For the first time in 5 years, the Chargers have won a playoff game. For a team that dominated much of the game, this one was about as ugly as can be. In true Chargers fashion, they very nearly blew a 20 point lead with some tight sphincter football. Even if they hadn’t left San Diego, heart attacks surely would have taken out half of this fan base. They are the ex-girlfriend that everyone in your life tells you not to call, but you somehow convince yourself that this time is different. Buckle up, Chargers fans, she’s the same crazy gal she’s always been.
How did it come down to a final drive strip sack to seal a 6 point victory? First, credit has to go to a Chargers-should-have-never-let-him-go Eric Weddle led Ravens Defense. Along with Drew Brees and Darren Sproles, ex-Chargers sent unceremoniously packing seem to flourish for long periods of time no matter where they go. If not for the Bears, this Ravens D would have been the toast of the town this year. They did a great job of disguising blitz packages and getting consistent pressure on Rivers without giving up the deep ball. The only other time Rivers looked this flustered all year was week 16, also against the Ravens. They also shut down any semblance of a running game, setting up long 3rd downs throughout. If not for their performance, this would have been an easy blowout due to early game turnovers.
Beyond that, it was more of the same for a team famous for finding unique ways to lose. A blocked kick AND punt for a team that ranked 25th in Special Teams DVOA this season. That ranking is probably generous, thanks to a late season punt return TD and the unexpected emergence of Michael Badgley as a (gulp) dependable kicker. The Chargers should seriously consider handing out Xanax to their fans before games. The anxiety that goes with every kick is palpable.
Also on brand for the Chargers were the late game gaffes that kept them from putting it away sooner. Virgil Green had a bad fumble in Charger territory. Adrian Phillips dropped a late game interception that would have all but sealed it. Russell Okung was called for holding on a game ending run. These are the little things that make the difference in playoff football. This team, as many Charger teams before them, just finds ways to let the other team back into it. They simply must change that quickly or next Sunday will be their last game of the season.
My biggest gripe with this team has been consistent since the days of Marty Schottenheimer. They always, ALWAYS turn to an ultra-conservative offensive approach late in games. It’s continued through 3 Presidents, 4 coaches, and countless heart-wrenching losses. The script goes like this: The Chargers are winning by a seemingly insurmountable amount. Life is good. They get the ball back. Great, time to put the hammer down! Nope, says every Chargers coach, ever. Instead, let’s run the ball up the middle twice for little to no gain, followed by a desperate pass on 3rd and 9 when everyone knows it’s coming. Like the Hangover 4, we know exactly what’s coming, and yet have to watch the same atrocious plot with slightly different characters. It’s as if this is the first and only question Dean Spanos asks in a coaching interview. Here’s a thought — when you have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, maybe just stick with him and quit worrying about draining every last second off the clock. I’m tired of the “play not to lose” mentality that’s plagued the Chargers since the turn of the decade. Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner, and Mike McCoy all tried it, and it’s always been a disaster. Anthony Lynn, try not to be such a Norv, please.
In spite of it all, the Chargers have been winning and have gotten this far. They’re a darling Super Bowl pick because they may be the most complete team in the NFL. The 3rd ranked offense and 8th ranked defense (according to DVOA) have allowed them to cover up their many flaws to this point. However, they will need to have their most flawless game of the season to beat this Patriots team on Sunday. The Pats will not make these types of mistakes, and Belichick is famous for his ability to exploit weaknesses and spot predictability. Rivers will need to bounce back quickly, and should against a much weaker Patriots defense. The pass rush will be vital once again, as Brady gets the ball out of his hands quickly and is impossible to stop with space. If the Chargers can just avoid tripping over their own feet, they have as good a shot as anyone. It’s just, that’s a big “if.”