San Diego is used to this.
The Chargers’ 2008 AFC West title came after the Bolts roared back from a 4-8 record to upend Denver for the division championship. The following year’s edition of the Chargers started 2-3 before rallying off 11 consecutive wins to end the regular season. Mike McCoy’s only postseason trip in 2013 developed after San Diego ran off five wins in six games to climb back from 4-6 to earn a wild card berth.
So there is plenty of precedent for the Chargers fighting through a slow start and going on a late-season tear to catapult them into the postseason. Having pieced together back-to-back wins against Denver and Atlanta, momentum seems to be in the Chargers’ favor for going on another win streak.
Despite season-ending injuries to key players early in the year, Philip Rivers has kept the offense as potent as ever and Joey Bosa’s presence on the defensive side of the ball makes one wonder how many of those heartbreaking losses would’ve been prevented had he been able to impact those games. San Diego — at 3-4 — is a team nobody in the league wants to face right now.
But just because San Diego’s pulled itself within one win of .500 doesn’t mean jack squat in regards to their playoff hopes. While the AFC West over the course of the 2000s was mediocre at best, with Oakland suffering through a decade of misery while Kansas City and Denver struggled to find success without franchise quarterbacks, the division has been one the league’s toughest over the past few seasons.
With Oakland’s ascension into the upper echelon of the league nearly complete while Denver and Kansas City remain NFL elites, San Diego can no longer afford to have the slow starts they are prone to without expecting it to come back and haunt them down the line. This season’s 1-4 start may have been temporarily-rescued by consecutive victories, but for San Diego to actually get itself back in the playoff hunt the team needs to take down the Broncos at Mile High this Sunday.
With a win, the Chargers put themselves in perfect position to go on a run that would catapult them into postseason contention. After taking on the Broncos, San Diego has a four-game stretch that includes games against the Titans, Texans, Dolphins and Buccaneers. On a good day, the Chargers would run roughshod over these teams. On a bad day, the Chargers would still find themselves with a chance to pull the win out against young and inexperienced quarterbacks. But if San Diego can continue their recent winning ways and carry it into the month of November, the Chargers will be in prime position to either take the division crown from the Broncos or snag one of the two wild card spots.
But with a loss Sunday, San Diego’s path to the postseason becomes much murkier. Having already lost to Kansas City and Oakland on the year, the last thing the Chargers can afford is another loss to a division opponent. With the Chiefs and Raiders rolling, a 3-5 San Diego team that already has three division losses would all but guarantee the limitation of San Diego’s path to the postseason as strictly through the wild card. With Buffalo and the three AFC North teams not based in Cleveland all looking like contenders for the wild cards themselves, San Diego can’t afford to lose any additional ground.
San Diego is used to defying common logic. That 4-8 team that rallied to win the division at 8-8 was the first of its kind to accomplish that feat, and with the personnel they have the Chargers can’t be counted out to complete their rally from 1-4 with a playoff berth. But just because San Diego’s good enough to put together a late-season rally doesn’t mean that their division opponents won’t perform well enough down the stretch to prevent the Chargers from being able to push their way into the playoff conversation.
Having an opportunity to begin with is just as important as the act of seizing the opportunity, and San Diego has a great opportunity to put itself squarely in position to compete for the division with a win Sunday. But if San Diego squanders that opportunity, the rest of the division may not allow them another chance like that.