NFL bettors cooled off on the San Diego Chargers reaching the AFC Playoffs this season after last year's Week 17 collapse. We look for betting value on the Chargers for our NFL picks in 2015 and discuss how far they can make it this year.
In the final week of the mosh pit that was the 2014 AFC wild card race, the San Diego Chargers controlled their own destiny. But after an uninspired effort that eliminated the Chargers from the postseason, the public has since cooled considerably on San Diego. The Chargers are currently at +620 to reach the postseason at 5Dimes, a line that ranks ninth among AFC teams.
2015 AFC Wild Card Contenders
Picking wild card contenders in the AFC is tricky. The conference had six teams finish with exactly nine or 10 wins, making for a packed middle class. Nonetheless, it’s puzzling to see teams like the Cincinnati Bengals (+595), Buffalo Bills (+580) and Miami Dolphins (+515) with considerably shorter NFL odds than the Chargers. Advanced metrics does suggest that San Diego was lucky to finish 2014 with a record in the same ballpark as those clubs. Of that quartet, Football Outsiders ranked San Diego last in DVOA, Pythagorean wins and estimated wins.
But the gap wasn’t necessarily a large one, which makes the wide gap on this futures prop puzzling. Apart from the free-spending Dolphins, the San Diego Chargers made the most significant offseason upgrades of the AFC’s second-tier teams. Offensively, Philip Rivers carried an untenable load last year despite playing through a painful assortment of injuries, which reportedly included a bulging disk in his back, broken ribs and an unspecified chest injury. Predictably, Rivers’ performance regressed as his body slowly crumbled. From September to December, Rivers’ saw a dip each month in quarterback rating, yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio.
With a new contract extension in tow, Rivers will remain the fulcrum of the offense for the foreseeable future. However, the 33-year-old should have more help from his supporting cast than he’s had since the LaDainian Tomlinson days. After ranking 31st in yards per carry (3.4), the Chargers made a concerted effort to beef up their ground game. The Bolts traded up in the first round for Melvin Gordon, whose vision and decisive one-cut running style should mesh nicely with San Diego’s inside zone concepts. Gordon won’t touch his absurd 7.8 yards per carry career average at Wisconsin, but he’ll add a much-needed playmaking boost to one of the least explosive running back corps from 2014. The Bolts had just 35 runs of 10 or more yards all year, 27th in the league. On a percentage basis, those carries represented a meager 8.9 percent of San Diego’s rushing plays from 2014 (excluding kneel downs), a rate that ranked 28th.
Gordon provides a talent upgrade over former undrafted rookie Branden Oliver, but the first-round pick won’t need to go it alone. Perhaps with Gordon’s selection in mind, the Chargers buttressed their offensive line in free agency by adding a pair of starters in left guard Orlando Franklin and right tackle Joe Barksdale. Signing Franklin away from the division rival Denver Broncos was particularly sweet, given the chaos Denver currently faces on its offensive line. Barksdale surprisingly lingered on the free-agent market until mid-May, but his acquisition allows previous starting right tackle D.J. Fluker to kick inside to right guard. With his mauling power but suspect foot quickness, Fluker is probably a more natural fit at guard. Reports have been optimistic about Fluker’s transition, and with 2014 starting right guard Johnnie Troutman out with a broken arm, a Fluker-Barksdale duo on the right side of the line represents San Diego’s best option.
Of course, even without a workable running game, the offense wasn’t San Diego’s problem last season. The Chargers have been an uninspiring defense for years now—going back to 2011, the unit has ranked 29th, 18th, 32nd and 25th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. The crux of that mediocrity has been San Diego’s inability to generate a pass rush. Again going back to 2011, the Bolts have ranked 17th, 14th, 26th and 29th in sack percentage. No individual defender has recorded more than 5.5 sacks in a single year since 2012 and only one player—Antwan Barnes in 2011—has cracked double-digit sacks in that timeframe.
Competent interior rusher Corey Liuget remains San Diego’s most proven option, but two intriguing edge-rushing prospects offer enticing upside. Outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu combined to miss 12 games due to injury last year, robbing San Diego of its most explosive edge defenders. Ingram in particular has shown a nose for playmaking; as noted in the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, he led the Chargers with 10 defeats (a big-play stat that includes things such as sacks, tackles for loss, stops on third and fourth down, etc.), despite playing just nine games. San Diego’s secondary possesses an enviable trio in Eric Weddle, Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett. If Ingram and Attaochu can provide anything up front, the Chargers might finally have the makings of a top-15 defense.
San Diego's Betting Value
Ultimately, the appeal of this bet lies not only in the Chargers’ offseason improvements but the potential vulnerability of the Broncos. Denver has had a stranglehold on the AFC West since Peyton Manning’s arrival in 2012, but between Manning’s own uncertain health and significant turnover on both the roster and coaching staff, the Broncos aren’t the postseason lock they’ve been the past three years. That uncertainty gives the Chargers an edge over the likes of the Dolphins, Bills and Texans, all of whom are most likely playing for wild-card berths in the shadow of overwhelming division favorites.
The aforementioned FOA 2015 is high on San Diego’s chances, projecting the Chargers for 8.5 wins, sixth-most in the conference. The Chargers will certainly have a chance to finish stronger than they did in 2014, with five of their final eight games coming against teams that finished .500 or worse last season. Two of the other three games are against the Kansas City Chiefs, which may very well decide a postseason berth. San Diego couldn’t ride Rivers’ arm to the playoffs last year, but the reinforced 2015 Chargers stand a much better chance of holding up down the stretch.