On the eve of the regular season, I predicted an all-Los Angeles Super Bowl in this space. On the eve of the postseason, I doubled down on SiriusXM Radio and CBS Sports Network. And days before the Divisional Round begins, this hardly feels like California dreamin’ — more like California reality.
The NFL playoffs are the best reality show on TV, but I believe the two L.A. teams will meet next month in Atlanta because of some simple logic:
Let’s start with the Chargers, who are everything right with the NFL in 2018. They are dominant in every phase and can win any style of fight. They ooze likability and are incredibly easy to root for. In his second year at the helm, Anthony Lynn received my Associated Press vote for Coach of the Year. He’s a true leader who, upon receiving his first head-coaching gig in 2017, wisely appointed two incredible coordinators (and former head coaches) in Ken Whisenhunt and Gus Bradley. The Chargers have learned how to finish under Lynn, as we’ve seen time and again over the course of this season. From the regular-season games against the 49ers, Titans, Seahawks, Steelers, Bengals and Chiefs to this past Sunday’s wild-card bout in Baltimore, we’ve received ample proof that these are not the "Same Old Chargers," where it’s only a matter of time before the letdown occurs. These Chargers finish. They play their best when it matters most. That’s a credit to the man wearing the headset. As well as the man under center.
Melvin Gordon, one of the Chargers‘ league-high seven Pro Bowlers, recently waxed poetic about Philip Rivers on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein On Sports." The 25-year-old running back stressed that you never want to let the 37-year-old quarterback down. Rivers’ messaging to the team, Gordon explained, is spectacularly inspiring and gives you the chills. His play ain’t too shabby, either. In fact, I’d argue Rivers just had the best year of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Of course, the one "Yeah, but …" on Rivers’ resume — particularly when it comes to his HOF candidacy — is the lack of postseason bona fides. The 15th-year vet is just 5-5 in playoff games and has yet to play in a Super Bowl. That changes in this postseason tournament. Demons shall be exorcised, notably in this week’s game against Tom Brady, against whom Rivers is a striking 0-7. On Sunday in Foxborough, Rivers gets off that career schneid, with a little help from his friends.
This is the most surrounding talent Rivers has ever enjoyed. Gordon is a star, and he’s accompanied in the backfield by a versatile jitterbug in Austin Ekeler. The offensive line isn’t the sieve that it’s been in seasons past, as the Bolts only gave up 34 sacks in the regular season (tied for 10th-fewest). Rivers has three stud wideouts with varying skill sets: Keenan Allen‘s the crown jewel, of course, leading the Chargers in catches and receiving yards, but Mike Williams boasts a team-high 10 touchdown grabs, while Tyrell Williams sets the pace at 15.9 yards per reception. Meanwhile, future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates is sipping from the fountain of youth at age 38, still providing a big catch here and there. And how great is it that Hunter Henry has been activated to the 53-man roster less than eight months after tearing his ACL? New England’s defense cannot keep up with the Bolts’ firepower.
And the Chargers‘ defense is the best in the AFC. I believe that’s been the case since Joey Bosa returned to action in Week 11. Bosa and Melvin Ingram comprise a lethal 1-2 punch rushing the passer. And rookie safety Derwin James has been a do-it-all playmaker all season long. Bradley’s been pressing all the right buttons, too. How about last week’s effort in Baltimore, where he lined up Bosa and Ingram over the guards to wreak havoc from the inside and deployed seven defensive backs to contain Lamar Jackson? Brilliant stuff. The Patriots‘ passing attack isn’t what it’s been in previous seasons, as Rob Gronkowski isn’t 100 percent. And I love the way the Chargers‘ strong defensive backfield matches up with the Patriots‘ receivers. Spare me the nonsense that this L.A. team cannot win traveling east again, playing at 10 a.m. on the body clock. The Chargers are 8-1 on the road this year.
You know the Chargers can beat the top-seeded Chiefs in Arrowhead, as they did just that a month ago — and on a short week, to boot! They have a better run game and defense than Kansas City. To be honest, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Chargers hosting the Colts on Championship Sunday. And I’d sure like the Bolts’ chances in that one, too.
As for the Rams, well, there are many fancy numbers to support my case here. But truthfully, it’s all about Todd Gurley‘s health. When healthy, he’s the best back in the league, the engine that makes this juggernaut offense go. Sean McVay rightly held him out in Weeks 16 and 17, a move that will end up allowing the running back to have nearly a full month off before hitting the playoff gridiron against Dallas on Saturday evening. Since the beginning of last season (including the playoffs), Todd Gurley has 24 games with 90-plus yards from scrimmage (most in the NFL). The Rams are 20-4 in those games. Oh, and Gurley logged a league-best 21 scrimmage TDs during the regular season, despite not playing in the final two games.
Now, I love these Cowboys more than most. Dallas’ defense is superb. But you don’t stop the Rams‘ offense. McVay is a genius and a sensational leader and play caller. With Gurley back, Jared Goff can sizzle again, after slumping down the stretch this season. The worry scale should be zero. McVay will make sure of it. And I expect Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods to be a dazzling 1-2 combo at receiver this postseason.
The Rams‘ defense isn’t great. But it doesn’t need to be. This unit needs to make big plays in key spots. With that in mind, it doesn’t hurt having the single most dominant defensive player in the NFL today, Aaron Donald. Add in Donald’s fellow disruptors up front (Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr.), as well as a pair of ballhawking corners (Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters), and this is the kind of explosive defense that could make numerous high-impact plays over the next month. Especially with the great Wade Phillips at the controls. The Cowboys‘ line is strong, but Donald, fresh off a 20.5-sack season, is stronger. And yes, the Rams can beat the Saints in New Orleans. Don’t get too hung up on that early-November result, where the Rams suffered their first loss of the season. Pound for pound, the Rams have more talent. Pound for pound, the Rams have a stronger and deeper coaching staff.
Tom Telesco and Les Snead should take a bow. The two general managers have put together a pair of well-rounded powerhouses. And in a city all about glitz and glamour, the winning ways and stars shine.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.