CLEVELAND — It is the vagabond portion of the Los Angeles Chargers’ 2018 schedule. They left L.A. on Friday to fly here for Sunday’s game against the Browns. They are staying in Cleveland and practicing at Baldwin Wallace University for the next few days before taking a red-eye flight Thursday night to London, where they’ll play the Titans next Sunday. Today was their seventh day of 41 in a row between home games.
“I feel like we’re the Vikings,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said, referencing not to the Minnesota Vikings but rather the seafaring Scandinavians of ninth- and 10th-century lore. “Packing up, kissing the wife and kids goodbye and heading off. Hopefully, come back with some plunder.”
The first stop was a rousing success. L.A.’s happy wanderers drubbed the Browns 38-14 here Sunday, rushing for more yards (246) than Philip Rivers threw for (207). Against a Browns defense that had been one of the most opportunistic in the league, the Chargers did whatever they wanted to do on offense all day. The win improved their record to 4-2, with their only two losses having come at the hands of the two teams that entered Sunday with undefeated records.
Annually done in by slow starts and ugly mistakes, this year’s Chargers look set up to be a legitimate threat.
“The chemistry and the confidence are coming back to what they were at the end of last season,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “You can just tell. Before the game and in the locker room, everybody is feeling good and trusting the game plan. When we can do that and not think about every play, we can go out and do what we just did.”
Last year’s Chargers lost their first four games of the season but won six of their final seven, barely missing out on the playoffs on a tiebreaker that still bugs them. This year’s bunch has obviously put it together much earlier, and the way the second half went last year gives them confidence that they can cash this in. They’re still second in the AFC West behind the Chiefs, who beat them in Week 1. But their next five games are against the Titans, Seahawks, Raiders, Broncos and Cardinals. Of those teams, none has a winning record. The Chargers are set up to do some damage, and if they play the way they played here Sunday, they’re going to be very tough to stop.
“We had a lot of reasons to not come out here and play well today,” center Mike Pouncey said. “We traveled halfway across the country to stay in another city. We’re traveling across the world to play in London. Our football team came out here and handled our business from start to finish. We’re really proud of ourselves.”
It hasn’t been easy for the Chargers so far this year. They lost starting tight end Hunter Henry and valuable cornerback Jason Verrett to preseason injuries. And they’ve played all six of their games without star pass-rusher Joey Bosa, who’s out at least another week and possibly more with a foot injury. As a result of the Bosa injury, a team that looked on paper to have one of the league’s best defenses gave up 120 points in its first four games. Chargers coaches say the team had to change the way it played on defense because opponents were able to devote so much attention to defensive end Melvin Ingram with Bosa absent from the other side of their line. A team that relies on front-four pressure and is used to dropping seven into coverage and generating turnovers that way had to alter its entire style.
Melvin Gordon cites a collective effort in the Chargers’ 38-14 shellacking of the Cleveland Browns and pinpoints superior blocking for his three-touchdown day.
“We’re at our best when we can rush with four and get pressure,” Lynn said. “Now we’re trying to create pressure with more man coverages, more zone blitzes, things like that. That creates more holes in your secondary.”
They’ve figured it out the past two weeks, albeit against a rotten Raiders team and a Browns team that was down to just three active wide receivers in the first quarter Sunday. Next week, they get a Tennessee team that’s also struggling on offense, and they hope to get Bosa back after their Week 8 bye. That’d be a sweet midseason pickup for a defense that’s building some confidence without him. And if Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon and the offense click the way they did Sunday, the defense won’t even have to be all that great.
“I’m playing well, but I could play better,” Gordon said after rushing for 132 yards and three touchdowns on just 18 carries. “Everybody was on point today. It’s big for us that we learn how to finish these games. Today was big.”
The Chargers have been through enough disappointment to know this thing is a long way from over. They’re not here to celebrate a 4-2 start, but rather to try to make something of it. They believe, based on last year, they’re the kind of team that’s capable of a dominant second half of the season. But they’re not sitting around assuming that’s on the way.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” left tackle Russell Okung said.
But given the way seasons usually start for the Chargers, a 4-2 start is an accomplishment worthy of note. And while the Chiefs have started the season so hot there’s no reason for them to even look in their rear-view mirror, the Chargers’ history of second-half runs should make this unusually strong start a source for concern among their competitors. By the time the Chargers play their next home game, it’s not crazy to imagine they could be 7-2 and bonded by all their time together on the road. Los Angeles might be a Rams town now, but it might have to make room for two Super Bowl contenders before this season is over.