June 21, 2024

Their offense had a 400-yard passer and a 200-yard receiver. They gained 475 yards and yielded 475 more. They had an 11-point third-quarter lead and a three-point fourth-quarter deficit.

F-i-n-a-l-l-y, they secured their first win of the season Sunday when Kenneth Murray Jr. snatched a tipped ball inches above the end-zone turf on the 78th play the Chargers had to defend.

“I was so happy,” safety Alohi Gilman said, “because I was tired as hell.”

In a game that featured five lead changes and so much else that was too numerous to count, the Chargers beat Minnesota 28-24 to avoid an 0-3 start that might have buried their season.

They won on an afternoon during which they lost wide receiver Mike Williams to a potentially serious knee injury and safety Derwin James Jr. to a hamstring strain, though James afterward said, “I’ll be good.”

Chargers receiver Mike Williams is helped off the field after injuring his knee against the Vikings.

Chargers receiver Mike Williams is helped off the field after injuring his knee against the Vikings.

(Abbie Parr / Associated Press)

They won after coach Brandon Staley decided to go for it on fourth down deep in his territory late in the fourth quarter with a running back who, for the day, gained 12 yards on 11 carries.

They won despite giving up 367 yards passing to Kirk Cousins and 149 yards receiving to Justin Jefferson and yielding 29 first downs, seven of which came via Charger penalty.

But, to be certain, they won — behind Justin Herbert (40 of 47 for 405 yards and three touchdowns), Keenan Allen (18 receptions for 215 yards and a touchdown pass) and a defense that did just enough.

“That was a lot, man,” Gilman said. “I’m just happy we won. The way we did it at the end makes it even better.”

Starting with the finish, the Chargers kept the Vikings out of the end zone with just six seconds remaining when Cousins threw to tight end T.J. Hockenson near the goal line with linebacker Nick Niemann defending.

The ball popped into the air and through the hands of safety JT Woods, hanging up just long enough for Murray to make a diving grab a yard or two into the purple-painted end zone.

Kenneth Murray Jr. intercepts a pass in the end zone in the waning seconds to save the Chargers' win over the Vikings.

Kenneth Murray Jr. intercepts a pass in the end zone in the waning seconds to save the Chargers’ win over the Vikings.

(Abbie Parr / Associated Press)

“I just got my hands under it like I was at the park,” Murray said of his second career interception. “I could hear my teammates telling me, ‘Stay down!’ That was it. Get in the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.”

The play marked the Chargers’ second goal-line stop in the game’s final minutes. On Minnesota’s previous possession, the Chargers held after the Vikings had first-and-goal at the three-yard line.

During that sequence, Gilman, Murray and defensive tackle Austin Johnson stopped consecutive running plays before pressure forced a Cousins incompletion and cornerback Michael Davis thwarted Jefferson on fourth down.

For the game, the Chargers limited Minnesota to one touchdown in four red-zone trips — each a goal-to-go situation — and four of 14 on third down.

“We showed what we’re capable of,” said Niemann, who was playing for injured starter Eric Kendricks. “It’s just doing the simple things and everyone taking care of their jobs. Just go out there and do what you’re supposed to do.”

In between those dramatic defensive stands, Staley provided perhaps even higher drama with his decision to go for it on fourth-and-one from his 24-yard line with 1:57 remaining.

During his first season with the Chargers in 2021, Staley quickly earned an identity as a coach willing to push the fourth-down decisions when the analytics tilted in his favor.

He seemed to back down on his aggressiveness last season and into this season, including on a fourth-and-short at the Tennessee 44-yard line early in the second quarter last week.

But this time, Staley did not appear to hesitate. His reasoning postgame: the Chargers needed less than a yard, the Vikings were out of timeouts and the difference was four points, meaning Minnesota needed a touchdown.

“I felt like our defense could play the way it did down the stretch…” Staley said. “It’s your job as a head coach to make sure your team knows that you have belief in them.”

He continued: “We came here to win. It was a tough road game against a team that made the playoffs (in 2022). We were trying to go win the game. I make no apologies for that.”

The Chargers tried to run Joshua Kelley inside, but he was stopped for no gain. Before that snap, the offense had converted four fourth downs in a row going back to last weekend and was four of five for the season.

Staley said the possibility was there for the 6-foot-6 Herbert to try a sneak, but Minnesota took away that option with its defensive alignment.

Regardless, the Chargers survived, leaving U.S. Bank Stadium exhausted but also refreshed, standing upright but also limping.

Williams, the No. 2 receiver behind Allen and an explosive threat on a team with few explosive threats, was injured on third-quarter reception. He was helped off the field and had to be taken by cart to the locker room.

Staley offered no update following the game, the Chargers to learn more with further examination upon their return to Southern California.

Despite that potential significant loss, this was a team eager to celebrate a win it desired badly.

“We needed a test like this,” Gilman said. “We came together at the end. The only thing on our minds was staying together. Nothing else mattered.”

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