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It’s time to stop sleeping on the Chargers’ Super Bowl chances

The Los Angeles Chargers, 8-3 after a 45-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, should be thought of as a definitive Super Bowl contender, yet they are flying below the radar. The team ahead of them in the division, the Kansas City Chiefs, along with the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints and, as usual, the New England Patriots are on most Super Bowl champion shortlists. However, this Chargers team is seldom mentioned in that company and that needs to change.

Perhaps the lack of respect is due to prior postseason flame outs. Since 2002, the first year the league expanded to 32 teams, the Chargers have made the playoffs six times, just one of which saw them advance further than the divisional round, a 21-12 loss to the Patriots in 2007. But based on some impressive numbers this season, it’s time to hop on the bandwagon. Quite simply, this is the best Chargers team we’ve seen in recent years.

According to Football Outsiders, the 2018 Chargers are the 11th best defense in the NFL this year per their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. The game charters at Pro Football Focus aren’t as impressed — they have the Chargers defense at 14th overall — but they do place their pass rush (No. 7) and secondary (No. 3) in the Top 10. Defensive end Melvin Ingram III has been credited with 46 total pressures on the quarterback, including 21 stops at or behind the line of scrimmage. Safety Derwin James has 15 total pressure with a team-high 27 stops and fellow safety Adrian Phillips has four batted passes and an interception in addition to allowing a 57.9 passer rating in coverage. Their work at disrupting the pass has this Chargers defense allowing 5.3 points per 100 snaps fewer than expected after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each play, the sixth-best mark this season and the best performance to date of any eventual Chargers playoff team over the past 14 years, per data from TruMedia.

Offensively, the Chargers are one of the best teams in football this year. The team scores 2.6 points per drive (fourth best) with almost a third of its drives ending in a touchdown (31 percent). Quarterback Philip Rivers has completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 3,119 yards and 26 touchdowns, against just six interceptions. That puts him on track for career bests in touchdown and interception rates as well as passer rating (115.7). According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, Rivers is the sixth-most valuable passer of 2018 (72.9 QBR). In addition, Rivers completed an NFL-record 25 consecutive passes to start the game on Sunday and finished with the highest completion percentage in league history (96.6 percent) among quarterbacks with at least 20 passing attempts in a game.

The loss of running back Melvin Gordon for a few weeks isn’t ideal — Gordon suffered an MCL injury to his right knee on Sunday according to ESPN — but backup Austin Ekeler carried the ball five times for 35 yards and a touchdown in relief, plus caught 10 of 11 targets for 68 yards. Add in that the Chargers boast the seventh-best offensive line in the NFL this year, per Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, in addition to the team’s running success toward the edges of the line and the loss of Gordon shouldn’t derail the Chargers’ playoff hopes, particularly with a two-game edge in the wild-card race.

Los Angeles is one of the more well-rounded teams in the NFL, especially in its ability to pass the ball (114.7 passer rating) and prevent their opponent from doing the same (87.4 rating allowed). The Chargers are tied with the Chiefs for the best net passer rating in 2018 (plus-27.3). In other words, this Chargers team is a major Super Bowl contender.

Dubbed the “Mother of All Stats” during the 2012 Pro Football Researchers Association biennial meeting, net passer rating has been a reliable litmus test for Super Bowl-caliber teams. Since 2002, 23 of the past 31 Super Bowl participants had a passer rating differential among the top five in the league, including 11 of the past 16 winners. The outliers among the eventual Super Bowl winners include the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (seventh), 2007 New York Giants (24th), 2011 Giants (12th), 2012 Baltimore Ravens (12th) and 2015 Denver Broncos (18th).

“A few years ago, you never really had a feeling … you always kinda felt like something was going to go wrong,” defensive end Joey Bosa told Jeff Miller of the L.A. Times. “When we go out to play now, we feel like we should dominate and we did.”

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