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RUNNING THE AFC WEST GAUNTLET: Part V

The final installment of Scott James’ season predictions for the Chargers’ inaugural season in Los Angeles.

WEEK FOURTEEN: REDSKINS @ CHARGERS

Rounding out the four-game slate against the NFC East is this late-season matchup against Jay Gruden’s Washington Redskins, an enigmatic team that seems to be on the precipice of playoff success every year before imploding in a manner not dissimilar to the Bolts’ own anticlimactic meltdowns in recent years. Assuming Kirk Cousins will be playing on the franchise tag and do a journeyman-like job of keeping the ‘Skins in just about every ball game they play this season, this game may be more of a challenge than we think. Really like Cousins and am one of the faithful who thinks he is close to, if not already a good, starting quarterback in this league. Picking the ‘Skins to come in last in the NFC East, but would be pleasantly surprised if they compete for the division or at least second or third place. On paper, the Bolts should cream this team and emerge with a win, but as Shakespeare once said, “Much a slip, betwixt a cup and a lip!” Redskins at Chargers has the potential to be another trap game since the ‘Skins are quite unpredictable and have the ability to win on any given Sunday. That being said, this is a home game or the Bolts late in the season when their backs are, predictably, against the wall. Yes, Bolts faithful, like it or not, it’s another must-win game to run the table and possibly grab a Wild Card spot in the AFC. Sound familiar?

Expect a defensive game with a lot of running the ball. Both Cousins and Rivers can sling the ball downfield so it won’t be without its passing game highlights either. The Bolts D should be able to contain the ‘Skins passing attack on the back end with help from a relentless pass rush up front. By this time in the season, we should see the Bolts D really coming on and rounding into form as one of the top five units in the NFL. As with the 2016 campaign, should the Bolts miss the playoffs for the third year in a row, the blame will fall squarely on Phillip Rivers and the Special Teams unit rather than their stellar defense. Running Back Melvin Gordon will have another big day running behind the retooled offensive line whose run-blocking abilities should be much improved over last season. The Bolts dominate time of possession and the clock in this one, scalping the ‘Skins and most likely ending their hopes to compete for the NFC East crown. The Chargers are finding a way to win the ones they should by now. Hindsight will find this year’s brutal schedule to be the cardinal culprit for yet another season of high hopes turned to disappointment.

FINAL PREDICTION

The Chargers win this one by playing ball-control and keep away from Kirk Cousins, outlasting the Washington Redskins to notch another “W” on the season. What at first sight seemed like another trap game morphs into a solid home win for the Bolts. Chargers win this one in workman-like fashion by a final score of 23-14, improving to (7-6) on the season, leaving a sliver of hope for that ever-elusive Wild Card bid (since by this time, the Oakland Raiders will be in the driver’s seat for the division). Bolts faithful are happy to repeat the standard, late-season mantra of, “All we have to do now is win three more games, and we’re in!”

SAN DIEGO, CA – NOVEMBER 22: Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers is tackled by Dontari Poe #92 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter of a game at Qualcomm Stadium on November 22, 2015 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

WEEK FIFTEEN: CHARGERS @ CHIEFS

Another road trip to the second hardest place to win in the NFL, Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs faithful will be ready for this one and ready to tomahawk the Bolts’ chances at a pivotal road win in the AFC West late in the season. If the division doesn’t come down to this game between the Bolts and Chiefs, the final game of the season against the Oakland Raiders in two weeks’ will seal the deal. This prediction depends on the popular notion that the teams in the AFC West will beat up on each other all season long, leaving the division crown up for grabs until the very last second. See this playing out in a similar fashion to the Chiefs winning the West last year on a tie break over the Raiders in head-to-head combat. There’s always the chance that Oakland will run away with it and have a nice 3-game cushion going into the final 3 games of the regular season, but divisional games are always tight. There’s a reason the AFC West has been dubbed “The Most Competitive Division in Football” by most NFL pundits. Again, wins are hard to come by at Arrowhead, even if you’re the New England Patriots!

Going to go out on a limb here and say that QB Alex Smith will be benched in favor of the rubber-band-armed, first round pick, Patrick Mahomes. This kid just has so much upside, it will be virtually impossible for Alex Smith, a quintessential game manager, and dink-and-dunker, to hold him off. Chiefs fans will be wanting big plays and deep balls down field. Again, this will be a must-win game for both clubs, but most importantly for the Chargers. Expect a lot of offense in this one with the game possibly going to overtime as it did in the 2016 season opener at Arrowhead. The Bolts D will have their hands full containing scat back Tyreek Hill and stopping the aerial attack of Patrick Mahomes. This will be a war of attrition, with the team that commits the fewest turnovers emerging victorious. The last team with the ball on offense will likely win the game. Problems that have plagued the Chargers at Arrowhead in the past will rear their ugly heads once more (most likely late in regulation or even overtime.) Remember the bad snap on the game-winning field goal attempt in Kansas City a few years back? This Bolts fan hasn’t forgotten because that’s just the type of thing the excessive noise and lack of communication will do to visiting teams at Arrowhead. It’s no accident the Chiefs get more nationally-televised games than any other franchise, including the New England Patriots. Their fans come out and represent, baby! FINAL PREDICTION: Bolts lose a close divisional game at Arrowhead, all but ending their chances of an AFC Wild Card berth. Phillip Rivers tries to do too much and take the team onto his shoulders, only to throw a couple picks, take a sack or two, and

FINAL PREDICTION

Bolts lose a close divisional game at Arrowhead, all but ending their chances of an AFC Wild Card berth. Phillip Rivers tries to do too much and take the team onto his shoulders, only to throw a couple picks, take a sack or two, and even fumble. As we’ve seen in big games since the start of the Phillip Rivers era, the Chargers struggle to score TD’s in the red zone, trading field goals for touchdowns. Rising star Patrick Mahomes leads the Chiefs to a big-time win by a final score of 31-28. Once again, Bolts fans are left wondering what could have been. Even ESPN pundits have to admit that “elite quarterback” Phillip Rivers’ legacy may be relegated to that of a big game choker. In the midst of finger pointing and scapegoating by the Chargers organization, coaches, and fans, the Bolts fall back to a .500 (7-7) record. The dialogue shifts to how vastly the Bolts record has improved in Anthony Lynn’s first season as Head Coach.

SAN DIEGO – JANUARY 17: A New York Jets helmet sits on the sidelines during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on January 17, 2010 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

WEEK SIXTEEN: CHARGERS @ JETS

After a heartbreaking, season-ending divisional loss to the rival Kansas City Chiefs, the Bolts must turn right around and fly back to the East Coast to take on the NFL-worst New York Football Jets. In quintessential Chargers style, the Bolts bolster enthusiasm for the 2018 season by notching a meaningless win against a hapless Jets team that appears to be playing for the number one overall pick of the 2018 draft. Todd Bowles is likely be fired after another losing season that really isn’t his fault. And yet again the Chargers are lame ducks, playing out the last two games of the season for pride. Many Bolts fans switch off the game in disgust or find something better to do on this anticlimactic weekend, having little incentive to watch since the Bolts are virtually eliminated from playoff contention. Boo-hoo!

In classic Chargers-nothing-to-lose-style, Phillip Rivers throws for over 400 yards in the air and Melvin Gordon puts in a dominating performance running the ball on a day that the Bolts D suffocates the Jet’s offense, limiting them to ten points in the game. The Jets can’t seem to do anything well as this game is a microcosm of their entire 2-14 season. A lack of talent and poor execution all but lock up the first pick overall in the upcoming NFL draft. Bolts fans frantically check the records of the other AFC Wild Card contenders just to see if there’s somehow a faint electrical pulse left in the “Fight for L.A.” Tragically, there is a mathematical chance, albeit an infinitesimal one. Predictably, the Chargers need help from Baltimore, Miami, Houston, Kansas City, Denver, and a host of other AFC teams on the bubble after the penultimate game of the regular season. But wait, we say to ourselves with baited breath, what if those other teams have a tough final opponent in week 17 and the Bolts don’t? The “House of Pain” folds like a “House of Cards” as a quick glance at the schedule reveals one final home game against division rival Oakland Raiders whose juggernaut offense has already dismantled the Bolts earlier in the season at the Black Hole. Wah-wah-wah-whah! This football’s not inflated to 13.5 p.s.i.! At least we know it wasn’t a bribed ball boy who took the air out of the Chargers 2017 season. Why us? In keeping with their legacy of choking right when fans’ hopes are at their highest, the 2017 Bolts have outdone themselves again.

FINAL PREDICTION

The Chargers smoke the hapless Jets, winning this one by a final score of 28-10, improving to (8-7) on the season, leaving a tantalizing ray of hope at the end of a dark, Silver and Black tunnel. Although in some years a final record of (9-7) is enough to make the playoffs as a Wild Card, 2017 proves highly competitive and it’s beginning to look like anything less than (10-6) won’t cut it. But there’s still a chance! Keep hanging by a thread Bolts fans…It’s what we do!

OAKLAND, CA – OCTOBER 09: Derek Carr #4 of the Oakland Raiders speaks with members of the San Diego Chargers during a official review in their NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 9, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

WEEK SEVENTEEN: RAIDERS @ CHARGERS

“This is the end, my only friend, the end…of our elaborate plans, the end!”-Jim Morrison. In a game that shoulda, woulda, and certainly coulda been an ultra-exciting showdown for the AFC West crown, the Bolts host Derek Carr, Marshawn Lynch, Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, Kahlil Mack, and a surging Raiders squad that has already locked up the division (and if they haven’t yet, this game will do the trick!) The Raiders are firing on all cylinders after beating the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in Mexico City and giving the rest of the league fits with their last minute, fourth quarter heroics. Derek Carr earns his $25 million a year and this game is the exclamation point on their near-perfect season. New England can only hope they secure the number one seed in the AFC and don’t have to deal with the Raiders again until the AFC Championship Game. Coach Jack Del Rio is licking his chops, and maybe even resting starters for this one. With seeding in the AFC playoffs virtually locked-up, the Raiders are right where they would’ve been last year at this time if not for the freak, season-ending injury to Carr: in control of their own destiny.

The Bolts, on the other hand, can only play the role of spoiler or maybe even have no effect on the Raider’s postseason plans at all. The Bolts faithful are filled with the same sense of utter futility and disappointment that has accompanied the close of the regular season for decades. New head coach, new city, new season: same old result.  Even with resting their starters in this game, Oakland wins handily and pads their regular season stats by doing just enough to win on the road. The Chargers fall back on the (8-8) record as cause for celebration as, after all, going from 5-11 to 8-8 in back to back seasons is quite an accomplishment! And it is in today’s NFL, but it isn’t the miraculous turnaround predicted by pundits during the 2017 offseason. That’s the problem with lofty expectations, the higher you fly, the farther you fall. Just ask Icarus. Forgive me for not launching into an X’s & O’s analysis of the game, but this NFL analyst, like his forlorn football team, is out of gas. The Chargers better draft a quarterback in April this year or I’m jumping off the Bolts Bandwagon, again! Who knows though, the yellow and blue scars of 2017 may have sufficiently healed by mid-summer for me to crank up the Hype Train once again…As the old saying goes, there’s always next year…

FINAL PREDICTION

The Bolts lose ignominiously against the more physical Division Champion Raiders, mathematically ending their chances of an AFC Wild Card berth. In desperation, Phillip Rivers tries to do too much and take the team onto his shoulders yet again, only to throw a pick, get sacked, or turn the ball over in the clutch (it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks). Meanwhile, as they’ve done all season long, the Bolts’ Defense plays well and keeps the team in the game until the very last-minute. Unfortunately, the $25 Million-Dollar-a-Year Man, Derek Carr (if he’s even playing in this game), does just enough with the help of Marshawn Lynch to complete the sweep of the Chargers and coast into the playoffs with a first-round bye as the AFC’s number two seed. Despite the fact that the much-hyped L.A. Chargers have failed to make the playoffs in yet another disappointing season, Roger Goodell, NFL Pundits and sports media outlets the world over hail the Chargers’ 2017 campaign as a resounding success, praise new Head Coach Anthony Lynn’s efforts to change the team’s “culture of choking”, and stock the Bolts Hype Train’s locomotive with extra coal for the upcoming season…ensuring that the NFL’s favorite Cinderella storyline repeats itself ad infinitum for years to come.

 

 

 

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