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Armando Salguero’s OutKick NFL Game Of The Week: Time For Chargers To Declare Themselves As Contenders Or Something Else

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There comes a point in an NFL season when teams unmask themselves for what they are, and the Los Angeles Chargers have reached the critical point.

Earlier this season, we all thought the Chargers were finally contenders again — returning to the heyday of Philip Rivers in his prime and perhaps even Dan Fouts from yesteryear.

The Chargers were 4-1 the evening of Oct. 10 and boasting consecutive victories over the Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns. With quarterback Justin Herbert looking like a star and new coach Brandon Staley showing no fear in his game management, these guys looked like the next big thing.

Problem is the season didn’t end Oct. 10.

In the last six games since that date, the Chargers are 2-4.

And their star quarterback, who had thrown 13 TDs and three interceptions during the 4-1 start, regressed to 11 TDs and seven interceptions the next six games. Herbert has completed less than 60 percent of his passes in three of his past six games, including a clunker against New England in which he completed only 51.4 percent of his throws.

The Chargers’ defense, meanwhile, has been… how to put this delicately … atrocious.

While the offense has been inconsistent, the Chargers’ defense has been consistently unacceptable, allowing 29.5 points per game the past six games.

The Chargers are allowing 26.6 point per game for the year, which means they have the NFL’s 29th scoring defense. The Houston Texans, Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars are better in that all-important defensive category.

So where does first-year defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill see his unit at the moment?

“Continuing to grow,” he said this week. “I think we are improving in every area that we need to. We talked about the run game and how we want to play things. We are doing that a lot better. We are still seeing a play here and there, but I am seeing the progression of us playing the way we want to play it.”

Yeah, um, agree to disagree.

The Chargers are last in the NFL in run defense. They allow an average of 145.3 rushing yards per game. And in their 28-13 loss to the Denver Broncos last Sunday, Los Angeles yielded 147 rushing yards.

“It comes down to those little things; a guy here or there are out of place,” Hill explained.

Despite all this retreating, the Chargers remain prominently in the playoff chase. They’re currently the seventh and final seed in the AFC.

But the Chargers have reached their proverbial zero hour because they play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, and that team, currently the No. 5 seed in the playoff chase, has won two games in a row and has scored over 30 points in five of its last six games.

That team also brings running back Joe Mixon to the game, and he’s the NFL’s third-leading rusher and has gained 288 rushing yards and scored four TDs the last two games.

So, yes, this is big reveal time for the Chargers.

“We know it’s December and we know we need to take a huge jump moving forward. So that is the focus leading into the week,” Hill said. “We are at the start of December, and if we want to be playing into the Januarys and Februarys, then we have to take a major leap. I am seeing their improvement every week, and I am happy with where it’s going.”

None of this suggests the Chargers are incapable of recapturing their early season swagger. This is a talented team with a defense that includes Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Chris Harris Jr. and others.

“When you’re in the hunt, there’s another level of focus, there’s another gear that you have to get to,” Staley said. “… When you’re in the hunt, you have to make those improvements. Your margin for error is smaller, so your attention to detail, your focus, needs to be better.

“You can’t talk about it. You have to go do it.”

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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