Los Angeles Chargers (0-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-0)
The Chargers won just five games a year ago, but they actually finished the season 7th in first down rate differential at +3.84%. How is that possible? Well, the Chargers went just 2-9 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and they also had a league worst -17 turnover margin. Turnover margins and a team’s record in close games tend to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, the Chargers went 6-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2018 and had a +1 turnover margin, with a very similar roster. The Chargers’ impressive first down rate differential from last year should be much more predictive than their turnover margin or record in close games.
The Chargers first down rate differential is even more impressive when you consider that they frequently played in front of visiting crowds at home, if they played in front of any crowd at all, and that they had terrible injury luck. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and those injuries disproportionately affected their top level players, so you could argue they were the most injury affected team in the league last season.
Safety Derwin James (11 games), center Mike Pouncey (11 games), left tackle Russell Okung (10 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), edge defender Melvin Ingram (3 games), and tight end Hunter Henry (4 games) all missed significant time with injury and all were big absences. This year, the Chargers won’t have to play in front of fans at home at all (or possibly even on the road) and they should have better injury luck as well, as adjusted games lost to injury tends to be a highly inconsistent statistic year-to-year as well. Even though the Chargers are downgrading from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor under center, I still liked the Chargers’ chances of being a playoff contender this off-season.
It’s not off to a good start for the Chargers injury wise though, as Derwin James is out for the season, Mike Pouncey will miss this week, and new offensive linemen Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga could join him on the sideline as well, which would leave the Chargers very thin upfront. Wide receiver Mike Williams could be out as well, after topping 1000 yards receiving in 2019. The Bengals won’t have stud interior defender Geno Atkins, but it’ll be hard to pick the Chargers as three point road favorites here if they’re missing multiple offensive line starters and their #2 receiver. I’m taking the Chargers for now, but I’ll need to check injury reports before deciding on this one.
Los Angeles Chargers 24 Cincinnati Bengals 20
Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -3