The Los Angeles Chargers are among the league’s hottest teams, riding a six-game winning streak and trying to keep pace with the first-place Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.
The Chargers have not lost since Week 3 and will play at home for the first time in six weeks when they square off against the skidding Denver Broncos in a divisional matchup on Sunday afternoon.
The 7-2 record aside, one of the most impressive aspects of Los Angeles’ season is how it has navigated a brutal five-week schedule that featured road games at Cleveland, Seattle and Oakland, and a “home” matchup in London sandwiched around its bye.
“It’s a heck of a run,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. “But it can become a one-game losing streak just like that.”
The Broncos (3-6), losers of two straight and six of seven overall, certainly can appreciate how noteworthy the current run is by Los Angeles, which has not played a true road game since beating Oakland on Oct. 7. Denver is seeking its first road win against an AFC West rival since knocking off the Chargers in San Diego on Dec. 6, 2015.
“It’s hard to win on the road in this league,” Broncos head coach Vance Joseph said. “We have to get off to a better start. That’s part of our team’s issues on the road — playing fast and winning the first quarter. This team we’re playing, they’ve won the first half by plus-53 (points) so we have to get off to a better start on Sunday to have a chance to win the game.”
Los Angeles has won 13 of its last 16 games dating to last season and its only two losses in 2018 came to the Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams, who share the NFL’s best records at 9-1. One of those wins was a 21-0 rout of visiting Denver in October 2017, the Broncos’ first shutout loss in 25 years.
Defense has fueled the torrid stretch for the Chargers, who have permitted only 66 points over their past five games and have not allowed a team to score 20 points since a 29-27 win over San Francisco on Sept. 30.
Head coach Anthony Lynn attributed one of the reasons for the improvement to not having to play catch-up, as often was the case a year ago.
“That’s something that we put an emphasis on,” Lynn said. “We want to play from ahead. Last year we played from behind a lot. We’re trying to start with more urgency this year, playing from ahead.
“It can benefit your pass rush, I can tell you that. You force teams in obvious situations where you’ve got to pass the football, our guys get a chance to come off the ball and tee off a little bit.”
The unit can receive a huge boost as star defensive end Joey Bosa returned to practice on Wednesday for the first time this season as he rebounds from a foot injury suffered in early August. The 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and a 2017 Pro Bowl selection, Bosa has 23 sacks in 28 career games.
Lynn wouldn’t rule out Bosa, a Pro Bowler, playing on Sunday against the Broncos. He also noted that the Chargers were going to be cautious with Bosa, who was limited in practice, and “ease” him back into playing.
Rivers, who has thrown for 21 touchdown passes against only four interceptions and ranks third in the league with a 115.4 passer rating, can expect to see defensive pressure from Denver’s linebacker tandem of perennial Pro Bowler Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb.
Miller (9.0) and Chubb (8.0) have combined for 17 sacks — the most by a pass rushing duo this season — and have each recorded at least one sack in four straight games. Miller also has sacked Rivers 15 times, the most by any active player against an active quarterback.
“It’s going to be a heck of a challenge,” said Rivers, who has thrown multiple touchdown passes in every game this season.
Rivers also has the luxury of handing off to running back Melvin Gordon, the second player in the last 10 years to post at least 120 yards from scrimmage with a touchdown in five straight games.
That will put pressure on a Denver offense that has been held to 20 points or fewer in five of its nine games, including a 19-17 home loss to Houston on Nov. 4 prior to last week’s bye.
“It’s the next week,” Broncos quarterback Case Keenum said. “It’s this week and we’re trying to go 1-0 and then build on that and do it again next week.”