“Chargers—Listen to their coach-they’re winning the Super Bowl”
Brandon Staley is enthusiastic and optiumitic.
He is a fun listen at his Zoom press gatherings.
He expounds on his theories and philosophies.
It’s like he inherited a legendary franchise, a roster full of stars. His thoughts are over the top.
His 17-game schedule is rugged, especially a brutal home schedule to start the season.
What does someone else thing? “The Athletic” with a close up look at the Bolts and their schedule.
The NFL released its full 2021 schedule Wednesday night. The Chargers’ home and away opponents were already set back in January. But now we know when they will be playing and the exact slate Brandon Staley will be navigating in his first season as an NFL head coach.
What games should you be circling on the schedule? Who is coming to SoFi Stadium in primetime? Can the Chargers put together a winning season for the first time since 2018? How will they fare in the AFC West, a division they have not won in over a decade?
Let’s break it all down.
Chargers 2021 Schedule
Season-opener key to victory
The Chargers head to Landover, Md., to take on the Washington Football Team in their season opener. Washington will have a new starting quarterback, likely Ryan Fitzpatrick, who they signed to a one-year deal this offseason. Fitzmagic is a sight to behold, and Staley’s defense will face a significant challenge against an explosive skill position group that includes Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson, free-agent signing Curtis Samuel and rookie Dyami Brown. The bigger challenge, though, will be this Ron Rivera defense that ranked No. 3 in defensive DVOA last season. The strength of the unit is the defensive line — Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne. The Chargers’ priority this offseason was improving a woeful offensive line. They succeeded in the overhaul by signing three new starters in free agency: center Corey Linsley, left guard Matt Feiler and right guard Oday Aboushi. They also drafted a starting left tackle in the first round in Rashawn Slater. This will serve as the new-look offensive line’s first test. Slater and Young, of course, battled in college in the Big Ten when Slater was at Northwestern and Young was at Ohio State.
At the Chiefs, Week 3. We have yet to see a true Justin Herbert-Patrick Mahomes battle. I say this because the first time they met, in Week 2 of 2020 at SoFi Stadium, Herbert learned he was starting the game five minutes before kickoff after Tyrod Taylor endured his unfortunate mishap with a pre-game pain injection. When the teams met again in Week 17 at Arrowhead, Mahomes sat, as the Chiefs had already clinched their postseason spot. This will mark the first time Mahomes and Herbert go head-head when each quarterback actually has a week to prepare. Get your popcorn ready. Oh, and the Chargers will not have to brave the Kansas City cold in December for the first time since 2016.
The Chargers open the season with a gauntlet six games: at Washington, vs. Dallas, at Kansas City, vs. Raiders, vs. Cleveland, at Ravens. Four of those were playoff teams in 2020. The Raiders finished 8-8 after a bad finish, but division games — especially those in prime time — are always physical and competitive. The Chargers will have to then host the Browns, who finished 11-5 last season, on a short week. The Cowboys, meanwhile, will have starting quarterback Dak Prescott back for the Chargers’ home opener in Week 2. They do get a bye week in Week 7. The Chargers then return to action with another really tough stretch: vs. New England, at Philadelphia, vs. Minnesota, vs. Pittsburgh, at Denver. Staley will be tested right away.
Games that have gotten tougher
At Broncos, vs. Broncos. Denver, of course, traded for Teddy Bridgewater, and if he beats out Drew Lock for the starting job, this team has a chance to give the league some issues this season. That’s largely because I think the Broncos will have one of the best defenses in football, and Bridgewater is the kind of game-managing, risk-averse quarterback who would help a great defense thrive. The secondary is loaded after the Broncos re-signed safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, signed Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller and drafted Patrick Surtain II in the top 10. Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and Shelby Harris are all coming back. And add in this wrinkle: Staley is a Vic Fangio disciple. Staley spent three of his four NFL-coaching seasons on Fangio’s defensive staff, first with the Bears and then with the Broncos. Fangio knows the ins and outs of Staley’s defense scheme because he taught it to the new Chargers head coach. That goes both ways, though. Staley, too, is intimately familiar with Fangio and how he operates. These matchups will be fascinating chess matches: mentor vs. mentee.
Best offense the Chargers will face
Chiefs. Duh. One thing to consider, though: The Chargers were one of the best teams in the league at slowing down the Chiefs with Gus Bradley as their defensive coordinator. He had a great blueprint. How will they fare with a very different scheme under Staley?
Best defense the Chargers will face
Steelers or Washington. Pittsburgh finished No. 1 in defensive DVOA last year. They lost Bud Dupree in free agency and cut cornerback Steven Nelson. But they still have T.J. Watt, one of the best edge rushers in the league, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, a versatile play-making safety. We have already gone over Washington. The Broncos are a dark horse here.
vs. Patriots, Week 8. The Chargers got embarrassed on their home field last season in a 45-0 loss to New England. Their special teams were an utter disaster. They allowed a punt return touchdown, and also had a kick blocked that the Patriots returned for a touchdown. That’s not even mentioning the three different punt returns in which the Chargers had the wrong number of players on the field, including two on the same series. This loss sealed Anthony Lynn’s fate. Lynn is gone now. But many of the players are returning, and trust me when I say the Chargers will be looking to avenge this loss against Bill Belichick, even if the coaching staff is different.
Predicted season record
9-8. There is a lot of hope and excitement surrounding the Chargers right now, and rightfully so. But this is a green and young coaching staff. Herbert is still only entering his second season, and he needs to prove he can maintain his level of play when teams have more tape on him. I think the Chargers will finish above .500. But I am pumping the brakes on the Super Bowl-contender talk.
Predicted division finish
Staley and Herbert will one day give the Chiefs a run for the AFC West title. But not this year.
(Photo of Justin Herbert: Joe Scarnici / Getty Images)