COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — This was hardly forecast for the Chargers, not after they started their first season back in Los Angeles at 0-4.
Yet here they are, on an unexpected roll, winners of seven of their past nine and heading into a Saturday night showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs with the AFC West lead on the line.
“These are the games you dream about playing, to have chance to stay alive in the postseason,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “This doesn’t win the division, but it certainly helps.”
Both teams are 7-6, but have arrived there from very different points. While the Chargers were struggling to start the season, the Chiefs opened 5-0.
That hardly foretold a December matchup with a possible division title on the line, particularly with a Chargers team that appeared headed for such a dismal season in Los Angeles.
Plenty has changed for the Chargers since that winless start, which included a 24-10 loss to the Chiefs at home.
“We’ve changed in a lot of ways,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “We’ve taken the ball away more, we’re taking care of the football better, and our coverage teams have gotten better against these dangerous returners we’re going to see in Kansas City. We’re just a better football team now.”
Their defense has played consistently well throughout most of the season. It has allowed the second-fewest points in the league (225).
“We have a very confident defense at this point,” cornerback Desmond King. “We started off pretty good, but now it’s like we’re just getting started, like this is a kick-in for the rest of the season. We want to keep that momentum going.”
The offense, however, got off to a somewhat rocky start.
Rivers threw six touchdowns and four interceptions in the 0-4 start. He’s thrown 17 touchdowns and three interceptions in the past nine games.
Running back Melvin Gordon averaged 3.1 yards per carry in the first four games and 3.9 yards since.
Lynn said he can’t pinpoint why the offense got off to such a sluggish start.
“I wish I knew, we would have started a whole lot sooner,” he said. “We’re just executing better, we’re extending plays, we’re playing better on third down.
“We just stayed focused and stayed the course, and it’s paid off.”
Rivers said the improvement on the offensive side can be traced to a few particular areas.
“We’re better on first and second down, and then the domino effect to that is we’ve been way better on third down,” Rivers said. “So then that domino effect is, you get more first downs and you just have more opportunities. And then we haven’t turned it over.
“You’re better on first down, you’re better on third down and you’re not turning the ball over — if you’re doing those three things good, you’re scoring points.”
The Chargers are averaging 372.7 yards per game, fifth highest in the NFL.
With the defense staying solid and the offense on a roll, the Chargers have turned their season around. A team that started 0-4 and threatened to fade into the Los Angeles sports background, is now forcing the area to take notice.
The Chargers have had to play almost every week since that 0-4 start as if their season was on the line, so they are nothing if not well prepared for a big game.
“Any time you go through adversity like we went through, it can definitely galvanize a unit and make them closer,” Lynn said. “And I’ve seen that happen.
“Every week is like a championship to us. We have to win out. Even if we’re fortunate enough to win this game on Saturday, we still need to keep winning just to keep our spot. It’s a similar situation for us that we’ve been in along.”
Despite the weekly pressure, Rivers said the team played loose, if still focused.
“I don’t think it’s caused us to be tight,” he said. “We’ve been playing very free, but at the same time focused. We know we’ve been in position where we had no more wiggle room. And we’re still there.
“We have a good thing going, and hopefully, we can keep it going.”