Depleted Chargers clash with Falcons in struggle against mediocrity

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler carries against the Denver Broncos during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Inglewood. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Running back Austin Ekeler says the verdict could be coming for the Chargers, who have struggled with injuries and inconsistent results this season while playing the easiest schedule in the NFL. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

If the playoffs began today, the Chargers would be the AFC’s seventh seed and play in the wild-card round at Tennessee.

There’s no question about that.

There is, however, another question to ponder at the moment:

Are the Chargers actually that good?

“You’re trying to figure it out, too, huh?” running back Austin Ekeler said, smiling. “I guess we’ll find out. I’m not sure if anyone knows right now.”

In this most so-so of NFL seasons — entering Sunday, only 13 of the league’s 32 teams had winning records — the Chargers and their injury riddled revolving roster continue to elude classification.

Yes, they are one of those 13 winning teams at 4-3. And, yes, during one stretch they won three in a row, including two on the road, something not to be flippantly tossed aside in a sport where success away from home is never easy.

Yet the Chargers have won ugly against teams that, to this point, have offered largely indifferent resistance.

Based on the 2022 win-loss records, the Chargers have played the easiest schedule in the league so far. At 21-32-1, their opponents have a winning percentage of .398.

Coupled with all the injuries that have compromised a roster that looked so much more imposing in training camp, the Chargers are left searching for their identity and potential.

“The injuries just put more stress on your team,” Ekeler said. “You have guys who have to step up into new roles and there’s more uncertainty when that happens. You’re just not sure how guys are going to respond until they get out there.”

Sunday in Atlanta, the Chargers will play without their top two wide receivers, their left tackle, one of their edge rushers, one of their cornerbacks and their kicker.

That’s just among the starters, the absences including four reigning Pro Bowl players and two team captains.

How much is this team hurting? Having just received a break with their off week, the Chargers somehow still managed to become less healthy.

Receiver Keenan Allen, defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, kicker Taylor Bertolet and tight end Donald Parham Jr. will sit out the game against the Falcons after aggravating previous injuries and suffering new ones since the Chargers last played on Oct. 23 against Seattle.

Then, on Friday, receiver/kick returner DeAndre Carter suddenly appeared on the team’s injury report as being limited in practice because of an illness. He is questionable for Sunday.

Still, the NFL’s schedule grinds on, the Chargers trying to avoid being chewed up in the process.

“For us right now, we have our jobs on the line,” said Ekeler, who came off the injury report Friday after dealing with an abdominal issue. “We have to expect the most from ourselves and our teammates, no matter who’s out there, because it’s more than just football for us. It’s our livelihoods.”

A closer look reveals the less-than-demanding path the Chargers have traveled to reach their current position in the AFC standings.

They have beaten four teams — two in third place and two in fourth place — with a combined record of 9-21-1.

They have lost to three teams — two in first place and one in third place — with a combined record of 12-11.

Even with the lingering question about his team’s status leaguewide, coach Brandon Staley said he has seen enough of his Chargers at full strength — mostly in practice — to appreciate their collective capability.

He also said the duress his players have experienced can only help them over the season’s final 10 weeks.

“I think that has been healthy for us,” Staley said, “to get our nose bloody, to have to go play some tough, rugged games, to have some attrition and to have to be able to figure it out. I think that’s healthy for the rest of the season because you have already had to make a lot of those adjustments.”

The Chargers on Sunday play another opponent that’s in first place, 4-4 Atlanta sitting atop the NFC South.

There’s also this to remember: While the Chargers have had the easiest schedule to date, the Falcons have arrived at .500 while playing the third easiest.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.