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Optimistic mind-set leads Chargers to the top of the AFC West

Optimistic mind-set leads Chargers to the top of the AFC West
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon picks up yards in the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns at StubHub Center. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When things were at their worst, when the Chargers fell to 0-4 and their fans were regularly and decisively being drowned out by cheers for whichever team was visiting StubHub Center, they could have let their season slip away. And who would have cared much if they had?

The team that nobody seemed to want here didn't seem to want to be here, either, playing just well enough to lose and doing its best to fade into the background of a crowded Los Angeles sports landscape. The Chargers' motto, "Fight for L.A.," became unintentionally humorous because they couldn't win the battle for fan support in their own stadium, let alone challenge the Rams' popularity.

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That all felt like ancient history Sunday during the Chargers’ 19-10 victory over winless Cleveland. Fans wearing blue outnumbered and out-yelled the visiting team’s supporters by probably the greatest decibel margin in any of the Chargers’ six home games, roaring their approval for Philip Rivers’ decisive performance and standing to salute a staunch defensive effort. A three-game winning streak has balanced the Chargers’ record at 6-6 and, though it seemed improbable two months ago they now share the AFC West lead with the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, and could earn the division title if they win out.

"When you start 0-4 and the division leader starts 5-0, you go 'Oh, it's going to be tough to even have a chance,'" Rivers said, referring to the Chiefs. "But here we are with a chance."

That's all they wanted, a chance. They've earned it.

“We’re right where we want to be,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “If you told us when we were 0-4 that we’d be right where we are now, people would be like, you’re crazy. Someone should have bet that in Vegas, everybody would have won a lot of money.”

The circumstances appear to favor the Chargers because none of their remaining opponents is above .500. They play host to the 5-7 Washington Redskins next week, then visit Kansas City (6-6 and on a four-game losing streak) and visit the 5-7 New York Jets before their regular-season finale at home against the 6-6 Raiders. Tackle Joe Barksdale announced in the locker room he will wear a onesie on the plane home after the Chargers beat the Jets. Not if they win — when they win. Barksdale is 6 feet 5 and 326 pounds, so that would have to be a gigantic onesie.

His joke provided insight into the ways he and his teammates kept their heads up early in the season and how they've kept going with increasing sharpness and purpose. They stuck together and laughed together instead of splintering into finger-pointing cliques. They could have let their season unravel. Instead, they revived it.

"No one ever flinched," coach Anthony Lynn said. "At 0-4 we still had a lot of football in front of us. That's always been the way we've looked at it, so being in this position doesn't surprise me at all because the guys work hard and they're committed to the process. They never stopped believing."

Barksdale made sure they remained positive.

"You've got to take it one game at a time, but sometimes it helps to speak life into a situation, too. You can look at things optimistically or pessimistically. I choose to be optimistic," he said.

It has been a powerful weapon.

"That, and focusing on controlling what we could control," Barksdale said. "At the end of the day, it's not like we were getting blown out those first four games. But adjustments here, adjustments there — the next thing you know, they add up and you can make something happen."

Their momentum is strong. Rivers again was a leader and a steadying force with a 31-for-43 performance for 344 yards and one touchdown, and receiver Keenan Allen’s 105 yards receiving put him above 1,000 for the first time since 2013. They haven’t given up more than 26 points in any game this season.

Allen said going from 0-4 to 6-6 wasn't a surprise to him.

"That's what I was expecting," he said. "We had nothing but confidence to go win out the rest of the season. That's our mind-set and that's what we want to do."

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Running back Melvin Gordon said it's not impossible.

"We're in a good place right now but we're not in a great place and that's why we have to keep working," Gordon said. "I feel like everything is in our hands right now. We're starting to see the light a little bit, but by losing those four games at the start of the season we dug ourselves a pretty big hole."

They've emerged into the light.

"It's exciting to be in the month of December and have everything in front of us and have a lot on the line," Rivers said. "It is exciting to have a meaningful December."

Especially after their season might have ended, in essence, in October.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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