Morbidly, I’ve been looking forward to this game all week, the same way you might look forward to a new episode of a show about some mysterious tragedy. The Falcons and Chargers are two of the most cartoonish teams in the entire NFL, capable of sober-minded competence in one moment and getting hit over the head with a giant hammer the next, losing a game in the final seconds while cartoon stars and birds circle around their heads.
As brutal as the 2020 campaign has been for our favorite team thus far, it has been even worse for the Chargers. They have lost six games by a single score and are fresh off a demoralizing 45-0 loss to the Patriots, one that seems to underscore that this team is getting worse, not better. They’re 3-9, it seems likely that head coach Anthony Lynn will be on his way out when the season is over, and there is a lot of work to do on this roster despite an impressive pass defense and rookie quarterback Justin Herbert looking like the real deal.
For the purposes of this matchup, though, none of that may matter. That’s because both of these teams have a habit of losing in heartbreaking ways, honed over the years, that makes it a virtual certainty that getting together will lead to a tragic ending for one of these two teams. Trying to guess the exact way things will go off the rails is a fool’s errand, but if these two teams play a close, uneventful game I will be astonished.
Here’s what you’ll need to know for the game ahead.
Week 15 Comparison
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Two teams with significant flaws, facing off in a game where both teams are a threat to lose in spectacular fashion at any moment. That’s the kind of football I know and love.
The Falcons are technically an above average offense, but in reality they’ve been an average one for many weeks now. Against poor defenses they are still capable of strong days, but something is broken here that won’t be fixed suddenly over the final four games, not with a rash of drops, a largely punchless run game, and a passing game that generally seems too easy for opposing defenses to figure out. The Chargers have one of the league’s better pass defenses, so this team’s recent woes in that regard are unlikely to suddenly get better.
Atlanta’s defense is improving and will likely give the Chargers some fits, but Herbert has a dangerous arm and a couple of big plays are almost inevitable. The question is whether this defense will be the disciplined, swarming unit it was against the Raiders or the slightly off-kilter-mistake-prone unit we saw against the Saints. I’d say the game might hang in the balance, but the Falcons offense showing up or not showing up is more likely to be what this hinges on.
Fortunately for Atlanta, the Chargers are a reeling team. You don’t lose 45-0 to anyone, but especially not the post-Brady Patriots, without it saying an awful lot about your fortunes. The Chargers are actually better across the board on offense than the Falcons except for a familiar habit of red zone stalls that is even worse than it is for Atlanta, so they will prove to be an excellent test of this defense. Defensively, meanwhile, the Chargers do not have a knack for causing turnovers and have a pretty crummy run defense, but they are an extremely competent pass defense with a quality pass rush keyed by Joey Bosa. If Dirk Koetter and company can’t get this passing game on track, chances are this will be a slog for the Falcons offense once again.
Overall, the Chargers match up fairly well against Atlanta, which in a vacuum would give them a good chance to win this game. I’m just not sure how much stock to put into that with the way they’ve been reeling of late.
How the Chargers have changed since the last time
It was 2016, so it goes without saying that much has changed. The Chargers were one of the teams that actually managed to beat the Falcons that year, with Phillip Rivers at the helm, Melvin Gordon the featured back, and Antonio Gates still hanging around. That Chargers team had a high-flying offense with a talented defense prone to lapses, which is how that game ended up at 33-30.
Aside from both teams being diminished, the construction is roughly the same for the Chargers and the Falcons. Los Angeles still has a pretty talented secondary and capable pass rush to go with a strong offense, and the Falcons (on paper) have a strong offense and a so-so defense. The Chargers are just further along on a rebuilding path than the Falcons, who are probably going to ride out a short term playoff push in 2021-2022 with the current roster. The Chargers probably just need roster enhancements to be a force in the AFC West, while the jury’s out on the changes to come for Atlanta.
What you need to know
I think what you need to know is that both of these teams are ticketed for top 10 selections and new coaching staffs in 2021, and given the way both teams have managed to lose games this year, this could be a wild one. The Falcons have to get their passing game on track a bit this week or the combination of the very capable Chargers offense smarting from a bad game against the Patriots and a very capable Los Angeles defense could end up making this game a bit of a nightmare.
New England’s dominance did show a blueprint for beating Los Angeles, one that hinges on taking advantage of very shaky Chargers special teams and mixing pressure and tight coverage on Herbert to throw off his timing and force rushed throws. A quarterback as talented as Herbert throwing 53 times shouldn’t translate to 209 yards and two interceptions, but he’s still a rookie and the Falcons can get similar results (though likely not as impressive) if they can shake him up.
A win here would give the Falcons a 5-8 record with three brutal games left to go, which would be good for morale in the locker room but does not necessarily set this team up for any more success over the final three weeks. A loss would drop them to 4-9 and would likely put them on a collision course with their worst season record since 2014, which would be sort of appropriate given that was the last time the team made sweeping changes.
We’ll see what comes of this one, but given my tempered expectations and the craziness that may result, I’ll simply be hoping for a fun game at the end of the day.