Here we go again. After yet another slow start to open the season, the Chargers are making their patented second-half run. They spanked the Broncos 35-14 on Monday night, extending their win streak to three games, improving their overall record to 5-5 and making their 2-5 start seem like a myth. No one should be surprised by this, of course. Slow starts and fast regular-season finishes have become the modus operandi since coach Norv Turner arrived in 2007. The Chargers lost three of their first four in his rookie season, but finished 11-5. They started 4-8 the following year, but finished 8-8 overall. And they won 11 in a row last season after a 2-3 start. What did we learn Monday night? Here are five things:
1. The Chargers are set up for another strong finish. San Diego plays at Indianapolis Sunday, but then has three straight at home -- versus Oakland, Kansas City and San Francisco -- before finishing at Cincinnati and Denver. Before you start talking up the Colts, consider that San Diego has won four of the teams' last five meetings, including the postseason. The Chargers avenged that one defeat seven weeks later when they knocked the 2008 Colts out of the playoffs.
2. Philip Rivers is a legitimate MVP candidate. The seventh-year pro keeps losing players, but not his efficiency. On Monday, he didn't have two of his top three wideouts (Vincent Jackson and Legedu Naanee), two of his top three tight ends (Antonio Gates and Kris Wilson) and was without ballyhooed running back Ryan Mathews, the rookie first-round pick from Fresno State. Yet, he still threw touchdowns to four different players, three running backs, converted on seven of 14 third downs and generated 400 yards of offense. For the season, he has completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 3,177 yards and 23 touchdowns, with nine interceptions. He figures to be even more dangerous this weekend, when Jackson, a back-to-back 1,000-yard receiver, returns to the lineup for the first time since ending his contract squabble.
3. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen needs to have a long talk with himself. The first question should be: Is the team better today than it was after the 2008 season, when he fired Mike Shanahan? If he's honest with himself, the answer will be an unequivocal 'no.' That's not a cheap shot at second-year coach Josh McDaniels, whose fingerprints are on every controversial roster move that has been made the past two years -- it's a statement of fact. The Broncos, who had only two losing seasons in 14 seasons under Shanahan, are 5-15 in their last 20 games under McDaniels. Worse, they're only 4-5 in the AFC West the last two years, with four of the defeats at home, with three by 20 points or more. Have the Broncos been hurt by injury? Sure. Losing sackmaster Elvis Dumervil before the season was huge, and having outside linebacker Robert Ayers sidelined by injury is an issue. But most teams have to cope with injuries, including the team that just whipped the Broncos by 21 in a critical, primetime division game.
4. Turner has a beautiful offensive mind. Despite all the personnel losses during the season, he continues to outscheme opponents. His greatest job may have been earlier in the year, when despite being without his top four receivers -- Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Naanee and Buster Davis -- Turner still found ways to free up Gates, the league's best tight end. He kept defenses off-balance by throwing out of three-tight end formations and by layering his pass routes, forcing defensive backs and linebackers to be extremely disciplined in their coverages. Say what you will about him as a head coach -- and we all have our opinions -- but Turner is one heck of a play designer, particularly in the passing game.
5. The Chargers' hot streak means nothing. We've seen this picture before. Despite the fast finishes under Turner, the Chargers have yet to get to the Super Bowl. In fact, their playoff arrow has been trending down. San Diego won two postseason games in Turner's first season, one in his second, and none last year. If the Chargers overtake the Chiefs and the Raiders to win the division and earn another playoff berth, so what? San Diego has won four straight division titles and five of the last six. Which is fine if your goal is to win the AFC West. But GM A.J. Smith has said repeatedly the prize is the Vince Lombardi Trophy. If that's the case, the Chargers need to take the next step this year and, at the very least, reach the Super Bowl. Anything less makes their current run nothing more than an empty tease.
Dating back to 2006, the Chargers are 33-5 in regular-season games after October. So again, that's why I say their late-season finishes don't matter. Look at the playoff outcomes.