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They won four of their first five games, the Chargers suddenly becoming a popular Super Bowl pick led by a fresh MVP candidate at quarterback and a rookie coach making bold, trend-setting decisions.
Along the way, that coach, Brandon Staley, offered repeated public warnings about how — at first glance — the results on a football field can mask the truth of what’s really happening.
“We had to fight to get to 4-1,” Staley said this week. “You've heard me talk about illusions and stuff like that. It was a fight when we were 4-1. It's been a fight when we lost a couple. … It’s been a fight, and it's still a fight.”
So the Chargers probably weren’t as good as they looked at times during the season’s first five weeks. And they probably aren’t as bad as they’ve looked at times in going 2-4 over the seven weeks since.
They remain on the playoff fringe, clinging to the AFC’s seventh and last seed. Their final six games — starting Sunday in Cincinnati — ultimately will determine the 2021 Chargers’ reality.
“I feel like we’re in a great spot,” safety Derwin James said. “We’re in the hunt. It’s on us to go where we want to from here.”
A year ago, the Chargers entered December at 3-8. They were 4-7 in 2019, coming off a season during which they finished one victory short of the conference title game.
Now, they’ll meet the 7-4 Bengals in one of only two matchups this weekend pitting teams that today would make the postseason. The other game — New England at Buffalo — will be showcased Monday night.
So, after not playing a meaningful December game in consecutive years, the Chargers return to national relevance with one of the NFL’s most meaningful games to kick off this December.
“It gives you another reason to want to play even harder,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “We’re obviously playing as hard as we can, regardless. But, yeah, being able to say you’re in the hunt is a little extra sugar on top.”
Sweeter still, this game will feature two of the league’s top young quarterbacks in Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. Cincinnati drafted Burrow No. 1 overall last year, five picks before the Chargers grabbed Herbert.
When these teams opened the 2020 season against one another, Burrow was the Bengals starter but Herbert never got closer to playing than a few warmup tosses on the sideline.
The Chargers won that day in Cincinnati 16-13, with Burrow’s most memorable moment being a touchdown run when he split the defense for a 23-yard scramble up the middle.
This meeting figures to be more electric, especially with the Bengals having produced 73 points in their last two games, wins over Las Vegas and Pittsburgh — teams the Chargers also have defeated.
“Their styles are very different, the type of players they are,” Staley said of the quarterbacks. “But I think their leadership, their toughness, their smarts, all those things that kind of make a franchise quarterback, they both have them …
“They both have transformed the fortunes of both franchises. It's exciting for the NFL. You have two players of this caliber that are hopefully going to be playing for a long time.”
The Chargers are slight underdogs Sunday, a week after they lost as slight favorites in Denver. They have followed their previous two defeats with productive offensive performances in victory.
Yes, this has been an uneven bunch, particularly since mid-October. Said offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, “There’s a consistency element that we're chasing.”
Veteran wide receiver Keenan Allen was a bit more blunt.
“We gotta beat the bums,” he said. “We gotta beat the guys that we're supposed to beat … and we ain’t been doing it. So it’s very frustrating for me.”
The Bengals aren’t among the bums Allen referenced. A win Sunday would represent the Chargers’ most impressive of the fall, given all the circumstances.
It also would be the franchise’s most significant victory since beating Baltimore in the playoffs following the 2018 season.
After falling to the Broncos, Staley explained that the time preparing for the Bengals would be all about practicing with purpose, tightening the focus and minding the details. “It’s Dec. 1,” he said Wednesday. Reality time.
“I think we've established a good thing,” Staley said. “Now, where can we take it so that it's a special thing?”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.