The Los Angeles Chargers may have saved their season last week, but that hasn’t taken the heat off Brandon Staley’s seat.
It’s plenty warm in Las Vegas right now as well, and we’re not talking about the weather.
Though no game held on the first day of October is a true must-win in the NFL, it’s pretty darn close to one for both the Las Vegas Raiders and their longtime AFC West rivals when the teams renew acquaintances Sunday at SoFi Stadium on CBS.
Both will be seeking to avoid a 1-3 start that’s still a steep hurdle to overcome even in this era of expanded playoffs. Since the league adopted its 14-team postseason format in 2020, just 16% (4 of 25) of teams have reached the playoffs after dropping three of their first four games.
Our projection model indicates that each of Sunday’s participants is already in a difficult spot, as it gives both less than a 30% chance of making the playoffs. Those odds would be even lower for the Chargers if not for last week’s 28-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings, an outcome that wasn’t sealed until linebacker Kenneth Murray’s goal-line interception in the final seconds after the Vikings marched down to L.A.’s 6-yard line.
Tightrope acts such as that one have been par for the course for the Chargers throughout this calendar year, going back to January’s infamous 31-30 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in which they blew a 27-0 lead.
Add last week’s nail-biter to the season-opening shootout against the seemingly unstoppable Miami Dolphins and an overtime defeat to the Tennessee Titans in Week 2 – not to mention Staley’s penchant for bold, high-risk decision-making – and there’s rarely a dull moment involving the Chargers.
Another thrill ride could be in store for this showdown, which our SmartRatings model has pegged as the second-most exciting game of the NFL Week 4 schedule.
These teams also have a habit of playing close games, as seven of the eight meetings since 2019 have been decided by seven points or less. Our supercomputer expects that trend to continue, making the host Chargers the best bets but anything but a lock to cover as current 5.5-point favorites.
The sportsbooks’ over/under for the game presently sits at around 48.5 points, a line that’s dropped slightly in part due to Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo starting the week in concussion protocol and not a given to start at the time of this writing.
Garoppolo’s health is one of a few issues facing underdog Las Vegas, which we’ll break down in further detail below.
LV: Establish the Run and Avoid Turnovers
Even in today’s pass-happy NFL, it’s hard to win when you can’t run the football. It’s even harder when turn the ball over frequently.
Josh McDaniels’ Raiders have been abysmal in both areas thus far. They’ve averaged a league-low 61.7 rushing yards per game and a meager 3.1 yards per rushing play, and their minus-seven turnover differential is tied with the 0-3 Vikings for the worst margin in the NFL.
We discussed in length when previewing Las Vegas’ Week 3 game, a 23-18 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Josh Jacobs’ increased potential for regression due to the 2022 NFL rushing leader’s heavy workload from last season and his training-camp holdout. And although the Raiders’ marquee back did look better against the Steelers, he’s still yet to dispel that notion through the first three games.
Jacobs averaged a strong 2.29 yards after contact over the course of his breakout 2022 campaign, but he’s near the bottom of the league in that category (1.42) during his slow start to this season. Even more concerning is his one run of over 10 yards in 45 carries, a big-play rate of 2.2% that’s 5.5 times lower than his 2022 ratio.
LOWEST% OF RUSHES OF 10+ YARDS THRU WEEK 3 (MIN. 25 CARRIES)
- Kyren Williams, Los Angeles Rams (0.0)
- Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders (2.2)
- AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers (2.6)
- Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles (3.6)
- Jamaal Williams, New Orleans Saints (3.7)
Las Vegas’ inability to consistently run the ball has in turn negatively affected Garoppolo, who has thrown a league-high six interceptions with a pickable pass percentage of 5.38 that’s 28th of 34 quarterbacks with 45 or more pass attempts. And it’s hard to believe the situation would be much better if the Raiders are forced to turn to either retread Brian Hoyer or unproven rookie Aidan O’Connell in the event Garoppolo can’t clear protocol.
The Raiders may be hard-pressed to win the always-important turnover battle even if Garoppolo can reduce those dangerous throws. The defense hasn’t recorded a single takeaway this season and will be facing a quarterback who almost never gives it away in Justin Herbert.
Herbert produced the lowest pickable pass percentage (1.82) of any quarterback with 200 or more attempts in 2022 and counting last season’s playoff game, comes into Sunday’s clash on a franchise-record streak of 256 consecutive throws without an interception.
The Raiders, whose only win came in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos (17-16), may have an opportunity to revive their dormant ground game this week, however. The Chargers surrendered a league-worst 5.4 yards per rush attempt last season and allowed a successful play on 42.8% of opponent runs (also last in the NFL) and haven’t shown much improvement during the early stages of 2023.
Los Angeles has yielded a run of 10-plus yards on 16.7% of its defensive rushing plays through its first three outings – the second-highest rate in the NFL. The Chargers gave up six such plays last week against a Minnesota team that entered the game with a paltry 69 rushing yards on 26 carries through its first two contests.
Jacobs was a major factor in Las Vegas’ 27-20 home win over the Chargers back in December with 144 rushing yards and a touchdown on 26 attempts. Another such effort would go a long way toward tipping the scales in the Raiders’ favor in an expected tight game.
LAC: Convert in the Red Zone
The Chargers may have a significant advantage if Herbert maintains his judicious ways and continues to hit open wide receivers (namely Keenan Allen) in stride like he did last week when he shredded the Vikings for 405 yards and three touchdowns on a crisp 40-of-47 passing.
Moving the football and scoring points generally hasn’t been a problem for Los Angeles, which trails only the juggernaut Dolphins for tops in the NFL in total yards (1,250), successful play percentage (46.8) and touchdown efficiency (31.3% of drives). Still, the Chargers haven’t always been as proficient when the offense is operating in the most important segments of the field.
Poor red-zone execution definitely contributed to L.A.’s 27-20 loss to the Raiders in Week 13 of last season, as the Chargers didn’t score a touchdown in three trips inside the Vegas 20-yard line. The same goes for this season’s Week 2 defeat to Tennessee in which the Chargers settled for three field goals in five red-zone visits in a game the Titans pulled out in overtime.
The loss of Mike Williams to a torn ACL in the Minnesota game does hurt. Not only will Los Angeles be missing a big-bodied receiver who excels at making contested catches and hauled in 9 of 13 targets with four touchdowns in the red zone last season, but it’s one less option for an offense that’s already been heavily reliant on Allen.
Allen comes in off a monster performance against the Vikings in which he registered a franchise-record 18 catches on 20 targets for 215 yards, and the five-time Pro Bowler has been among the league’s elite in getting open during the season’s early portion.
HIGHEST OPEN% AMONG WRs THRU WEEK 3 (MIN. 15 TARGETS)
- 1. Josh Downs, Indianapolis Colts (95.5)
- 2. Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers (94.7)
- 3. Parris Campbell, New York Giants (93.8)
- 4. Zay Flowers, Baltimore Ravens (92.0)
- T-5. Tank Dell, Houston Texans (90.5)
- T-5. Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams (90.5)
Allen theoretically has a dream matchup against a Las Vegas defense that’s allowed the highest open percentage in the league (89.1), though the unavailability of Williams to draw away coverage could make that less of a mismatch than it initially appears.
In the eight games he was paired with Williams last season, Allen had an overall open rate of 80.9% and caught nearly 81% (55 of 68) of his targets. Those numbers saw a noticeable drop-off, however, in the three games in which Allen played and Williams missed due to injuries, as his open rate was 65.6% and his catch rate was just 50.0% (17 of 34).
Williams’ absence could be somewhat mitigated by the hopeful return of Austin Ekeler from a sprained ankle that’s sidelined the dynamic running back the last two games.
Ekeler’s presence would surely benefit the Chargers inside the red zone, where he’s been arguably the league’s best dual threat over the previous two seasons.
His 13 receiving touchdowns within the red zone over the 2021 and 2022 campaigns are the most of any running back and are eclipsed by only six players, one of which resides on the opposing sideline in Las Vegas’ Davante Adams (Stefon Diggs of the Buffalo Bills, Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, Cooper Kupp of the Rams 17; Adams, Mark Andrews of the Ravens, DK Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks, 14).
Ekeler’s status adds another X-factor to a matchup as unpredictable as the teams involved.
Check out the rest of our NFL picks, along with every team’s chances at making the playoffs in our season predictions. We also have weekly fantasy projections and rankings and use our sit/start comparison tool to help you with lineup decisions. And don’t forget to follow us on X and Instagram.