The Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, whoever wins the AFC South (I don’t really know)... those are the five teams that, right now, you’d bet on making the AFC playoff race in 2021. There are seven spots available, which leaves two open slots for the next tier of AFC teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, and heck, why not the Los Angeles Chargers?
Well, for a lot of reasons, unfortunately. The Chargers (besides enduring a perennial curse) have a second-year quarterback, a first-year head coach, and finished last season with the 26th-best DVOA, right in the midst of the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and Houston Texans. Not necessarily esteemed company. You can appreciate a lot of the Chargers’ recent moves through an optimistic lens, if you want: that first-year head coach (Brandon Staley) seems pretty good, that second-year quarterback (Justin Herbert) was the Offensive Rookie of the Year last season; they’re surrounding that young quarterback with Rashawn Slater and Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi. But optimism is a dangerous game when it comes to the Chargers. See: perennial curse.
It is tough to hang playoff expectations on the new-era Chargers. Philip Rivers’ Chargers only went to the playoffs twice over the decade before Herbert was drafted. To think Herbert needs to deliver a playoff berth by year two—or that Staley must by year one after the last two head coaches only made the playoffs once in their respective four-year stretches—just seems unreasonable for the Chargers’ team history.
So let’s start small: the Chargers should beat a playoff team this year.
In 2020, the Chargers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, Raiders, and Chiefs in a throwaway Week 17 game. Take away the Chad Henne bowl, and the Chargers beat six teams, five of which picked in the top 10. The total record of those six teams was 24-71-1 (.250). And lest we forget—the Chargers were 3-9 until the last four games of the season came around. It’s not like they were that good for that long, either.
Now, the Chargers played some good teams tough and they deserve their shine for that. They lost one-score games to the Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and New Orleans Saints, and their divisional losses to the Broncos and Raiders were by a combined six points. But you don’t really get to go to the playoffs until you can beat the lower teams in your division, and you don’t really get to go to the playoffs until you can beat the playoff teams on your regular season schedule. The Chargers weren’t there last year and need to get there this year to call things a successful season.
In 2021, the Chargers get the Chiefs twice, of course. Throw in the AFC North, and that’s Baltimore and Cleveland on the docket. Those are three AFC playoff teams in four games; throw in the entire NFC East and the Chargers are guaranteed another playoff opponent—and probably a bad one. They have to be able to win a couple of those games this season.
And let’s say they do. If they’re able to split with the Chiefs or beat the Browns at home, then they probably have a really good angle on the playoffs! If they’re beating the bad teams on their schedule, then that’s probably a nine-win team in the playoff hunt come December. So that playoff hope will certainly come to fruition. But the name of the game is stepping stones for the budding Chargers, about whom everyone wants to be excited, but understands why there's a reason for pause. Let’s first get a couple wins against playoff teams before we expect playoff contention for the Chargers—and if we get that, it’ll just be cherries on top.
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