The Chargers were a heartthrob in 2020. Capturing the hearts of many, Justin Herbert played exceptionally, finishing with the best numbers ever seen for a rookie quarterback. Despite all of this, Los Angeles didn’t turn out to be very good. The team tantalized us with some big offensive performances, but it lost many close games in excruciating fashion with the defense blowing late leads.
There’s talent up and down this roster. Now, with a new head coach, is it possible the Chargers could make the playoffs in a crowded AFC?
Before looking at the conference as a whole, let’s first do the obvious and examine their position in the division. Is there a chance they can finish as the best team, and secure an automatic bid as one of the AFC’s top four seeds? Well, considering the Kansas City Chiefs finished atop the AFC West at 14-2 last season, and don’t look like they are going anywhere anytime soon, I’m going to say no.
So, that means the Chargers are going to have to play for the wild card. Can they secure 10 wins? Surely that would do the trick. Well, they’re unfortunately going to have to face the Chiefs twice, which will likely result in a pair of losses. Additionally, two against the Raiders, and meetings with AFC North powers Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore will be very difficult. Right there, you could be looking at five losses. On the bright side, however, the Chargers will have the benefit of playing the horrendous NFC East this year, which could gift them some much-needed victories.
Considering the strength of schedule, the Chargers are going to need prove they’re better than at least two of some aforementioned elite AFC teams. Much of that is going to depend on what the team is able to do over the off-season. Los Angeles has over $34 million in cap space, the ninth-most in the league, and will have the opportunity to sign a plethora of helpful pieces. One of them could end up being Joe Thuney, who has been linked to the Chargers because of their dreadful offensive line. Los Angeles’ line ranked dead last at 32nd in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus, carrying on a trend of poor play at the position. Trai Turner and Brian Bulaga were brought in to shore up the right side of the line, but the pair did anything but.
The Chargers will also have the opportunity to build a contender through the draft. They own the 13th and 47th picks, and the totality of their selections grade out as the 12th-best in the league. Many have them taking an offensive lineman at 13. Los Angeles may also want to address the running back position; while Austin Ekeler is talented, and the team just selected Justin Jackson, L.A. still ranked 30th of 32 teams in yards per carry last year.
Back to the question at hand, though, is this team good enough to make the playoffs? In its current state, I’d have to say no. There is certainly promise surrounding the team with a talented quarterback like Herbert, but there are far too many holes and new coach Brandon Staley is going to have a lot to prove. Los Angeles ranked 18th in scoring offense and 23rd in scoring defense a year ago, signaling there are also issues galore on defense in addition to the ones presented on the offensive line.
The Chargers are likely a year or two away from real contention. It’s realistic to call games against the Bengals, Broncos (2x), Texans, Giants, Patriots and Football Team wins. After that, it gets muddy. The Chargers are going to need to knock off some powerhouses, and it doesn’t seem they’re quite at the level yet to unseat one of last year’s playoff teams. Considering we’re going back to the traditional format of two wild-card teams, it’s likely we’ll see both spots go to AFC North teams, with the seasons all three of the division’s top teams are coming off. Considering the Chargers will have to play those three teams, too, they’re getting the short end of the stick. Perhaps in a season where they don’t have to face this stiff competition, and some of their holes are shored up, Los Angeles can make the playoffs. That’s encouraging! Unfortunately, though, 2021 won’t be the year.