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RUNNING THE AFC WEST GAUNTLET: Part IV

Scott James begins the second half of his game-by-game, break down of the Chargers 2017 regular season schedule, beginning with week 1- match up with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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SAN DIEGO, CA – SEPTEMBER 18: Travis Benjamin #12 of the San Diego Chargers runs downfield pursued by Paul Posluszny #51 of the Jacksonville Jaguars at Qualcomm Stadium on September 18, 2016 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

WEEK TEN: CHARGERS @ JAGUARS

One of the most difficult parts of predicting a team’s potential 2017 record based upon last season’s final mark or the 2016 records of their opponents is accurately gauging a given team’s relative improvement or decline over the offseason. If we are to believe the Jaguars hype, they too will be a much-improved squad and contend for the AFC SOUTH crown. For some odd scheduling reason, seems like the Bolts have played the Jaguars in either the regular season or the playoffs for the last ten years straight (could I get a stat check on that one for clarification, please?) The good news for the Bolts is that, historically, the Chargers have owned the Jaguars, typically dictating the pace of the game and coming up big in the clutch to skin the cat. But wait, are we dealing with the same, mediocre animal stuck in perennial rebuild mode that the Bolts have manhandled in years past, or should credence be given to the Super Bowl talk coming out of Jacksonville this offseason?

Perhaps the single biggest factor in this game when the Bolts march into Everbank Field for a conference game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 10 of the 2017 regular season will be the quarterback play of these rival clubs, who by the way, are extremely familiar with one another. I mean Blake Bortles vs. Phillip Rivers. Talk about a study in contrasts. The big-armed, prototypical gunslinger vs. the surgically precise tactician. Makes for heady football stuff on paper. However, it remains to be seen whether Bortles, initially hailed as the second coming of John Elway, will make the leap to elite passer status even with an improved supporting cast around him this season. The Bolts, on the other hand, have undeniably upgraded the offensive line, wide receiving corps, and defense in the offseason. Look for a similar outcome to recent Bolts vs. Jags matchups, with the Chargers stealing one on the road. If my predictions for the first half of the season stick, the Bolts will be coming off an embarrassing loss to New England just prior to the bye week and will be looking to improve upon their .500 record and put together a playoff run in the second half of the season. Casey Heyward, Jason Verrett, and the Bolts secondary will prey on Bortles’ historically erratic and inaccurate arm, making the difference in the game. Look for the offense to run the ball down their throats, opening up play action much to the delight of the Chargers faithful. Both defenses make their share of plays, keeping the score low in this one.

FINAL PREDICTION

The Bolts are recharged after an introspective bye week, handling the upstart Jaguars with relative ease (if one can ever call a Chargers win easy!) Flirting with disaster is the Charger way, but the Bolts will find their stride once again winning this one by a final score of 21-14, improving to a (5-4) record on the season. Things are looking up in Bolt-landia as the competition in the second half of the season is a little softer than the first!

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 01: Cardale Jones #7 of the Buffalo Bills runs for a short gain in the fourth quarter of the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on September 1, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. The Lions defeated the Bills 31-0. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

WEEK ELEVEN: BILLS @ CHARGERS

In their third game against an AFC East opponent, the Bolts will look to improve upon their 1-1 record against a division dominated by the Patriots since the year 2000. Conference matchups such as this one can monumental playoff implications later in the season, so the Chargers will be motivated to win this one at home by beating Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins, and the Buffalo Bills. Like the Chargers, the Bills are a surprisingly efficient team that just hasn’t been able to get over the hump to challenge for the AFC East. Not unlike the Bolts, it could be said that Buffalo has grossly underachieved given their talent-laden roster in recent years, muddying the waters in this one.  Still, question marks remain. Will Tyrod Taylor ascend to the throne of elite passer after showing glimpses of greatness early in his career? Can Sammy Watkins overcome debilitating foot problems to reach full stride, taking the top off the Chargers secondary? How will the Bills’ secondary be affected by the defection of Stephon Gilmore to New England? With Rex Ryan gone, can new head coach Sean McDermott bring the Bills back into the AFC East limelight? (On a side note, former Chargers player Gil Byrd is coaching the defensive backs in Buffalo.) Although a fair number of X-factors swirls around the Bolts’ 2017 season, would have to say Buffalo’s got us beat in the question marks category.

Look for a shootout in this one with the Bolts outscoring the Bills to win at Stub Hub Center as they play host to former players CB Shareece Wright and FB Mike Tolbert. Many will point to LeSean “Shady” McCoy’s elusiveness as a factor, but the Bolts D will have a successful outing against the run in this one, forcing Tyrod Taylor to push the ball downfield into the teeth of the Chargers’ vaunted secondary. Add in the historically advantageous matchup for the Chargers against Buffalo and you’ve got a recipe for a devastating electrical storm! The Bills’ transcontinental “Trail of Tears” will end with their circle of wagons in flames and their own postseason hopes in jeopardy.

FINAL PREDICTION

The Chargers best the Bills on both sides of the ball (still not so sure about special teams), winning this one by a final score of 38-24, improving to a (6-4) record on the season. The playoff hype train gains momentum as the Bolts appear on track to make the playoffs for the first time in years!

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott passes against the Los Angeles Rams in the first half of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

WEEK TWELVE: CHARGERS @ COWBOYS

Get your popcorn ready, the Bolts go into AT & T Stadium to battle the Star on Thursday Night Prime Time. This one should feature some big plays, star power, and thunder and lightning for sure. Hey Dallas Cowboys, it’s Phillip Rivers and the Chargers bolting in from the West Coast to put on a show for America’s Team in Irving! Like the New England game, have had this one circled since the schedule came out. Having flashbacks of Tony Dorsett and Roger Staubach in vintage-seventies-Cowboys-style juxtaposed with Dan Fouts airing it out to John Jefferson and Kellen Winslow under Don Coryell out West. Only this time it’s Dak Prescott and Ezekial “Partytime” Elliot hosting Phillip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, and the vicious Bolts pass rush tandem of Bosa and Ingram. This game’s truly a clash of NFL Titans and the third game on the Bolt’s slate against the NFC East. Look for the Chargers to try and right the ship after an 0-2 start against the division with losses to both Eagles and Giants in the first half of the 2017 season. The Dallas Cowboys were my Dad’s favorite team growing up and the Bolts mine, so there’s something surreally magical about these two squads squaring off head-to-head. Yippy-Kai-Yay Mother*******, cannot wait for this one!

Now let’s get down to some X’s & O’s as the Bolts attempt to short-circuit the Star in prime time. Obviously, it goes without saying that the marquee matchup here’s in the running game. Power back Ezekiel Elliot wears defenders like backpacks into the end zone while Melvin “Flash” Gordon slashes his way to a 100 yard plus performance against a questionable Cowboys defense led by LB Sean Lee. QB Dak Prescott’s going to make plays as he always does, but the edge goes to the Chargers defense in this one. Perhaps the most interesting matchup though is between the corn-fed, all-pro Dallas offensive line and the Bolts front seven. Will Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram be able to get to Dak Prescott through one of the NFL’s best offensive lines? This game could roll one of two ways scoring-wise. We could see efficient passing and a lot of points should both teams go for the jugular and air the ball out. However, it seems more likely that a run-dominant game plan on both sides of the ball will chew the clock and keep the score on the lower side. Still, both teams possess explosive offenses that can put up in excess of 30 points a game. An ill omen for the Bolts here is the fact that Dallas plays extremely well under the bright lights of prime time in front of a national audience. (If you don’t believe me, just take a look back at the Star’s record on Sunday Night Football in the past few seasons!).

FINAL PREDICTION

America’s Team proves too much for the road-weary Bolts in a high-powered, prime time game at AT & T Stadium. Ezekiel Elliot outperforms Melvin Gordon, making the difference in the game. The Chargers struggle to score TD’s in the red zone. Just as it seemed the Bolts were about to string together three straight wins, they fall to a young, talented Dallas squad on its way to winning the NFC East. Explosive big plays by the Dallas offense send the Bolts home with another loss by a final score of 31-24. Ambiguity creeps back into the playoff picture as the on-again, off-again Chargers fly back to L.A. with a regular season mark of (6-5).

CLEVELAND, OH – DECEMBER 24: Gary Barnidge #82 of the Cleveland Browns is tackled by a member of the San Diego Chargers at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 24, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

WEEK THIRTEEN: BROWNS @ CHARGERS

Finally, a random conference game against a lesser opponent the Bolts can easily win, right? Last year’s regular season, a home loss to the visiting (and at the time winless) Dawg Pound at Qualcomm was an all-time low for Bolts fans and the team to be sure. I mean how do you lose to the winless Browns at home when, on paper, your team is vastly superior in all phases of the game? Can you say trap game? Not to mention that, for all intents and purposes, the Brown’s had a successful draft and offseason in with the addition of first DL Myles Garrett and DB Jabrill Peppers to help bolster the defense. Former Oakland Raiders Coach, Hue Jackson, is an experienced and wily veteran coach who apparently has the franchise moving in the right direction. The fact that the Browns are ranked above the abysmal New York Jets in the USA Today 2017 NFL Power Rankings is a testament to recent improvements in Cleveland. Whether all this translates to a winning season in the “Mistake by the Lake” is debatable, but underestimating a recent cellar dweller and chalking this game up to an automatic win would be inviting the rabid bite of the oft-toothless Dawg Pound. Nevertheless, the Bolts are, on paper at least, a far more talented team with a franchise quarterback in Phillip Rivers.

This game comes down to a mismatch at quarterback with either DeShone Kizer or Cody Kessler presumably starting for Cleveland? Phillip Rivers is clearly head-and-shoulders above the competition here. No more Bolt-Killer Josh McCown, an underrated NFL quarterback in my mind, standing in the pocket and shredding the Bolts secondary, right? Realize this storyline is bordering on ridiculous, but then again so was the Bolts’ 2016 loss to Cleveland in San Diego, so indulge me. Lest we forget that in Boltlandia, nothing comes easy, expect a confident Browns team to come into Stub Hub Center ready to play hard. The Chargers front seven should harass whoever starts for the Dawg Pound under center and get some turnovers in this one, sending Cleveland back to the drawing board once again. Phillip Rivers will throw for 400 yards and at least 3 touchdowns in a lopsided contest in L.A. Throw in a 100-yard game by Melvin Gordon and you’ve got a recipe for a blowout. The Browns will be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s miracle win on the road over a loaded Bolts squad this time around. Whimper…Arf, Arf!

FINAL PREDICTION

The Chargers best the in all phases of the game cruising to a victory at home in a game that they should win all day long. The Bolts avoid the trap game and total meltdown we saw under Mike McCoy in this matchup last season and get the job done, winning this one fairly easily by a final score of 40-24, improving to a (6-6), .500 record on the season. Don’t look now Bolts fans, but we’re back to a must-win-out scenario in order to make the postseason for what seems like the umpteenth season in a row! Ugh!

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