will play better than the awful he admitted to playing in 2014?  And can't we have some hope that a coach who saw what playing on the edge could do when he had no choice in Santa Clara last December, might get just a touch more aggressive this season, even when he has a little more discretion?

I am also figuring that the rushing game will not be 30th in the league again, but will at least be closer to average.  Finally, I am guessing (praying?) that the injury bug will not bite this team in 2015 as badly as it has in the last few seasons.

The head coach has hopefully thought about some things in the offseason.  One could make the argument that game management cost the team at least one win (the home game against Kansas City) and possibly one (Arizona) or two (Patriots) more.  I do not expect to see McCoy become another iteration of Riverboat Ron Rivera, but I am also figuring that he learned enough to not settle for some horrific 2 minute drill play calling and a tying FG with 2:04 left on the clock and the ball on the opponents 30.

Projected Starters

Position

Player

QB

Rivers

RB

Gordon*

WR

Floyd

WR

Allen

TE

Green (1)

OL

Dunlap

(L to R)

Franklin

Watt

Fluker

Barksdale

WR

Johnson

DL

Reyes

(L to R)

Lissemore

Liuget

LB

Ingram

(L to R)

Te'o

Butler

Attoachu

CB's

Flowers

Verrett

S

Weddle

Adae

* Rookie

(1)  Through Week 5, due to the Gates suspension.

Coach D will have to work some magic to get 3 new O-line starters (and another returning starter possibly sliding from Right Tackle to Right Guard) playing with the unit cohesion needed in the NFL.

If the running back unit can stay healthy (unlike 2014) and the line comes together, the running game should be better.  A lot of things went wrong for the Bolts O-line and running backs in 2014 and the entire offense suffered for it.  In keeping with the "regression to mean" theme, I am figuring that not as many things go wrong this season.

There are some concerns with prior health issues and overall depth in the LB corps.  There is also reason for optimism; after all, this unit has be more healthy {cough, ingram, cough} and play better {cough, butler, cough} than it did last year, right?

The defensive line has depth, but the quality of the players behind Liuget and Lissemore is questionable.  My own opinion is that an additional year in the NFL has done many of the D-Line rotational players a lot of good.  The secondary should be the best defensive unit on this team, as it was in 2014 when Verrett, Flowers, and Weddle were on the field at the same time.

The Schedule

Week

Date

Opponnent

Time (PT)

TV

1

9/13

DETROIT

1:05 PM

FOX

2

9/20

@Cincinnati

10:00 AM

CBS

3

9/27

@Minnesota

10:00 AM

CBS

4

10/4

CLEVELAND

1:05 PM

CBS

5

10/12

PITTSBURGH

5:30 PM

ESPN

6

10/18

@Green Bay

1:25 PM

CBS

7

10/25

OAKLAND

1:05 PM

CBS

8

11/1

@Baltimore

10:00 AM

CBS

9

11/9

CHICAGO

5:30 PM

ESPN

BYE

11

11/22

KANSAS CITY

5:30 PM

NBC

12

11/29

@Jacksonville

10:00 AM

CBS

13

12/6

DENVER

1:05 PM

CBS

14

12/13

@Kansas City

10:00 AM

CBS

15

12/20

MIAMI

1:25 PM

CBS

16

12/24

@Oakland

5:25 PM

NFLN*

17

1/3

@Denver

1:25 PM

CBS

* The TNF games are usually simulcast over an on-air channel in the home markets of the two teams.

There is a lot to like about this schedule.  There are only 2 cold weather games.  With both the NFC and AFC North on the rotation for 2015, it could have been much worse.  The first 5 games are certainly winnable and then there are alternating games against tough and less tough opponents in the middle third of the season.  5 of the last 7 games of the season are against divisional opponents; the other two are a roadie in Jacksonville and Miami at home (FINALLY!  Maybe the Bolts will have better luck against the ‘phins at home.)

There are some things to not like about the schedule.  The last two games are scheduled a little strangely.  A Thursday Night Christmas Eve game in Oakland will give the Bolts a few days to rest up before travelling to Denver.  Also, there are 5 10:00 A.M. start times, which have been challenging for this team in the past.   There are also 4 prime time appearances; good for fans, but these can disrupt a team's work week and routines.

If the Bolts go into the Week 13 game at home against Denver with a 7-4 record, (certainly doable), the division title is theirs for the taking.  This is actually looks like a better schedule than some of the recent ones played by the Bolts.

Conclusion

The offensive line issues affected the entire offense last year and it is critical for guys like Franklin, Watt, and Fluker (or Barksdale or Sirles) to play at a high level.  Without decent blocking, a running game never gets going.  Without a credible running game or a decent interior line, PR cannot work his pocket climbing, side armed, gun slinging magic.

It remains to be seen if the vanilla play calling and unimaginative uses of player combinations and formations last year was due to the injury situation.  Losing Gates for the first four games sure does not help, but there is enough depth at the skill position groups to mitigate that loss with some creativity.

Defensively, I think this team may surprise people.  Depth is a concern, but I believe guys like Carrethers, Ricardo Mathews, Palepoi, Tourek Williams, Law, and Perryman are going to shine this season and turn a decent unit into a top 10 one.  As always, being able to generate a pass rush will be a big part of the story.  Ingram and Attaochu simply have to perform well in 2015 for this defense to get better.

Predictions for Expected Order of Finish

  1. San Diego Chargers (10-6)
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)
  3. Denver Broncos (8-8)
  4. {Them} (7-9)

If this is surprising to those of you that are familiar with my usual pessimism, my optimism is based on the following factors:

  1. The Bolts are now the only team in the AFC West with a reliable franchise QB.

  2. Two teams are going through coaching changes.

  3. The talent level of the other three teams has either decreased or not improved enough in the case of Oakland.

  4. The Bolts filled enough holes to improve offensively and defensively.  They were close to being a 10 or 11 win team last year, despite the injuries, holes in the roster, and timid coaching.

Today's NFL is QB driven.  This is where the Bolts have their best advantage.  I believe at the end of 2015, Rivers will be acknowledged as the best QB in the division.  PR and enough quality support will ultimately get the Bolts to 10 wins (maybe 11) and for the first time since 2009, an AFC West Title.