By Don Wanlass
You have to hand it to the Los Angeles Chargers.
They are one of the first five teams to clinch a playoff berth in the National Football League. They are tied for the second best record in the league with two games to play and have won 10 of their last 11 games after starting the season 1-2.
The Chargers are doing this without a home field advantage.
Most NFL teams play half their games in front of crowds of 60,000 or more cheering their every move and, even more importantly, making noise that disrupts the other team’s offense at crucial times.
The Chargers play in the smallest venue of any NFL team, Carson’s StubHub Center, which might be able to squeeze 30,000 people inside but advertises a capacity of 27,000. But the Chargers can’t even fill that stadium with fans. And when certain teams come to town — the Raiders, in particular, but they aren’t the only one — fans of those teams buy enough tickets to make it look and sound like another away game.
That probably won’t be the case Dec. 22 when the Chargers host the Baltimore Ravens at 5:15 p.m. at StubHub. The Chargers are making their third prime time appearance in the last four games after coming from behind to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers Dec. 2 and the Kansas City Chiefs Dec. 13.
The Chargers defense gets a chance to coral rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has taken over for Joe Flacco and has the Ravens contending for a division title, trailing the Steelers by half a game in the AFC North.
The Chargers figured to be good this season, their second back in Los Angeles. I’m not sure too many people figured they would be tied for the division lead with two weeks left in the season.
And the rest of the league knows the Chargers are good, too. Seven of their players were selected to play in the Pro Bowl this week, the most of any team in the league.
Under second-year coach Anthony Lynn, the Chargers are balanced.
They have four Pro Bowlers on offense in quarterback Philip Rivers, wide receiver Keenan Allen, running back Melvin Gordon and center Mike Pouncey. On the other side of the ball are defensive end Melvin Ingram and rookie safety Derwin James.
Defensive back Adrian Phillips also made the team as a special teams player.
Not bad for the third most popular football team in Los Angeles, fifth if you want to count USC and UCLA.
The Chargers knew they had to do a lot to develop a fan base in Los Angeles. The Rams may have spent 20 years in St. Louis, but there were still plenty of fans who cheered for them growing up and were more than happy to welcome them back.
The Chargers only moved up the freeway 120 miles or so, but left a lot of disgruntled fans back in San Diego who couldn’t be bothered to help fund a new stadium and can’t be bothered to drive up the 405 seven Sundays a year to follow their team.
The Chargers labeled their publicity campaign “The Fight for Los Angeles,” realizing that the best way to build a fan base is to win. They are definitely doing that. Let’s see how long it takes the people in Los Angeles to notice.
LATE-SEASON SLUMP: While the Chargers are surging as the playoffs loom, the Rams are doing the opposite. Their 30-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles Dec. 16 was their second in a row, the first time the Rams have dropped two straight since Sean McVay became the head coach.
It’s hard to say what is wrong with the Rams. They have given up 30 points or more in four of the last six games. They have only scored 30 or more once in the last three weeks.
Jared Goff, who was playing like a most valuable player candidate earlier in the year, is making bad throws and turning the ball over lately. And McVay, the offensive boy genius with his play-calling, as had some notable lapses in the last three weeks since the Rams defeated the Chiefs in that 54-51 thriller last month.
Fortunately, the Rams have already clinched the division title. And they end the season against the teams with the two worst records in the NFC, the Cardinals in Arizona Dec. 23 and the San Francisco 49ers at home the following week.
That should get the Rams back on track in time for the playoffs.
STUFF HAPPENS: A couple of weeks ago we were marveling about how well the Lakers and Clippers were playing. Now, not so much.
The Clippers have lost seven of their last nine. The Lakers just ended a road trip that saw them go 1-3.
It’s no time to panic. There is plenty of time — four months, in fact — for both teams to make improvements and move toward the playoffs.
No one expected the Lakers would have 18 wins before Christmas. They do. The Clippers are right behind them.
Both teams have had injuries to key players that have slowed them down. Brandon Ingram missed the Lakers road trip with a sprained ankle. He is expected back this week.
Lou Williams has been out for the Clippers with an injured hamstring. He provides an offensive spark off the bench second to none in the league.
The Clippers have a solid team. Tobias Harris has become the leading scorer and could make the all-star team this year. Rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been as good as if not better than advertised and Danilo Gallinari, who was injured most of last season, has shown what he can do when he is healthy.
The Lakers are still adjusting to playing with LeBron James and Ingram has probably been the most affected since his game is most like James.
But there have been some positive signs out of Lonzo Ball, who had a triple double along side James against Charlotte Dec. 15 and has 49 points in his last three games; while Kyle Kuzma continues to shine, averaging 18 points a game and demonstrating that he is the team’s second best player.
If Ingram ever gets comfortable playing along side James, watch out.
STADIUM RENAMED: If the Chargers get to play a home game in the playoffs, it will be at a different stadium. As of Jan. 1, the stadium on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson will have its name changed to Dignity Health Sports Park, thanks to a sponsorship agreement announced this week by AEG, the company that built and manages the facility.
Dan Beckerman, CEO of AEG, said in a statement the company looks forward to working with Dignity Health “to amplify our efforts to make a positive and lasting difference for our fans.”
“Sports has the power to bring people together, and Dignity Health is the perfect partner to help us highlight and support the L.A. community that surrounds the L.A. Galaxy and Dignity Health Sports Park,” the statement added.
This will be the third name for the stadium that opened in 2003 and has been the home of the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Home Depot held the naming rights for the first 10 years, before StubHub took over.
Financial details of the new naming-rights agreement were not disclosed.
According to AEG, Dignity Health will become the Galaxy’s officials health care partner, and the agreement also includes the “implementation of a wide range of health and wellness programs.”
Lloyd Dean, president and CEO of Dignity Health, said the company hopes to promote “greater health and wellness for all” with the agreement, through efforts such as sponsoring youth sports leagues, offering health services or donating to charitable organizations.
The stadium is primarily home to the Galaxy, but it is also serving as a temporary home for the Chargers while a stadium for the team and the Rams is being built in Inglewood.
It also is used for high school football games, concerts and occasional boxing matches.