Chargers quietly proving to be a contender one win at a time

CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns fans who showed up at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday thought they might see the next big step quarterback Baker Mayfield was about to take in his rookie year. What they wound up witnessing was a reminder of how cruel life can be in the NFL. They saw first-hand how a championship-caliber team operates when it's rounding into form. That's the image the Los Angeles Chargers gave them, and more teams are about to get a close look at how good this squad actually can be.

The scariest part of the Chargers' 38-14 win is that the game didn't even seem that close. They dominated in the trenches, as they pounded the ball on offense and harassed Mayfield relentlessly on defense. Quarterback Philip Rivers made efficient plays in the passing game while his receivers helped him out with some acrobatic catches. This wasn't just a contest that got out of hand. It was a reminder that people shouldn't forget how dangerous Los Angeles can be when it's on its game.

It's been easy to overlook the Chargers in the AFC because of the Kansas City Chiefs' hot start, the rise of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the looming presence of the New England Patriots and all the endless drama that surrounds the Pittsburgh Steelers. The fact is Los Angeles is now riding a three-game win streak and looks plenty capable of doing more damage in the coming weeks.

"There are so many guys contributing," Rivers said when asked about his team's recent success. "It's not just one side of the ball. It's not one guy. It's not one element, whether it's the passing game or running game. It's everybody -- offense, defense and special teams. I know it's cliché to say it but that's how you win."

The Chargers should know that as well as anybody. They were a trendy Super Bowl pick coming into this season precisely because they jelled midway through last year and won nine of their last 11 games after starting 0-4. That Chargers team looked eerily similar to the one that gave the Browns fits on Sunday. They basically smothered their opponent from the start and left no doubt as to who was the better squad while improving to 4-2 on the season.

The Chargers led 21-6 at halftime and were up by 29 points at the end of the third quarter. They were aided by the fact that Mayfield injured his left ankle after scrambling late in the first quarter, but the quarterback's health wouldn't have been a deciding factor in this contest. The Chargers came out intent on making a statement, and that's exactly what they ended up doing.

Wide receiver Keenan Allen said he could feel the focus in his teammates in the locker room before the game. Rivers joked that he pulled running back Melvin Gordon aside on his way into the stadium and told him Los Angeles couldn't afford to lose this contest. Rivers knew full well how painful it would be to suffer a defeat and then spend the next few days practicing in Cleveland before traveling to London to play Tennessee next weekend. The last thing the quarterback wanted to do was add more challenges to an already long road trip.

"We had a lot of reasons to not come out here and play good today," Chargers center Mike Pouncey said. "We traveled halfway across the country to stay in another city, and then we're traveling across the world again to go play in London. Our football team came out here and handled our business from start to finish. We're really proud of ourselves."

Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn added: "Coming across the country and playing in a hostile environment, they executed well today. That's the way it's supposed to look. It could've been even better."

Even if skeptics want to discredit the Chargers' recent opponents -- their current winning streak includes victories over the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills, who are a combined 3-8 this year -- it's impossible to argue that Cleveland was an underwhelming challenge. The Browns had tied the Pittsburgh Steelers in their season opener and their other two losses came on the road by a total of six points (at New Orleans and Oakland). This wasn't the same old Browns. It was a young team starting to feel good about itself with an opportunity to be over .500 in a season for the first time since 2014.

The Chargers prevented that from happening largely because they proved to be the tougher team from the outset. Gordon ran for 132 yards on 18 carries and scored three touchdowns. His backup, Austin Ekeler, added another 60 yards on seven carries of his own. Overall, Los Angeles rushed the football 36 times for 243 yards, or an average of 6.75 yards per carry.

It's difficult to lose when a team grinds like that. That type of production sets a tone for the entire game and demoralizes opponents in ways that are invaluable come November and December. As Browns head coach Hue Jackson said after his team fell to 2-3-1: "We did not play very well. On the edges, they were able to exploit it. We had no force set. That team ran the ball for a lot of yards."

The Chargers now find themselves in a great position to do even more damage. After facing Tennessee in London, they'll play at Seattle and Oakland before facing Denver and Arizona at home. Not one of their next five opponents owns a winning record. In other words, the Chargers could generate just as much heat as they did midway through last season.

What's even more encouraging is that Los Angeles will start to get healthier. A bruised left foot has sidelined star defensive end Joey Bosa for every game thus far and there have been reports that he could return later this month. The Chargers have felt his absence -- they had only 11 sacks prior to this contest -- but they also had their way with Mayfield. They sacked him five times, intercepted him twice and reminded him that first-year starters in this league often endure humbling experiences like these.

The best part for the Chargers is that they felt like they played a complete game. The last time they went on the road -- in Week 2 at Buffalo -- they owned a 28-6 first-half lead in a contest that ended in a 31-20 win. The Chargers left that contest feeling unsatisfied, largely because it fizzled in the final two quarters. This time around, they didn't give their opponent a chance to breathe again.

The Chargers were so giddy that they jogged off the field on Sunday wondering how the oddsmakers could've made them one-point underdogs in this game. Some even asked how Kansas City had done, unaware that the undefeated Chiefs -- who beat Los Angeles in the season opener -- wouldn't kick off with the New England Patriots until later Sunday night. Those comments said plenty about how the Chargers feel about themselves right now. They know exactly how good they look these days, and they're eager to keep that momentum going any way they possibly can.

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