2018 NFL Bold Predictions: Here's why the Chargers will finally win the AFC West
The Chargers have had a run of bad luck, but that could all change in 2018
I'll be honest here: we finalized the topics for these bold predictions posts a few weeks back. Since that time, the Los Angeles Chargers have lost Jason Verrett for the season (again) and seen Joey Bosa, Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, Tyrell Williams, and more suffer injuries during camp. (And this was after already having lost Hunter Henry for the season and seeing Corey Liuget get dealt a four-game suspension.) In other words, it appears the Chargers are still very much the Chargers, and they are Chargers-ing right on time for this post. In spite of said Chargers-ing, we're going to walk through all the things the Chargers have working in their favor in the AFC West race this season anyway.
We'll start with luck. The Chargers have been inordinately unlucky over the past several seasons, and while on one level it's concerning to see a team continue to get unlucky year after year, the likelihood of that continuing in perpetuity is low. That's not to say we should expect the Chargers to be inordinately lucky during the 2018 season, but merely that we should expect they'll have average luck.
For example, the Chargers underperformed their point differential by 1.4 games last season. (Their point differential was actually better than the Chiefs', and Kansas City won two more games than the Chargers.) Teams that underperform their point differential by more than a win tend to see their win total rise the following year. Similarly, the Chargers went just 1-4 in games decided by three or fewer points last season, and 3-5 in games decided by one score. Teams' records in such games, with few exceptions, tend to regress toward .500 over time, meaning we should expect the Chargers to do so going forward. Again, this is an indicator that the Chargers should see an improvement in their win total this season.
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Even while underperforming their point differential and struggling in close games, though, there were still other indicators that the Chargers should have been even better. The average NFL team made 94 percent of its extra point tries last season. The Chargers made only 88 percent. The average team connected on 84.3 percent of their field goals last season. The Chargers connected on a truly embarrassing 66.7 percent of their field goals, while their opponents made an above-average rate of 85.2 percent of theirs. Normalize all that kicking-game luck, and the Chargers would have added another 20 points to their point differential.
In addition to the luck factor, the Chargers have an extremely favorable schedule during the 2018 season. According to schedule analysis from Warren Sharp's essential season preview, the Chargers have the third-easiest schedule in the entire league this season. Only the Patriots and Texans face easier slates. The Chargers face only two of the NFL's top 10 teams this season, per Sharp's analysis. By contrast, the Broncos and Raiders face four and the Chiefs face six. The Chargers also face four bottom-10 opponents while Kansas City faces just three.
The Chargers also have three games where they'll be more rested than their opponent against only two where their opponent will be the most rested team. At the same time, Denver has four games with more rest than its opponents and four with less; Kansas City has three with more rest and four with less; and Oakland has two games with more rest and five with less. In other words, in addition to having the most advantageous schedule in terms of opponent quality, the Chiefs also have the most favorable rest-advantage situation in the division. The Chargers also have a relatively light load of long-travel games, with four 1,000-plus-mile road trips compared to five for the Chiefs, for example. (The Broncos and Raiders also have four apiece, but Kansas City is considered the Chargers' primary competition for the division crown.)
And these are all the external factors working in the Chargers' favor this season. There's also roster and talent reasons to believe they can finally come away with the AFC West title interested observers have been predicting for a while now. It's likely that the Chargers have the most balanced team in the division, for example; and as we examined around this time last year,as their more-balanced counterparts.
The Chargers are coming off a season during which they were the only team in the division that had an above-average offense and an above-average defense, and they were also the only team in the division that did not have a bottom-five unit on one side of the ball or the other, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA.
The Chargers retained almost all of their strongest personnel on both sides of the ball, while also adding several players who should make a strong impact for them this season. Returning players accounted for 95 percent of their rushing yards last season, as well as 79.3 percent of their targets and 31 of their 38 offensive touchdowns. They'll add second-year wideout Mike Williams -- last year's No. 7 overall pick -- to that mixture this season, plus last year's second round pick Forrest Lamp and former Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, who should help form a far better offensive line in front of Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon than in years past.
On defense, the Chargers have one of the NFL's best pass rushing duos in Bosa and Melvin Ingram, one of the best corner tandems in Casey Hayward and breakout Trevor Williams, a solid interior duo with Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget, and full-field linebackers Jatavis Brown and Denzel Perryman (without whom the Chargers' run defense collapsed last season). And that's not to mention hybrid defensive back Desmond King, plus safeties Jahleel Addae and Rayshawn Jenkins. And they got incredibly lucky with Derwin James dropping to them at the No. 17 overall pick in this year's draft. He's going to start at free safety right away, and his versatility in covering tight ends, slot receivers, and outside wideouts should prove incredibly valuable as well.
The Chargers also have the advantage of employing what is likely the best quarterback in the division, and backing the team with the best quarterback in the division is always a pretty good bet. Derek Carr has made three straight Pro Bowls but has yet to surpass 7.0 yards per attempt. Philip Rivers, meanwhile, has done so in all but two of his 12 seasons as a starter. Rivers also nearly equaled Carr's career-best 96.7 passer rating from 2016 last season, in what was generally considered just an OK year for Rivers. Prior to last season's breakout campaign, Case Keenum was the very definition of a journeyman quarterback. He'd made 24 starts for the Texans and Rams, going 9-15 with just a 58.4 percent completion rate, 6.7 yards per attempt average, and 24 touchdowns against 20 interceptions. Patrick Mahomes is an exciting prospect who has an incredibly high ceiling, but he is still a prospect in his first season as an NFL starter. The expectation here should be that the Chargers get the best -- if not the most consistent -- quarterback play in the division.
The Chargers do, of course, have things working against them. They're already banged up. They are not guaranteed to get better performance in the kicking game. They are at a coaching disadvantage against at least one of their rivals (the Chiefs), and they have a lot of players who tend to be very streaky (Rivers and Gordon chief among them). They've also consistently performed poorly in close games over several years, the kind of trend that is concerning. But the talent is there for them to finally break through, and they have other factors that are working in their favor for the first time in a while.
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