Kragthorpe: Mike McCoy’s Chargers will continue ascent in AFC
The worst play of the San Diego Chargers' 2013 season is the best evidence that they will improve this year.
Failing to prevent Denver's third-and-17 conversion in the late stages of an AFC divisional playoff game kept the Chargers from potentially forcing overtime, ending the nice run that highlighted coach Mike McCoy's first season. That's correctable. And that unfinished performance was enough to convince me that the Chargers can climb to the top of the AFC and play in the Super Bowl.
They might not win the AFC West, amid tough competition with Denver and Kansas City. But they will improve steadily and play their best football at the end of the year — just as they did in 2013, when they won their last four regular-season games and beat Cincinnati on the road in the wild-card playoff round.
I witnessed the game in Denver, where a miscommunication in the secondary left tight end Julius Thomas open on the sideline to catch a 21-yard pass from Peyton Manning for a clinching first down in the Broncos' 24-17 victory. Chargers safety Eric Weddle, the former Utah star, sat in front of his locker and patiently explained the breakdown to three waves of questioners, while realizing that another shot at a Super Bowl was gone.
"Our dreams are shattered, so it's hard to look at the good things we did," Weddle said. "We're extremely disappointed and hurting. You work every day, every hour, every minute for a chance at the ultimate goal, which is the Super Bowl, and to have that goal not attained, it's hard to deal with and it will take a very long time to get over it."
Coming that close to advancing to the AFC title game should give the Chargers confidence and motivation in 2014.
Weddle and McCoy, an ex-Ute quarterback, undoubtedly have influenced this pick. As happened last year, when I accurately tabbed the Seattle Seahawks to win the Super Bowl, I always take a team with some degree of professional and personal attachment — creating the potential for locally oriented stories from the Super Bowl Media Day. Bobby Wagner and Robert Turbin, from Utah State, and Weber State alumnus Paul McQuistan came through for me, and I'm hoping Weddle and McCoy can do the same.
Conversely, the Broncos' loss of former Utah offensive lineman Zane Beadles to Jacksonville via free agency makes them less attractive. After all these years of cheering against New England because the Patriots lacked any ties to our state, I'm slow to embrace them — even though they've added ex-Ute defensive lineman Sealver Siliga.
And subconsciously, having delivered the winning pick last season, I'm probably more willing to make a risk/reward choice like the Chargers this time. Not that there's intrasquad competition or anything, but I'll acknowledge enjoying my visit this weekend to NRG Stadium in Houston, site of the Texans' disastrous 2013 season that followed Gordon Monson's endorsement of them.
But back to the Chargers. McCoy did a terrific job in his first year, keeping the team together and finishing strong with a 9-7 record. The NFL's No. 5-ranked offense should be even more productive this year, with a healthy Malcolm Floyd taking pressure off receiver Keenan Allen and new offensive coordinator Frank Reich cranking up a no-huddle scheme.
Defensively, the Chargers have to improve. The secondary should be much better with the addition of first-round draft choice Jason Verrett of TCU and free agent Brandon Flowers, who's eager to make a statement in the AFC West after being released by Kansas City.
Denver vs. New England in the AFC championship game remains the conventional forecast, but the Chargers are capable of rising to that level.
San Diego's offense sputtered for three quarters at Denver in that playoff defeat, but came to life in the fourth quarter behind quarterback Philip Rivers and Allen, posting 17 points and 180 total yards. The defense just couldn't give the offense one last shot.
But that opportunity will come again in 2014, and the Chargers will take advantage of it.