Two Los Angeles NFL teams. Two identical records. Two dramatically different situations.
The Chargers are a miscast wild-card team, the 6-foot kid in the third-grade class picture. They are 11-3 in a cluster of hopefuls, almost all with three fewer wins.
The Rams are 11-3 too, but they marked their height on the wall three weeks ago and haven’t grown since. They’re putting their shoulders back, straining their necks, rocking up on their tiptoes but have been stuck on 11 wins since a lackluster victory at Detroit at the beginning of December. It’s highly unlikely New Orleans is going to lose its final two games and surrender the No. 1 seed, but the Rams can assure themselves of No. 2 (and a first-round bye) with wins at Arizona and over San Francisco.
For the Chargers, the No. 1 seed in the AFC remains a realistic possibility. They would need to win out — against Baltimore on Saturday, then at Denver — then hope for a stumble by Kansas City at Seattle on Sunday night. The Chiefs aren’t going to lose their finale to Oakland.
How important is seeding? Nine of the 10 teams that played in the past five Super Bowls were No. 1 seeds, with Atlanta (No. 2) being the exception. In other words, each of those teams had first-round byes. There were no wild-card Cinderellas that reached the mountaintop by winning three playoff games on the road.
Of course, that’s what the Chargers would have to do if they wind up as the No. 5 seed.
But this Chargers team is different and scary, maybe because they essentially will have played 16 road games. StubHub Center offers no home-field advantage, and often opposing fans are louder than Chargers fans. That just might work to the advantage of the Chargers on the field though, because this team has been unflappable.
The Chargers have turned a punchline into a lifeline.
By season’s end, it’s likely they will have won in five time zones, counting London. They have won at Seattle, at Pittsburgh, and at Kansas City, three of the most inhospitable venues for visitors. What’s more, with running back Melvin Gordon returning, the Chargers are improving at the right time.
NFL teams are constantly looking to harness any hint of disrespect. Remember the Philadelphia Eagles and their (under)dog masks last season? They rode those all the way to a Lombardi Trophy. Every week, the Chargers have disrespect delivered by the truckload. Their players have a motto — “ASAP: Any Squad, Any Place” — and clearly they believe that. In that sense, they’re the quiet guy at the bar, and nobody wants to mess with them.
There’s something else about those Eagles. At this point last year, they were dead team walking, on a collision course with the postseason wood chipper. Carson Wentz, who had been the leading MVP candidate, was out for the season with a knee injury. Nick Foles was at quarterback, and the situation didn’t look good. But that team went on an improbable playoff run and wound up winning the Super Bowl.
The Rams can take heart in examples such as that, when December play was not a true indicator of what would happen in January. In fact, they could look at their track record. In Week 15 of last season, they crushed the Seahawks in Seattle, 42-7, and looked unstoppable. Three weeks later, the Rams were stunned at home by Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs.
That’s not to suggest the Rams should be breathing easy. Their impressive wins this season — against the Chargers, Chiefs, and Seahawks (twice) — have been offset by troubling losses. They are 3-3 over the past six games, falling at New Orleans, at Chicago, and at home to the Eagles.
The Rams need to get to the quarterback and protect their own, and they’re fortunate to have a soft landing in their final two weeks, even though the beat-up 49ers have consecutive wins. If the Rams can’t slam the door here and secure the No. 2 seed, they’re probably one-and-done in the postseason.
Before the start of last season, who could have predicted that Los Angeles would be in this situation, with two teams poised to make a playoff run? The Rams’ Sean McVay was last season’s coach of the year, and the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn is a strong candidate this season.
It doesn’t happen often that two teams in such close proximity would enjoy simultaneous up cycles. The New York Giants and Jets have made the playoffs in the same year five times in the Super Bowl era, most recently in 2006. Only once (1986) did they both get beyond the wild-card round.
When the Rams were in Anaheim, they and the Los Angeles Raiders both reached the postseason in 1983, ’84, and ’85. It feels as if we could be entering a similar stretch, at least as long as Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is still playing.