PART II: RUNNING THE AFC WEST GAUNTLET
Before we begin a game-by-game breakdown of the Bolts 2017 regular season schedule, it’s worth noting that the NFL has once again cooked up a harrowing slate of games that would intimidate even the most talent-laden teams in the league, despite a 5-11 losing record meriting the 5th overall draft pick in the 1st round of the 2017 NFL Draft! (Will someone tell me how that works if strength of schedule is supposed to be based on the prior season’s win-loss record? How is it that New England gets a cupcake schedule every year despite winning the Super Bowl?)
For starters, the Bolts play in the AFC West, currently one of if not the most competitive division(s) in the NFL. You’ve got two games against the Raiders, a team on the rise with the addition of veteran RB Marshawn “Skittles” Lynch and now talk of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson “unretiring” to join the Silver and Black to further bolster their already favorable chances of winning the division. Being that the Bolts have been swept by the Derek Car-led Raiders the past couple of seasons, this one’s a tall order. But pick your poison. Throw in two more divisional games against the perennial playoff participant Kansas City Chiefs, including one at Arrowhead Stadium, a place from which the Bolts have struggled mightily to emerge with a “W,” and you’ve got an uphill battle. Just see last year’s 4th Quarter meltdown and eventual loss in overtime to the Chiefs in the season opener at K.C. for recent evidence of road ineptitude. I know, Alex Smith’s a “game manager” and we’ve nothing to fear from a dink-and-dunk offense that can’t push the ball deep down the field. Right? Let’s not forget that waiting in the wings is rubber-band-armed Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs first round pick, who could start sooner rather than later. Mahomes is a talented rookie QB with all the intangibles and the NFL hose to go along with them. Until the Chiefs fail to make the playoffs, not counting them out to compete for the division crown.
Then there’s the Chargers’ long-time high altitude nemesis, The Denver Broncos. I know, they’ve got “major problems under center” and the quarterback situation is absolutely abysmal (if you listen to the current buzz on the sports wire). Paxton Lynch is battling incumbent Trevor Siemian for the starting spot and both players have reportedly made significant progress toward becoming competent signal callers in the NFL. Factor in the mile high altitude advantage the addition of veteran Jamal Charles at RB, and what have you got? Two more divisional games against a more than formidable opponent. Like last season, the Bolts open on the road against a divisional opponent, not exactly the easiest first game of the season. If there’s one thing Phillip Rivers and the slow-starting Bolts don’t need is opening 0-1 to start the season. Anthony Lynn has apparently been beating the “we’ve gotta win the division” drum (a master of the obvious observation and worn-out football cliché) and in order to do that, the Bolts have got to improve their divisional record over the last couple of outings. Another 0-6 or 1-5 divisional record simply won’t cut it if the Bolts are to have any chance of living up to the hype in 2017.
Adding gasoline to the already incendiary schedule is the fact that the AFC West drew the NFC East this year, another stout NFL division with the talent and firepower to send more than one squad to the playoffs in 2017. I mean come on, man! As if the slate weren’t tough enough, now add Dak Prescott, Ezekial Elliot, and the high-flying Cowboys offense, a surging Philadelphia Eagles squad led by Carson Wentz and LeGarret Blount, and a much improved Giants team led by the steady if not stellar Eli Manning. Oh, almost forgot Kirk Cousins and the underrated Redskins who plan to kick it up a notch and compete for the NFC East crown this year as well. A lot has been said lately about Cousins’ status as a pretender or contender. Gonna say he’s the latter for sure. Again, first year Coach Anthony Lynn and his L.A. Chargers clearly have their work cut out for them here.
Okay, now let’s talk about the inauspicious slate of games against the AFC East, including a road game clear across the country to Gillette Stadium to play the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in their house (if you think you’re getting a level playing field here, just talk to Coach Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers about his experiences with the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium headset hi-jinx!) Know what the naysayers are going to say, though. The AFC East pretty much sucks outside of the Patriots, so this slate of games should actually be easy for a “loaded” Bolts squad. However, upon closer examination, one can see that the AFC East will be a much-improved division overall. Not saying the Bills and Dolphins are going to sweep the Pats or that the cellar-dwelling Jets are going to compete for the division, but if we are to believe reports coming out of Miami, Adam Gase’s squad is up to the challenge and the Dolphins have traditionally given the Chargers fits. Whether or not Ryan Tannehill is the answer under center remains to be seen, but the Bolts don’t win at Joe Robbie Stadium, period. Historically they’ve also struggled to “squish the fish” in San Diego when the Dolphins have come to town. Plus Phillip Rivers can’t be throwing picks directly to linebacker Kiko Alonso in the 4th quarter if the Bolts are to prevail. The silver lining here, if there is one, is that both these games will be home games at Stub Hub Soccer Center in L.A. (See: lack of homefield advantage for Chargers at home earlier in this article!) The Buffalo Bills remain, as in recent seasons, somewhat of a gigantic question mark. Will Sammy Watkins get healthy and stretch the field? Can Tyrod Taylor make the jump to light speed and emerge as one of the league’s elite passers? Will the Bills circle the wagons a la the glory days of yore? We’ll just have to wait and see Bolts fans…
Last but not least we have the games against the Browns and the Jaguars, matchups that based on the recent records of these teams would seem easy wins for the Bolts. Before passing judgment here, you need to take another look at the Browns draft and the Jaguars upside. Although in “rebuilding mode,” The Cleveland Browns made some savvy moves in the offseason and appear to be headed in the right direction. Plus, let’s not forget that the Chargers lost to the then winless Browns squad last season at Qualcomm Stadium, yet another ignominious scarlet letter “L” for the Bolts to add to their significant resume of colossal choke jobs in the past. Point is when it comes to the Chargers, nothing’s a guarantee. There’s no such thing as a lead pipe lock in Chargersville. Although it remains to be seen if Blake Bortles will ever morph into an elite passer in the NFL, the Jaguars have improved in recent years. Good news here is that the Bolts kind of own the Jags, but this year’s game is on the road in Jacksonville. Still if one were going to earmark two “easy games” on the 2017 schedule, the Browns and Jaguars games would seem to fit the bill. So that’s the global “big picture” for the Bolts 2017 Regular Season, now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and pull the trigger on a game-by-game analysis with picks for all 17 of the Chargers’ 2017 Regular Season games.