Chargers still haunted by damage from meltdown vs. Broncos

Jeff Miller
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) runs as Denver Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert tries to evade Denver Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris during the Chargers' 31-30 loss on Nov. 1. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

They gave up three third-down conversions and another on fourth down.

They committed two pass interference penalties, gifting Denver 22 yards.

They had one replay review go against them and another confirm that they had, indeed, been beaten in a manner both dramatic and diabolical.

If this deflating Chargers season could be captured in a single series, the final possession by the Broncos in Week 8 might be the best option.

“That was a frustrating drive,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “All we gotta do is make a play somewhere in that drive. When you look back at it, there were opportunities to make plays. We just didn’t.”

The Chargers lost on Nov. 1 in Denver by yielding a 14-play, 81-yard march that ended with Drew Lock passing one yard to KJ Hamler with no time remaining. Brandon McManus’ extra point clinched it, 31-30.

The result marked the fourth consecutive game in which the Chargers had squandered a lead of at least 16 points, an NFL record. They led 24-3 in the third quarter, the 21-point advantage the largest they had blown.

The loss was the first of three in a row and part of a 1-7 stretch that doomed the franchise’s 2020 season and invited speculation about the futures of nearly everyone in the organization.

“Watching that first game, it will make you sick,” said coach Anthony Lynn, whose team gets another shot at the Broncos on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. “We’re just trying to figure out a way [now] to finish the game against a divisional rival.”

This matchup will be the final Chargers home game of the year. They conclude their season Jan. 3 in Kansas City, and soon thereafter, management will begin making decisions about where the team goes next.

Lynn has been asked for weeks about his job security. Both of his coordinators, Bradley and Shane Steichen, have been pressed for answers. There has been lingering speculation about a personnel department led by general manager Tom Telesco.

KJ Hamler, in the end zone, runs as Chargers stand nearby.
Denver wide receiver KJ Hamler celebrates after scoring a last-second touchdown against the Chargers on Nov. 1. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

The Chargers will miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years and are trying to avoid a last-place finish in the AFC West for the fourth time in six seasons.

They have an offense that is better at gaining yards (seventh in the NFL) than scoring points (21st) and a defense that is better at limiting yards (10th) than preventing points (26th).

The 5-9 Chargers are one of four teams that can boast a top-10 offense and defense when measured in total yardage. The other three — the Rams, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers — are a combined 31-12.

Still, they arrive at this rematch riding their loftiest high of the season. The Chargers have won consecutive games for the first time since November of last year, both victories secured on their final drive.

Quarterback Justin Herbert has engineered three-point wins over Atlanta and Las Vegas to continue a season likely to end with him being named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year.

“This kid is the total package of what you want,” veteran cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “And great leadership. Guys feed off him. We try to rally around him. … Guys love him here. We expect to see great things from Justin every week now.”

Given their season, few things are guaranteed with the Chargers heading into 2021. Herbert’s potential to be the team’s next franchise quarterback could not be a greater certainty.

No rookie has had more games with at least 300 passing yards or at least three touchdowns. Herbert has won multiple weekly awards and was named the league’s top offensive rookie for October and November.

For weeks, he had been doing everything but winning. Now, he has back-to-back victories, too.

“Our identity is coming through Herbert,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “Super proud of him. We’re trying to back him up as much as we can by making plays for him because he’s giving us opportunities.”

The opportunities are drying up for the 2020 Chargers. On Sunday, they have one of their final shots at payback.

Etc.

The Chargers placed defensive end Uchenna Nwosu (knee) on the injured reserve list Saturday, ending his season.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.