Anthony Lynn walked out of the Chargers’ locker room on the first Sunday evening of October, leaving behind a team that believed something so absurd even a flat-Earth truther would deem it ridiculous.
The team, loser of four straight, about to be four games back, was convinced it was playing for the AFC West title.
Ten weeks later, Lynn walked out of the same locker room owning a share of the division lead, a 7-6 record and a four-game winning streak heading into his team’s biggest game of the season.
But before they could look ahead to that, the Chargers had to dispatch a badly maimed Washington team with a 30-13 victory.
Lynn isn’t hiding from the scoreboard watching that comes with being in contention this late in the season. The Chargers are tied with Kansas City for first place. They’re also firmly in the wild card race after Tennessee lost in Arizona and Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh.
This will not go undiscussed as the team prepares to face the Chiefs on Saturday in Kansas City.
“I want them to understand the big picture,” Lynn said. “I want players to always know what they’re playing for. And, right now, we’re playing for our division. … When we were 0-4, we were playing for our division. There’s just too much football to count yourself out.”
And if Lynn truly believed that — and he did — you bet the players did too.
One of those guys, linebacker Kyle Emanuel, never saw confidence really waver during the early losing. And when Lynn charged the team with competing for the division, he bought it.
“Hope was never lost,” Emanuel said. “Coach Lynn came in one day and said, ‘I’d tell you if we were playing for pride. But we still have everything in front of us.’ And, we truly believed it.”
The belief they could win also came from a belief in one another.
Sunday, the Chargers’ defense again demonstrated how selfless the group can be, rushing en masse to celebrate Emanuel’s first-quarter interception — the second of his career — the way they do most turnovers: by posing as if for a picture.
Even in the excitement, Emanuel knew he had an appointment to keep.
“That whole sequence to me was kind of a blur, the catch, the run. I was upset with myself because I got tackled. But then, it just clicked. I got to go get a photo,” he said. “…It’s just fun. It’s cool to see, to play free and celebrate with one another and have fun and do things like that, it makes everyone closer. It makes everyone more excited. You play better that way.”
And right now, the Chargers are definitely playing “better.”
For the third straight week, an opposing offense failed to gain 300 yards against the defense (Washington barely gained 200). The Chargers allowed the offense only a single touchdown, they forced a key turnover and they were almost unbreakable on third down, conceding to Washington twice in 12 tries.
Washington was also the third straight opponent to fail to run for 100 yards against the once-porous Chargers rush defense.
“I like the way they’re flying to the football,” Lynn said. “They’re playing the rush a lot better.”
It’s a simple concept, linebacker Melvin Ingram repeated after the game.
“See ball; get ball,” he said.
As the defense did that, the offense got ball, scored points.
After struggling to get into any consistent rhythm for the first half of the season, Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense are on a roll that continued against Washington. The team scored on its first five possessions, putting Washington in far too deep of a hole.
Philip Rivers threw for 319 yards and two touchdowns, playing turnover-free football for the fourth game in a row. He’s not been intercepted in his past 139 attempts, throwing for 1,583 yards and 10 touchdowns during that stretch.
The team also averaged five yards per carry on 35 attempts, a positive step for a group trying to be more efficient. The Chargers even gained big chunks on a reverse play and a flea flicker.
“The offense is clicking. It’s in a nice rhythm,” Lynn said. “I love the balance we have right now, the rush attempts and the pass attempts, making the defense defend three offenses instead of one. When I say three offenses, I’m saying the run game, the pass game and the special plays. When you’re one-dimensional, anyone can stop you. But when have to defend all three … that’s the balance I’m looking for.”
To climb out from 0-4, to win seven of your next nine games, you’d better believe in your teammates, no matter how crazy the goal might seem.
“That’s what wins championships — being selfless,” safety Jahleel Addae said. “That’s what brings ‘W’s. It’s a team sport; this isn’t track.”
The Chargers are sprinting though, and if they can keep their pace, no one in the AFC West will be able to catch them.