The San Diego Chargers may just be the best team in the AFC this year.
They will play the Denver Broncos on the road next Thursday night, and that means both teams will have just three days to prepare for the first of their two Western Division showdowns since both have big tests this Sunday.
Consider the schedule maker to have done the Denver Broncos a favor, because not having full preparation time works against Chargers coach Mike McCoy in a big way. He is proving to be a remarkable game-planner and teacher in his second year as head coach in the NFL, and the more time he has to get his team ready, the better off they are.
But don’t expect the Chargers to let this week’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs to slip through their fingers while the Broncos loom in the foreground. McCoy understands how things work in the NFL, and the easiest way to let a game slip through a team’s grasp is to look forward to the BIG game on the schedule.
Coaches and players are only human. The Broncos have Peyton Manning, and they eliminated the Chargers from last year’s playoffs in the divisional round. They have been looking forward to this game since the schedule was announced last spring.
But the game becomes far less meaningful if San Diego’s five-game winning streak comes to an end against the hands of the Chiefs.
The Chargers should win this game because they are the better and more talented team and they have the better quarterback. Alex Smith is good for Kansas City, but Philip Rivers is an MVP candidate with San Diego. Much of the smart money has Rivers in the lead for that award by a slight margin over DeMarco Murray and Aaron Rodgers.
Give full credit to McCoy for getting the most out of Rivers, something neither Marty Schottenheimer (for one year) nor Norv Turner (for six years) was able to do. Rivers had a tendency to play long stretches of excellent football under both coaches, but in the most crucial moments of the biggest games, Rivers failed as often as he succeeded.
Not that it was all Rivers’ fault. He was not surrounded by a team of All-Pros and they were not good enough to beat teams like the Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, and the New England Patriots very often.
But Rivers is a changed quarterback under the tutelage of McCoy, and raising his quarterback’s level of play was the coach’s priority when he was hired after the 2012 season.
He did that by establishing trust between Rivers and himself. He did that in his first conversation with the quarterback.
“The first time we talked, we spoke about the system,” McCoy explained. “I told him, ‘you’re going to have the freedom to check any play you want. Once you learn the system, you can call any play you want.’”
That was the key for Rivers, because great quarterbacks need to know they are trusted fully and completely.
Turner certainly held Rivers in high esteem, but the Chargers ran the coach’s offense during his time in San Diego. McCoy has made it known that it is Rivers’ offense in San Diego.
That’s how McCoy has always managed his quarterbacks. During his tenure in the NFL, he worked with Jake Delhomme in Carolina and Peyton Manning in Denver. Those quarterbacks knew they had the freedom to change plays to whatever they saw fit.
McCoy is the kind of coach that wants to trust his players, and while there is some risk to that, it has worked beautifully in San Diego. He gives his players the freedom needed on offense, defense, and special teams to make the right calls based on what they see on the field.
If changes have to be made from the coordinators’ original call, the players have that right.
McCoy is as thorough and meticulous in his preparations as any of the top coaches in the NFL, but he is not as tightly wound as many in this harsh business often are. He does not take mistakes to heart the way many coaches do. He is not from the Jimmy Johnson school, meaning that he does not threaten a player’s job for making a mistake.
He has perspective and he understands that his players are human and they make errors. He knows that mistakes are made in all phases of the game, and that he makes them as well, and so do his assistants.
When a player or coach works for a man with perspective like that, it does remarkable things for their overall attitude.
The Chargers were 9-7 last year, but they made the playoffs when they won their last four regular-season games. They went into Cincinnati with a full head of steam and demolished the favored Bengals on their home turf in the Wild-Card round of the playoffs.
They turned that surge into full-fledged confidence this year and they are playing as well as any team in the league. When you have a coach-QB duo performing as efficiently as McCoy and Rivers, you have a force that is capable of winning a lot of games.
The Chargers face two crucial games over the next week, and they appear to be well-prepared to handle the assignments. By the time those two games are over, San Diego may be the top dog in the AFC, ready to take on all challengers.
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