Tuesday, January 14, 2014

San Diego Chargers Playoff Postmortem: Tough Loss, But the Future Looks Bright

The future looks bright for Philip Rivers & the Chargers  -  SD Chargers
As many of you regular Reno Dispatch readers undoubtedly anticipated, here's my postmortem on the Denver Broncos' 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. First and foremost, congrats to the Broncos for a hard-fought win. While San Diego fell behind early and got pushed around for much of the game, the team characteristically did not quit and made a hell of an effort to get back in it late in the fourth quarter. But Denver prevailed.

Denver's offense played about as well as expected, scoring 24 points. But the Broncos' defense played better than expected, holding the Chargers to 17. That was the game's biggest surprise. Credit must be given to that group, especially given the fact that it was playing without Bronco Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller. Denver had its aging but still gifted cornerback Champ Bailey back from injury, and that helped some. But the Broncos' somewhat maligned defense was clearly playing with a chip on its shoulder. 

Denver was able to pressure Charger Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers more than most teams have this year. San Diego's overachieving offensive line, which as usual was banged up, had arguably its worst game of the season.

No excuses for the Bolts' loss, Denver played pretty well, but this game was close without the Chargers' best running back contributing much. San Diego, which evolved into a very solid running team this season, missed Ryan Mathews, whose bad ankle prevented him from playing after the first few drives. That was the deciding factor in the game. Mathews had a hell of a year, finishing second in the AFC in rushing. He was, besides Rivers, the team's most valuable player this season. Without him, the Chargers just could not run the football effectively.

Despite Mathews' absence, this team was still just a dropped pass or defensive third-and-long stop or easy interception away from beating Denver again at Denver. Some of the drops by San Diego's receivers were absolute killers. Future-hall-of-fame tight end Antonio Gates dropped a perfect Rivers throw across the middle, and Gates' understudy, Ladarius Green, also dropped a perfect pass in stride that would have put the Chargers deep in enemy territory. 

Having said that, it is also true that San Diego's cornerbacks were exposed in this game for the mediocre players they are. This group played better the last five games of the season, but Shareece Wright had an impossibly easy pic opportunity that he just flat-out dropped. And no one could really hang with Denver's all-world slot receiver Wes Welker, which I predicted before the game started. The Bolts' pass rushers also didn't put enough pressure on Manning, obviously.

Adding to that insult, Charger kicker Nick Novak, who had a great year, missed a field goal that he usually makes. But what hurts the most is the fact that San Diego's defense could not stop Denver on a crucial 3rd and 17 late in the game. If the D had made that seemingly routine stop, Denver would have punted and it was pretty evident that San Diego's offense, which had found its rhythm, would have scored to tie the game. Credit to Denver for picking up that crucial first down.

While San Diego also had too many encroachment penalties (five), the referees in this game were a joke. Peyton's jumpy hard count could have easily been penalized, several times. It is very subjective, that call, but the zebras also called a pick (illegal screen by a receiver) against San Diego but curiously overlooked several even more obvious picks by Denver's receivers. No sour grapes, just a fact as plain as day.

Rivers, who had one of his best years, did his best on Sunday with pretty relentless pressure. He never quits. Rivers made some brilliant passes, including two for touchdowns, and he had no pics on a windy afternoon. Yes, Manning outplayed him, but Manning had a lot more time to work. 

Chargers receiver Keenan Allen also shined in the fourth quarter with two TD catches and nearly 150 yards receiving overall. The offense was gaining confidence quickly, Denver did not have an answer for Allen, but again, the defense could not give the team the one stop it really needed. That inability to make a third-and-long stop will haunt this team - especially defensive coordinator John Pagano - for a while, and it should.

By the way, as an aside mostly for you Charger fans, it was interesting to see former Charger cornerback Quentin Jammer come in for injured Bronco cornerback Chris Harris and subsequently get burned repeatedly, and badly, by the Bolts' sensational rookie wide receiver Allen. It was both amusing and painful to see Jammer get toasted again. It brought back some painful memories. 

As mediocre as San Diego's corners are this year, and with all respect to Jammer, who had some great years in San Diego, it was the right move sending him on his way. He's lost more than a step.

Bottom line? There is much room for optimism in Chargerland. The team, which won a playoff game on the road against a heavily favored Bengals club that had not lost at home all season, has a smart and indefatigable new coach in Mike McCoy and one of the finest quarterbacks in the league in Rivers, who was unfairly maligned the past two years. He showed this year that he is an elite quarterback who only needs an average offensive line to do his thing. In the entire league, only Peyton's numbers were better this season. 

Beyond Rivers, San Diego is not known for its talent the way it was a few short years ago, but the team does have some solid veterans and good young players. And what this Charger squad lacked this year in skill it often made up for with heart and a never-say-die attitude. It's a cliche', but it's true: this is a scrappy group that is far easier to root for than, say, the Kansas City Chiefs, who are loaded with Pro Bowlers but lack heart and at times choke on their collective resume'.

The young Charger stars to keep an eye on next season include pass rusher Melvin Ingram (if he can stay healthy), and of course Allen, who is the best offensive rookie in the NFL this year. And Green, too, despite his monumental drop on Sunday, is going to be in the Pro Bowl, soon. 

San Diego also has a rebuilt offensive line that was coached well and played well most of the year, even with a bunch of untimely injuries and players that will never make any Pro Bowls. 

What do the Bolts need to win a Super Bowl? A little more luck (no, not Andrew), a little better pass rush, a little more explosiveness in the kickoff and punt return games, and, mostly, better cornerbacks. But San Diego may have both starting wide receivers - Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd - when camp opens next summer. That is, if Malcolm doesn't choose to retire with that nagging neck injury. Neither will beat out Allen for the starting job now, though. Not a chance. 

Keenan is this team's newest and brightest star. He and Rivers have a chemistry that will produce huge numbers, and perhaps more and deeper playoff runs, in the next few years. A Super Bowl is now a much more realistic expectation. This team has most of the pieces to make that happen, and the right front office to complete the puzzle.


  1. Jamie:
    Very good assessment and I agree. What surprised me was how average the Broncos looked. Despite the fact that the sports media has been hyping this team all year and has already crowned them champions of the world, they were absolutely beatable. The real problem was the Chargers pissed away three quarters before getting their head in the game. And as bad as they played, they only lost by one score! They should feel good about that and bad about the first half. I agree they will be back next year.

    1. agree, john. credit to denver's D, who many said is not very good. they played pretty well. san dego had so many opportunities, it is frustrating. it will be interesting to see how denver's D handles Brady, or IF they handle Brady. But personally, I'm done. The Bolts are out, so I'm moving on to college hoops! :)

    2. I think New England, if the O line holds up, will exploit Denver's defense. They aren't that good, and the Pats have become a good running team. San Diego would probably have won this game if running back ryan mathews (the second best in the AFC) hadn't been hurt. I think NE can run on Denver, and will.

    3. How subjective you all are. You talk about all the opportunities that were lost on SD's part, and that is correct. You failed to mention all of the points Denver left on the board: Decker tripping on his own two feet, a dropped pass in the end zone that led to an interception, a punt return that was called back for a block that didn't need to happen, a fumble on SD's side of the field, 6 dropped passes and on and on and on. Sorry folks but you can't have it both ways. Both sides squandered opportunities. And the fact that Denver didn't punt all day? And some of you call Denver just an average team and didn't play that great? Seriously. You all are living in a dream world. The blogger at times gives credit, and then takes it it away. When Chris Harris, our best defender in the secondary was hurt, Rivers took advantage of it. With Chris in the game, who says Rivers is able to complete those same passes. He sure hadn't all game. Instead of giving credit where it's due, you all made a ton of excuses. Sure Mathews didn't play. But Denver is missing key folks too from serious injuries. That plays both ways. To say you all were a play here or there from winning is ludicrous when you consider all the points Denver could have scored. It's the same IF game. After reading all the rhetoric all week long, it does not surprise me to see this one sided thinking. Instead of giving Denver credit for winning, you all are giving all the one sided excuses why the best team didn't win. Too bad there is such poor sportsmanship in this world. The truth is whether you like it or not, the best team won. Live with it, and move on.

    4. Interesting take. But maybe you need to read it again. I congratulated Denver for winning and said their defense played well. No poor sporstmanship, no whining, Just stating facts. For the record, the Chargers interception in the end zone wasn't a "dropped pass," it was clearly poked out of his hands by a Charger defender, and then caught skillfully by another Charger defender before he stepped out of bounds. The block on the runback that you said didn't need to happen "did" happen, it wasn't a phantom call, it was a stupid mistake by the Broncos. You neglect to mention that the refs called an illegal pick on San Diego but ignored the fact that Denver did the same thing at least three times and did not get whistled for it. No excuses, just facts. Denver's defense is indeed average, at best. They played well on Sunday, I said that above (read it again), but the Broncos' defense is not great by any measure. And Ryan Mathews' injury iwas more significant than any Denver injury. The Bolts became largely a power running team with Mathews in the past six games. Without him, the team just could not effectively run the ball. That isn't subjective and it isn't making excuses, it just is what it is Yep, I do believe San Diego would have won this game if Mathews was in there and healthy. He was a dominant back this year, the second best in the AFC. San Diego beat Denver a month ago at Denver by sustaining long drives, mostly on the ground. Without Mathews that was not happening. The best team won Sunday, I agree. But it would not have been the same result if San Diego had its second best offensive player in the game. San Diego dominated the last game, Denver won this game. I can live with that. Now let's see how Denver handles the Patriots' healthy running backs, I suspect New England, which has also evolved into a power running team this year, will run it down the Broncos' throat. We'll see.Thanks for reading the bog! Go Chargers!

    5. Jamie, I won't go toe to toe with you on this because we disagree on some points, including Miller being out. That is disastrous for Denver as is Mathews not playing much for SD. You can argue with me all day on that one, but I won't give in as far as Miller's absence and the rest of our KEY injuries on defense. And the fact that Denver left so many points on the board, you can't really say just because Mathews played, it would have been totally different. It's subjective from both ends, and I can respect that. I appreciate and respect your take on this. I think your writing style is fabulous and a good read whether or not I totally agree. And I do come from a sports background, and my brother Mark is Sports Director for Fox in Houston. I am not a novice at this by any means.

      Oh and one more thing, I have no allusions about the NE game. We may be exposed in a HUGE way on defense with no Chris Harris and a makeshift defensive line. Honestly, it could get ugly for us if we don't bring our A game and if we make mistakes. I think it's a toss-up. If I had to make a pick right now, it wouldn't make our fans happy. This could be NE's game. Sure hope not, but just being realistic.

      Thanks Jamie for debating and sticking to the facts. Really like your style.

      All the best,

    6. Thanks Greg! Keep reading, and challenging me. It's a dirty job but somebody's gotta do it! :)

    7. You do it very well Jamie! Thanks for being such a good sport about this. I really appreciate that. I'll continue to read your blog. You now have a new fan!

      PS: By the way, I have mad respect for Rivers. He's a fabulous player and quite a character. I just went out and bought a bolo tie ... :-)

      Keep up the great work!

      All the best,

  2. There are no assurances in the NFL from one game to another, let alone one season to another. The core of this Chargers team has demonstrated fight for many seasons, with different coaching staffs. Just because the ball fell their way more than not this season, had no relation to how it will be next season. As a franchise, the Chargers have both had seasons like this before and built on them and had seasons like this and then flopped. Every year the pundits pick a promising, seemingly up and coming team, only to see it get a top draft choice for their efforts. I don't see much difference between the current Chargers team and the four that preceded it, accept for conservative play calling.

  3. Jamie I like your assessment of the Chargers season. No one expected to have a winning season ( let alone make it to the playoffs, not even Norv.) By the way, where is he since he got fired from the Browns? Maybe you can do an article about that lol. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks anonymous. Turner wasn;t actually fired by the Browns, but the head coach was fired and that has left Turner's gig kind of in limbo. But it looks like the Vikings are about to hire Turner as their offensive coordinator. http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000314101/article/norv-turner-close-to-deal-with-minnesota-vikings

  4. I was quite the commenter this season and never lost faith in my Chargers, but after our loss I decided not to make any comments until now.

    Jamie, well written report, you covered all the important points except ONE!! You did NOT comment, nor did any of our other commentators, to the Chargers "weakest link" in this game and the main reason we did not come out of Denver with a W!!

    The first three quarters we had the most bland and conservative play calling from our now departed OC than any team has seen in years!! Our loss is on his back, and we will all see that Tennessee will not go anywhere with this head coach!!

    Back to the game. Why stick with the run for three full quarters, especially knowing that Mathews was on the side lines and was not coming back in? What did Rivers have in passing yardage in the first half? I remember I read somewhere that he had a total of 17 yards passing!! He simply could NOT get in his passing rhythm with that poor and conservative play calling!!!

    Go to the locker room at half time and really PLAN to change that!! No for ONE entire quarter he stayed with the SAME POOR play calling he had exhibited in the first two quarters!! FINALLY in the fourth quarter he took the handcuffs off on Rivers and we know what our QB accomplished!! If he had only done this at the onset of the second half. I guarantee you WE would be playing in the Meadowlands in two days!!

    I am soooo happy that Kurt has taken the head coaching job at Tennessee. I was so disappointed in his play calling that I could not talk with anyone!!

    And now my only wait is to have a great Free Agency {we MUST resign Larry English} and a TOP Draft {MUST land a top CB in the likes of Darqueze Dennard or Justin Gilbert}, as we had last year!!

    Next season we WILL BE in the Super Bowl, trust me, I guarantee it!!

    The "Long Distance Charger Fan" reporting in this week from Amman Jordan

    1. Interesting point, and well made. As I said in my story, the absence of Mathews was the biggest factor in this game. But it wasn't the only factor. I totally agree that with Mathews out, San Diego should have opened up the offense sooner. But the Bolts offense was not executing, especially the offensive line. Denver's defense played much better than I expected. They put a lot of pressure on Rivers, all day. I'm sure you know that the Chargers' offense only really started to move the football after Denver's staring cornerback Chris Harris left the game with a torn ACL and, ironically, former Charger Quentin Jammer came in. Jammer got burned repeatedly by Allen. San Diego found a rhythm, but it was too little, too late, and the Chargers' defense, as it did too often this year, could not stop Denver on the final drive when it had to. Manning completed a couple of third down conversions in that last drive to move the ball past midfield, and the game was over.