During the NFL’s 21-year absence from Los Angeles, the area’s professional football fans survived just fine. They watched the best game of each week on television, and they rooted for their favorite teams from afar.
Or more likely, they just went to the beach.
Now that the Rams have returned and the Chargers have arrived to saturate the nation’s second-largest market with a home game nearly every weekend, Los Angeles fans have a wealth of football at their doors.
What LA doesn’t have is a true local rivalry — not yet, and maybe not ever.
The Chargers (1-1) and the Rams (2-0) will meet on the Coliseum field Sunday for the first time since their relocations. The players and coaches on both sides agree that any attempt to portray this Week 3 schedule quirk as a fight for the city’s heart would be a cheesy ploy of marketing or motivation.
“I’m glad LA has got two teams, but it doesn’t matter,” Rams cornerback Marcus Peters said. “Come on. They’re in the AFC. We’re in the NFC.”
Although they’ll be roommates in a multi-billion-dollar Inglewood stadium complex in 2020, Los Angeles’ two franchises are divided by conference alignment, a lack of history — even the 94 miles of freeway traffic between their training bases in Thousand Oaks and Costa Mesa.
They’re unlikely to meet much more often than once every four seasons under NFL scheduling policies. As the 49ers and Raiders can attest, that’s not a recipe for a rivalry, even if the teams also schedule an annual preseason meeting.
“It’s hard to have a true rivalry (with) a team once every four years,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “I think as players in the locker room, we see it as a fight for game No. 3. You know, find a way to get to 2-1. So it’s something I guess both teams are obviously getting used to, with both being in the same area. But I don’t sense that they’re becoming a huge rival, because you’re not going to see them twice a year. You’re not going to see them every year.”
So don’t expect a crackling derby atmosphere at the Coliseum. Instead, expect a high-level game between two potential Super Bowl contenders.
LA might not have a rivalry, but it has two solid teams coming off winning seasons in 2017. Both clubs’ offenses and defenses are ranked in the league’s top 10, and both rosters are fairly stacked with stars and compelling matchups.
Rivers isn’t afraid to throw at former Chiefs cornerback Peters, who has intercepted passes from the veteran quarterback four times in their six matchups. On the other side, Chargers’ pass-rushing phenom Melvin Ingram will be in pursuit of Jared Goff, who will attempt to get his throws past cornerback Casey Hayward.
Add up the two-team collection of Pro Bowl talent from Aaron Donald to Keenan Allen, and this inaugural crosstown showdown has the potential for high excitement — even if the raw emotions of a true rivalry just aren’t there.
“It’s definitely a rivalry, but just because it’s kind of a battle for home turf, so to speak,” Rams right guard Jamon Brown said. “We’ve got to approach it just the same as we do any other game. The next one is the most important, and it happens to be the Chargers.”
Here are more things to watch in these teams’ first meeting since 2014, when San Diego beat St. Louis 27-24:
STRENGTH ON STRENGTH
The Rams’ defense hasn’t allowed a point in six quarters after shutting out Arizona last week, while the Chargers have racked up 890 yards of offense in just two games. Coordinators Wade Phillips and Ken Whisenhunt should have a high-level duel as the Rams attempt to slow down a Bolts offense that has put up extraordinary numbers since the middle of last season.
The Rams have scored 67 points in two games, propelled by an offense that keeps adding new wrinkles in its first season since its total transformation under coach Sean McVay in 2017. The Chargers’ defense remains solid, and it has received a boost from playmaking rookie safety Derwin James, who already has two sacks.
Several Rams defensive players talked about their competitive respect for Rivers, whose impressive arm and genial trash-talking skills are widely admired. He will test the Rams’ revamped defensive secondary while avoiding the rushes of Donald and Ndamukong Suh, who has a warm friendship with Rivers. “I love playing against Philip,” Suh said. “He’s a character on the field. Off the field, I’ve spent some time with him, Pro Bowls and whatnot. I can see a great competitor. … I talk with my pads. I’m not much of a talker, but every now and then, Philip has gotten me out of character and we’ve exchanged words now and then.”
The Rams got good news when Chargers pass-rushing monster Joey Bosa was ruled out for the third consecutive week. Bosa’s absence with a foot injury has allowed offenses to focus on stopping Ingram, although the Chiefs were a whole lot more successful than the Bills. The Chargers also will be without right tackle Joe Barksdale, putting Sam Tevi in the starting lineup again.
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn was a rookie running back with the Denver Broncos in 1993, and Phillips was his head coach. Both are looking forward to the reunion. “I just know that I liked him as a head coach and as a man,” Lynn said. “He’s been good over the years, so he hasn’t slowed down at all in that department. I know his defense will be ready to go. I think the world of him.”
GREG BEACHAMAP Sports Writer