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Cowboys vs. Chargers prediction: Make us believe

Contrary to popular belief the Cowboys playoff hopes are not on life support, but they have to start winning right now.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Chargers are a mostly average team. One could argue that the Chargers exemplify the pervasive parity that exists in the modern day NFL. They rank 18th in the league in total yards per game, 16th in points per game, 22nd in total yards allowed, and 9th in points allowed. They are 4-6 but they could easily be 6-4 or 2-8 as they have won and lost several games on the foot of a kicker in the closing moments or in overtime. Despite their sub-.500 record they are right in the thick of the wild card hunt in the AFC, just as the NFL would like it.

Offensively their running game is decent, but not great, as Melvin Gordon is once again averaging under 4.0 YPC. Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Henry, Travis Benjamin, and 37-year old Antonio Gates form a respectable group of pass catchers, but there is no elite or scary talent there. Phillip Rivers is still a very capable quarterback but he will be 37 in about two weeks and is clearly on the backside of his career, and their offensive line is a passable group but they’re certainly far from dominant.

Defensively the Chargers have a little bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to them. Their overall pass defense, as well as their pass rush, is probably the strong point of the entire roster. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram form perhaps the best pass-rushing duo in the league right now, combining for an outrageous 19 sacks over the first 10 games. It’s very possible that each of them will finish the year with nearly 15 sacks. Role-players such as edge rusher Chris McCain (five sacks) and undersized interior pass-rusher Darius Philon (three sacks) have benefited by playing alongside Bosa and Ingram, and in total the Chargers are third in the league in sacks.

On the back end they’re tied for fourth in the league in interceptions with 12 (five came in one half against Nate Peterman last week to be fair), and are led by Casey Hayward, a mostly anonymous free agent signing in 2016 who was Second Team All-Pro last season and has put up 10 interceptions since joining the team. The rest of the secondary is made up of names not many will recognize, guys like journeyman Tre Boston, former UDFA’s Jahleel Addae and Trevor Williams. One name fans will recognize is Iowa rookie Desmond Kind who has played well in a limited role this year, but he is not a full-time player and will only come in on sub-packages.

That’s the Mr. Hyde part.

The much less scary Dr. Jekyll part is the Chargers run defense, which ranks dead last in the league and gives up nearly 140 yards per game. Part of that inability to stop the run stems from the emphasis put on pressuring the passer, although a big part of it was that their second leading tackler from last season, Denzel Perryman, only returned from injury two games ago. Since then the run defense has looked a bit better, especially against Jacksonville, but they backslid last week vs. Buffalo, even in a blowout.

You should see the game plan start to write itself here, at least offensively. One of the best pass rushes in the league, an opportunistic secondary, and perhaps the worst run defense in the league.

Thank God Tyron Smith will be back.

The defensive game plan is another story.

The Chargers offensive line is not particularly great and Rivers is clearly not going to be moving far from his spot 5-7 yards behind the center, but he is excellent at getting the ball out quickly with accuracy. If the Cowboys go zone-heavy he will methodically pick it apart all day with a short, ball-control passing game.

The receivers aren’t dominant but they certainly aren’t poor either. Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin can hit you over the top, and Keenan Allen is excellent at moving the chains over the middle as a possession receiver. Then of course you have Gates who you always have to account for, especially in the red zone.

On paper you’d think the Cowboys should at least be able to hold their own here, especially up front where the Chargers are average at best. Guys like Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving should be able to dominate at times, and the rest of the defensive line should be able to win their fair share of matchups. The secondary will get beat at times but if they can keep everything in front of them they should be ok, and in the running game you have a very good back in Melvin Gordon, but the fact of the matter is that he hasn’t averaged 4.0+ YPC over the first three years of his career.

That’s on paper.

In reality the Cowboys defense has been pathetic anytime Sean Lee hasn’t been on the field. For whatever reason they’re able to keep it together in the first half before getting their doors blown off in the second half of games. This pattern has repeated itself to a T and shows no signs of stopping.

For that reason I can’t really give you a realistic idea of how to stop the Chargers aside from saying let’s just hope the scenario I outlined above plays out. Stuff the run, don’t allow Rivers the luxury of getting to 3rd and 4 where he can work short, high percentage throws, and then get after an immobile quarterback.

For the game as a whole, as long as Tyron Smith is out there I feel like the offense will rebound from an embarrassing performance last week, especially against a team that allows so much on the ground. The Chargers will certainly be keying on those runs and the bootleg action off of it, so we’ll see whether or not the Cowboys coaches can use those tendencies to their advantage.

Defensively, until these guys show me that they can stop someone without Lee I’m not going to believe they’re capable of doing so. The second half performances against the Rams, Packers, Falcons, and Eagles were some of the worst I’ve seen out of a Cowboys defense in a long time, and there is no Blaine Gabbert behind door number two to cure what ails them. Instead you’re going to get a seasoned veteran who can move the ball against any defense on the right day, with a Pro Bowl running back behind him.

Despite the feeling of impending doom around these parts, the Cowboys are only a game out of the wild card and if they are somehow able to get to 10 wins they probably have at least a 50/50 chance of making it in.

Atlanta still has to play New Orleans twice, as well as Minnesota and Carolina. Seattle has to play Philadelphia, Jacksonville, the Rams, and the Cowboys with Ezekiel Elliott. Carolina still has to play New Orleans, Minnesota, and as mentioned before, Atlanta.

Those are difficult paths for teams the Cowboys are not far behind. Win tomorrow and then you’re staring at a home game against the Redskins, perhaps with Sean Lee back, and road games against the woeful Giants and seemingly indifferent Raiders. Take two out of those three and you’re 8-6 with Elliott back in the fold going into a home game with Seattle and a road season finale against Philadelphia who may not be playing for anything. It’s still all right there, they just have to bow their backs and stop the bleeding.

While I’d like to believe in this team, and while I do have genuine confidence in the offense to rebound based on their talent and track record, I just can’t see how this defense will be able to do what it takes to win. For that reason I have to lean towards the Chargers in yet another disappointing performance where the first half is close and competitive, perhaps even with the Cowboys leading at halftime, before the inevitable pathetic defensive collapse ensues. Chargers, 33-24.

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