After four weeks, the Los Angeles Chargers were as far back from first place as a team could possibly be: Four games behind the Chiefs, including a loss at home to them. Speculation turned to whether or not the Chargers would draft a quarterback with their inevitably high 2018 draft pick.
Instead, heading into Week 12, Philip Rivers and Joey Bosa may need to plan for a playoff trip instead.
Following a 54-24 win over the Bills, the Chargers are 4-6 and just two games behind the falling Chiefs. Given that neither of the other two AFC West teams seems all that interested in winning the division, Los Angeles has a surprisingly workable path toward one of the unlikeliest postseason berths in history. The only team to make the playoffs following an 0-4 start since 1990, when the NFL went to six-team playoffs for each conference, was in fact the 1992 San Diego Chargers. That team was led by a young future Hall of Fame linebacker in Junior Seau and had a set of premium pass rushers and a number of solid, if since forgotten, weapons on offense. There are a number of similarities between the two teams beyond just being the same franchise, but these Chargers don't have to win 11 of 12 games to make the postseason.
Here is how they can finish the job this time, starting on Thanksgiving at the Cowboys.
1. Play like the top-three defense they have the potential to be
Last season, the Chargers started 1-4, drawing heavy (and deserved) criticism for not coming to terms on a contract with third overall pick Joey Bosa in time for him to join the team by the start of the regular season. Bosa missed the first four games, and in that time they lost an OT game to the Chiefs, by four points to the Colts and by one point to the Saints. Given that Bosa has arguably been the best defensive end in the NFL since he started playing, he could have made a big difference in that lackluster start.
The Chargers won four of six games in the middle of last season but dropped their final five. They gave up at least 27 points in nine games in 2016, but they have yet to do that once in 2017. That's a trend that can give Rivers an opportunity to win most every week, and it's easy to see that continuing, given that Bosa and Melvin Ingram could bet the best defensive duo in the league right now.
Consider that Bosa, 22, already has a spot in the Hall of Fame because he has the most sacks of any player through his first 20 games. No one has ever been on a pace like Bosa and he has 10 1/2 sacks this year in 10 games. Ingram has 8 1/2 sacks and Chris McCain has five, though he missed the last game with a quadriceps injury and it is unknown if he'll return on Thursday against the Cowboys.
They aren't the only stars. Cornerback Casey Heyward proved to be the best free agent signing of 2016, going from average as a member of the Packers to leading the NFL in interceptions; he has added three more this year and he has 34 passes defensed since signing with the Chargers. Free safety Tre Boston joined the team this year from Carolina and already has four picks. Of course, the Bills' Nathan Peterman gifted five turnovers to the Chargers last week, but overall thy have forced 15 turnovers since Week 5, the most in the NFL over that period. (The Bucs also have 15 turnovers since Week 5 but played in one more game.)
The only two times in the past six games that the Chargers did not win the turnover battle, they lost. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who once helped mold the young Seahawks defense into a postseason beast, knows what he has to do.
2. Take advantage of the remaining schedule
Los Angeles begins the journey from here with a Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas, where the Cowboys are struggling mightily in the absences of running back Ezekiel Elliott and left tackle Tyron Smith. Without those two, Dallas has lost its past two games by a combined score of 64-16. If Smith can't go, it gives Bosa and Ingram an even better opportunity to continue Dak Prescott's fall of horrors.
The Chargers then host the 0-10 Browns, followed by a home date with a Washington team that has lost four of its past five games. If it can run the table over those three games, L.A. will be 7-6 heading into its most important game of the season: at Kansas City on Dec. 16. The Chiefs won the first game 24-10, but Alex Smith and Kareem Hunt aren't playing anything like they were in September. Rivers threw picks in that game, but he has 13 touchdowns and three interceptions in seven games since then.
And if the Chargers win that one, they only have games left against the Jets and Raiders, both of whom are also 4-6. The Chiefs game is the toughest one left on the schedule, and even they have lost four out of five games. The Chiefs remaining schedule is also fairly easy, but they just lost to the Giants 12-9, so there is no such thing as "easy" for Andy Reid's squad right now.
3. Bring out the best in Phillip Rivers
Rivers, who has led the NFL in interceptions in two of the past three seasons, is not the elite quarterback he once was. From 2008-13, he averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 98.8, but over the past four seasons, his average per attempt has dropped to 7.4 and his rating is just 91.5. As young quarterbacks surpass him and a 40-year-old Tom Brady continues to lap him, Rivers has become an afterthought among AFC quarterbacks. But the Chargers are still better when he's better.
The Chargers are 1-4 when Rivers throws an interception compared to 3-2 when he doesn't. He doesn't need to be elite for the Chargers to win because they have some defensive stars, but he does need to be a reasonable "game manager." Rivers can defer some credit to Melvin Gordon, who has scored six touchdowns in the past six weeks and actually leads the team in receiving TDs with four. They could use more production from Keenan Allen, who caught 12 of 13 targets against Buffalo on Sunday, gaining 159 yards and two touchdowns, his first scores since Week 1. They could also be getting a second half boost from receiver Mike Williams, the seventh overall pick in the draft, who had a career-high eight targets against the Bills. Williams missed the first five weeks of the season and had seven total targets going into Week 11.
4. Know that there's precedent for similar turnarounds
The '92 Chargers are the only 0-4 team to make the playoffs, but they aren't the only team to come close or to rebound from terrible starts. The 2001 Patriots that kicked off a dynasty started 1-3 and lost their franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, in Week 2. They were 5-5 after 10 games but ended up winning nine in a row to take home the Lombardi trophy.
The 2002 Titans rebounded from a 1-4 start to finish 11-5, their only loss coming at Baltimore by one point, and they eventually lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Raiders. The 2004 Panthers were 1-7 and well out of contention, but they managed to get to 7-8 and have a winner-makes-the-playoffs game in Week 17 against the Saints. They lost 21-18.
As Chase Stuart recently pointed out, it's not so much about how many 0-4 teams have made the playoffs, it's about how many teams have won 10 of 12 games to close out the season. Maybe only 1 percent of 0-4 teams have made the playoffs since 1990, but 7 percent of teams have gone 10-2 over the final 12 games, and we know that the Chargers are not your typical team to start 0-4. So they may fall closer to the 7 percent than the 1 percent.
And the most relevant turnaround of all is that of the 2008 Chargers, a team that also had Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates. As they often do, the Chargers had a rough start, opening the year at 0-2, then later 2-3, then 3-5, before a low point of 4-8 with four games to go. They needed a best-case scenario to catch up with the Broncos … and they got it. Rivers helped his team win three in a row to get to 7-8 as they hosted Denver in the finale, a team coming off of two losses. They blew out the Broncos 52-21, and won a wild card matchup to get into the divisional round. The Chargers didn't get any further than that in the postseason, but they're perhaps the most shining example of "if there's any chance at all, there's hope."
People may question an 0-4 team or a 4-6 team, but if the Chargers beat the Cowboys on Thursday and the Browns a week later, fewer bystanders will wonder if a .500 franchise can get into the playoffs. We knew going into the year that the Chargers have the talent to compete with most any AFC team, and none of that has changed. Four of their six losses are by three points or less and none of the Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos seem interested in standing in their way.
A comeback like this doesn't just start one day, it starts every day, and the Chargers on the path to making 0-4 history ... again.