Vegas clearly sees Chargers as contenders — and we're falling for them again too

Los Angeles Chargers' projected win total is lofty, but they're more than capable of topping it

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Chargers' Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen (photo: USA TODAY Sports)

2018 win total (via Bovada): 9.5

2017 ATS record: 8-6-2

Optimist view: It was a solid debut season for rookie coach Anthony Lynn, whose Bolts overcame an 0-4 start to finish 9-7, missing the postseason by virtue of a tiebreaker. That kind of resolve from a first-year head coach and his team is nothing if not encouraging, particularly considering the way the season started — with rookie kicker Younghoe Koo having a potential game-winner in Week 1 blocked and whiffing another would-be buzzer beater the following week.

Of course, kicking woes and late-game meltdowns are nothing new for the Chargers, who went 1-8 in games decided by a touchdown two seasons ago, leading to Mike McCoy's dismissal and Lynn's hiring. They spent on a somewhat established veteran, kicker Caleb Sturgis, to remedy the NFL's worst kicking situation and reinforced an offensive line to help salt away leads — astute moves by GM Tom Telesco.

But let's not overthink this one: The Bolts are again considered by many on the precipice of Super Bowl contention because of an electrifying roster loaded with playmakers in all three phases. Their fiery future Hall of Fame QB just authored his best season in years. The Chargers essentially have two top-10 rookies this season, and two Day 2 picks, when factoring in Mike Williams' relative redshirt and Forrest Lamp's actual lost rookie campaign last season and the sensational value pick of Derwin James at No. 17 overall this year, followed by second-round LB Uchenna Nwosu.

Joey Bosa is PFW's pick for Defensive MVP this season. Behind him and bookend terror Melvin Ingram, the Chargers welcome back Jason Verrett to potentially form the AFC West's new No Fly Zone alongside Pro Bowler Casey Hayward, 2017 rookie revelation Desmond King and James.

And the NFL's No. 1 passing offense added toughness up front in Mike Pouncey and Lamp to continue enhancing the protection Rivers is finally being afforded and jumpstart a Melvin Gordon-led run game that was surprisingly ineffective under the run-game maestro, Lynn.

Pessimist view: TE Hunter Henry was already lost for the season with a torn ACL, crushing not only because he was primed to explode out of Antonio Gates' shadow, but his season-ender in May continues a troubling trend for a Chargers team whose bizarre misfortunes could make anyone believe in curses.

The Chargers have the WR weapons in Comeback Player of the Year Keenan Allen, the Williamses — Mike and Tyrell, a 1,000-yard receiver two years ago, with a 16.5-yard career catch average — and dangerous Travis Benjamin to recalibrate the passing game sans Henry. But we need to see what Mike Williams, the 7th overall pick in 2017 with a history of injuries, can be in the NFL first.

The run game and run 'D' both must improve, too. Gordon has yet to crest 4.0 YPC through three seasons. A unit that surrendered a league-high 4.9 YPC is counting mostly on in-house improvements, including MLB Denzel Perryman finally staying healthy, 33-year-old Brandon Mebane staving off Father Time and youngsters Isaac Rochel, Darius Philon and rookie Justin Jones picking up the slack of Corey Liuget, who'll serve a four-game PED ban to begin the season.

On schedule: If they want to send an instant message that this year is different, the Chargers get a prime chance out of the gate in hosting the reigning champion Chiefs, who have beaten them in eight straight and are led for the first time in a meaningful game by Pat Mahomes.

The California trio in Weeks 3-5 — including out-of-conference tilts with the cross-town rival Rams and Jimmy Garoppolo's 49ers — marks another important measuring stick for Lynn's crew. The Rams might be invading the Bolts' old San Diego market and commanding most of the Tinseltown spotlight so far, but the Chargers have the right roster makeup to give Sean McVay's group all it can handle.

The Chargers did get the well-placed Week 8 open date, but they emerge from it by visiting hostile Century Link in Seattle, and three of their final five games are on the road — at Pittsburgh in Week 13, at Chiefs in Week 15 and the regular-season finale in Denver. Plus, late-season visits from the Bengals (Week 14) and Ravens (Week 16) aren't easy outs.

Prediction: Over.

Make no mistake: Vegas is buying the Chargers as legit contenders. They haven't gone over nine wins since LaDainian Tomlinson's final season in San Diego, and the AFC West hasn't turned out a division champ with a sub-9-7 mark since Tim Tebow's Broncos in 2011.

On one hand, that gives us some trepidation on what is clearly a lofty projection. But it still feels like they're flying somewhat under the radar in light of the Rams' explosive offseason, and that might be exactly what these Chargers need to exorcise their demons and maximize one of the NFL's very best rosters. Couple that with a division in transition, and we'll take the 'over,' along with some Pepto to brace for another wild Chargers ride.

Previous projected win total breakdowns

Arizona Cardinals

Atlanta Falcons

Baltimore Ravens

Buffalo Bills

Carolina Panthers

Chicago Bears

Cincinnati Bengals

Dallas Cowboys

Denver Broncos

Detroit Lions

Green Bay Packers

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts

Jacksonville Jaguars