They have two shots left but no shot at the postseason without some help.
“Now the true saying of ‘now or never,’” defensive tackle Linval Joseph said, “is now or never.”
The 8-7 Chargers face Denver (7-8) at 1:05 p.m. Sunday at SoFi Stadium. By the time their game kicks off, they should know how the two 8-7 teams in front of them — Baltimore and Miami — have fared.
The Ravens play the Rams at home, while the Dolphins are at Tennessee. Both are underdogs. The Chargers are favorites.
If the point spreads prove prophetic, the Chargers would be back in the playoffs and in control of their own fate heading into their regular-season finale at Las Vegas.
If all three games fall the other way, the Chargers would be in serious trouble. Anything in between means the seemingly never-ending intrigue of the 2021 NFL season would extend — quite fittingly — into the league’s first-ever Week 18.
“It starts now,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “Playoff games start now.”
The Chargers put themselves in this teetering position with a shockingly uninspired performance in a 41-29 loss at Houston. When that game began, they were favored by 13 points, the widest projected margin in the NFL in Week 16.
Throughout December, first-year coach Brandon Staley talked repeatedly about his desire for the Chargers to be playing their best as the end of the season approached. He referenced his belief that this group has another gear it can reach.
Both those ideas crumbled against a COVID-depleted Texans team going nowhere in a building that had a paid attendance of 65,674 but an actual attendance of considerably less than that.
Yet, as empty as NRG Stadium was, the Chargers left feeling more hollow.
“It was just a bad, bad deal,” Allen said. Later, he added: “Gotta bounce back this week. Get our confidence back, our mojo back.”
It doesn't figure to be easy but little has been for the 2021 Chargers or this franchise against the Broncos of late. Denver has won four of the last five meetings, including 28-13 five weeks ago.
The Chargers have lost two in a row — surrendering 75 points total — and, after opening the season 4-1, are 4-6. They’ve lost half of the eight home games and could finish behind the currently last-place Broncos in the division.
“We got to play our game,” Staley said. “We got to make it about the Chargers. … It’s really going to come down to our level of execution, the energy that we play with on Sunday.”
The Chargers will be much more intact against Denver than they were a week ago. Because of COVID-19, they were missing 14 active-roster players versus Houston.
Among those now back are edge rusher Joey Bosa and center Corey Linsley, both Pro Bowl players. Running back Austin Ekeler and wide receiver Mike Williams, both Pro Bowl alternates, also have returned.
The Chargers activated eight more from the COVID list Saturday. That group included cornerback Chris Harris Jr., safety Nasir Adderley and right tackle Storm Norton, all starters.
Pro Bowl safety Derwin James Jr. is set to return, too, after he missed two games and was limited in a third because of a hamstring injury.
“The only way to get this taste out of your mouth,” Joseph said, “is to go out there and do your job and do it well.”
Much like the Texans a week ago, the Broncos have been ravaged by COVID. They called up eight players from their practice squad Saturday.
In his 12th season, Joseph said he would offer his teammates some hope by telling them how much this year reminds him of his second season in the league, in 2011, when he was with the New York Giants.
After opening 4-1, that team hit a lull before finishing with consecutive victories to reach the playoffs. Joseph and the Giants then won four postseason games, including Super Bowl XLVI over New England.
“We started off hot, got a lot of guys hurt and then ‘boom,’ we came together at the right time,” Joseph said. “We didn't lose any more games and we won the Super Bowl. That's exactly how I feel right now.”
The Chargers still have a shot, yes, but they need some help. First, though, they need to help themselves, just a week after so stunningly hurting their cause.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.