We're officially at the midpoint of the NFL season and the Los Angeles Chargers have one of the best records in the league.
Yes, those Chargers.
While conference powerhouses like the Patriots, Steelers, and Chiefs have gotten most of the attention, the Chargers - who aren't even the most popular team in their own city - have won six straight and sit at 7-2, one game back of the Chiefs atop the AFC West.
It's not a complete surprise that they've flown under the radar. Mighty Patrick Mahomes and the offensive juggernaut in Kansas City are taking up much of the divisional spotlight. Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders are the car crash people can't look away from. And the sack-tastic Denver Broncos can't decide if they want to play spoiler or start a rebuild.
Have the Chargers finally moved the needle? Over the past two decades, they've mostly been a fringe playoff contender that's only backed into the postseason when other teams have faltered. When the Chargers have managed to contend for a decent playoff seed, they've taken their foot off the gas down the stretch. Struggles on both sides of the ball, coupled with high coaching turnover, have kept the franchise out of the playoffs since 2013.
Not helping their cause: The Chargers are basically an itinerant team playing on a professional soccer field while the rival Rams, the newly anointed darlings of Los Angeles, gleefully oversee construction on their $5-billion future home. It's not an unfamiliar feeling for the Chargers. For years, their home field in San Diego was notorious for being overrun with opponents' fans - and that hasn't changed since relocating. The silver lining, perhaps, is that the Chargers play well in hostile environments and have won four games on the road this season.
But by the franchise's standards, this year feels very different.
Running back Melvin Gordon is having a career season. Quarterback Philip Rivers has 21 passing touchdowns and only four interceptions. And the defense is playing lights-out, allowing fewer than 20 points in five consecutive games. Last Sunday, the Chargers kept division rival Oakland out of the end zone entirely, allowing just two field goals. Breakout rookie safety Derwin James leads the team in tackles and Melvin Ingram and Isaac Rochell have held the line in the absence of star pass-rusher Joey Bosa, who has yet to appear in a game this season.
"It's like the tides have turned," Gordon told reporters earlier this week, summing up the team's 2018 performance.
"We're making the plays we need to make. I'm loving it right now. I'm feeding off the defensive energy, feeding off the offensive energy. I'm just trying to have fun with it, man. I've been around here the last couple years and the energy wasn't like this, so I'm not taking it for granted."
Gordon, who's recorded five straight games with 120-plus total yards and a touchdown, credits second-year head coach Anthony Lynn - a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Broncos - for inspiring the team's mindset.
"Listening to someone that's been there and done that," Gordon said. "He has what we all want to accomplish and by him being there twice, he knows what to do, how to get there, he knows the formula. Whatever he's been through and done, it got him there and he won the Super Bowl."
Lynn couldn't be happier with his team's on-field chemistry.
"I feel good about the team," he said. "I feel good about the men we have in the locker room, the character that they have. I love the way they work - I love the way they hit the reset button every week and start over."
But it isn't all good news. Though Bosa finally returned to practice Wednesday, there's still no timetable for his return to game action - and Lynn can only hope it'll be soon. Linebacker Denzel Perryman suffered a torn LCL against the Raiders, ending his season with 51 tackles in nine games, second only to James.
The schedule also presents a significant challenge, particularly for Rivers and the offensive line. Six of their final seven games come against teams ranked in the top seven in sacks, including Kansas City and Pittsburgh (T-1), the Cardinals (sixth), the Ravens (T-7), and two meetings with Denver (T-7).
There are also plenty of questions to answer. Will the defense stay healthy? Can Gordon keep running down a dream? Will Mahomes ever have a bad game?
If anyone knows how crazy the last half of the season can get, it's Rivers. With 15 years of experience, he understands anything can happen in the next seven weeks.
"We gotta just keep going," Rivers said. "It's one at a time, as we know. The division leader is still out in front of us and there's a lot of teams that are going to be in the hunt down the stretch."
Only time will tell if this is truly a different Chargers team, but at least they've finally got our attention.