By Steve Silverman
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They started the season 0-4 and the jokes came fast and furious.
Few believed they were really bad enough to be winless, but they clearly did not know how to win. The coach was making poor end-of-game decisions and didn’t look like he belonged on the sidelines. The aging quarterback was not coming through with big plays when the game was on the line. The running game was not helping, and the defense was disappointing.
That may sound a lot like the New York Giants, who are in the midst of one of the most painful seasons in recent memory.
But it is not. It is the story of the Los Angeles Chargers, who didn’t gain their first victory until they came calling at MetLife Stadium in Week 5.
The Chargers earned a 27-22 victory that day, and the coils of the anaconda started to loosen at that point, even as they were tightening around Big Blue.
A strange thing has happened to the Chargers, who appeared destined to be a last-place team in the AFC West. There was no way they were to be expected to compete with streaking Kansas City, ornery Oakland, or defensively dominant Denver. But rookie head coach Anthony Lynn knew the players he was putting on the field were capable of playing a lot better than the way they started the season.
If Lynn could find a way to prevent his players from making the big mistake at key moments, the Chargers had enough talent to play winning football.
Since that victory over the Giants, the Chargers have not played a bad game. They have won four more, including a surprisingly one-sided 28-6 victory over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day.
Philip Rivers got off to a hot start and did not let the frustration of missing out on a couple of early scoring opportunities get to him. He ended up having a magnificent day, completing 27 of 33 for 434 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Chargers dominated on both sides of the ball and turned the Cowboys into a quivering mess, which is a pattern they have been following over their last three games without star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Chargers have a chance to do the near-impossible by making the playoffs after their hellish start. Not only are they in contention for a wild card spot, they have a chance to catch and pass the Chiefs atop the AFC West.
Rivers is averaging 260.9 passing yards per game, and has 20 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, a far cry from the 21 picks he tossed last year. Rivers has thrown just two picks since that Week 5 win at MetLife.
But L.A.’s success has not simply been about improved QB play. Melvin Gordon has rushed for 698 yards and five touchdowns. While those aren’t brilliant numbers, Gordon has an 87-yard run to his credit and is a threat that must be respected every time he touches the ball.
The Chargers have a pair of big-play receivers in Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams who are producing as well as any pair of receivers not named Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Allen is a brilliant acrobat who has caught 67 passes for 927 yards and four TDs, while Williams has gone for 27, 440, and two, and has shown he can make the difficult catch. In addition, tight end Hunter Henry has become a viable third-down and red zone threat.
The defense has a pair of pass rushers in Joey Bosa (10 1/2 sacks) and Melvin Ingram (8 1/2) who have simply taken over. When either one is going at full speed, the Chargers defense is difficult to handle. When both of them are flying, the defense becomes truly dangerous despite its 17th overall ranking in yards allowed.
Lynn has grown as the season has progressed, and now his team is bearing down on the Chiefs. The Chargers have back-to-back home games coming up against woeful Cleveland and disappointing Washington before they go to Arrowhead to take on Kansas City in what could be a confrontation for first place.
It’s an exciting proposition for a team that was on the road to nowhere after the first month of the season.
It’s also a reminder to the 2-9 Giants about what could have been had they managed to win that Week 5 battle of the winless.
In the NFL, one game can make a huge difference.
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