May 23, 2024

He had put away the game minutes earlier and now was trying to put context to the Chargers’ recent reality.

Of the two, securing a 51-yard, third-down converting pass from Justin Herbert in the closing minutes against Las Vegas was probably the easier endeavor.

Surrounded by reporters in the winning locker room two weeks ago, Joshua Palmer called it “quite frustrating” that his team seems committed to playing only breath-stealing games decided in frantic, frenzied fourth quarters.

If not later than that.

“We know we can defeat these teams easily,” Palmer explained after practice several days later. “When it’s close and you see all the little things that we didn’t do in the moment, it’s like, ‘Dang, if we just had done this or just done that.’ But it’s the game, right? That’s sports.”

And that — most definitely — is the Chargers’ fate of late, their clearly established modus operandi, which could be Latin for “increasingly maddening, theatrical and tortuous ways to decide football games.”

Since Week 9 of last season and including the playoffs, the Chargers have produced one-score finishes 13 times in 15 games. That’s 86.7%.

During that same stretch entering the weekend, the rest of the NFL had played one-possession games at a frequency of 52.4%, 118 of 225.

If the Chargers author another tight finish Monday night against Dallas, quarterback Justin Herbert will — in the course of barely 11 months — match the number of one-score games he played in four years at Oregon.

“We’re trying to win by more than one score, I can promise you that,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “But the NFL is full of battles. Maybe, in a weird way, it’s almost better. If you can keep winning those games, it builds character, right?”

The Chargers are 6-7 in those 13 one-score finishes, meaning they haven’t quite broken even in regard to any character-building benefits.

After beating the Raiders 24-17 on Oct. 1, coach Brandon Staley dismissed the suggestion that the Chargers have been involved in an unusual number of tight games.

He said that, unlike college football where lesser opponents can be scheduled, the NFL doesn’t serve cupcakes. Staley said he didn’t understand “why it’s such a surprise that all these games are close … that’s just the way the NFL is.”

Still, the Chargers began the weekend as one of only two teams yet to play a game decided by more than eight points this season. The other team was Minnesota.

Of course, the Chargers and Vikings met in Week 3 in Minneapolis, where the game ended 28-24 — in the Chargers’ favor — after an interception in the final 10 seconds.

Several Chargers polled in the days leading up to their Monday night date with Dallas said they had no theories as to why this team remains stuck on the NFL’s one-score hamster wheel.

Other than citing an unspoken flair for drama, the players seemed content to simply accept that their jobs will require some squirming as the clock drains to all zeroes.

“It’s like when you study for a test and then a question comes up on the test and you can’t remember the answer,” Palmer said. “You know the answer but can’t think of it. So you maybe overthink it and get it wrong. It feels sort of like that.”

Chargers wide receiver Joshua Palmer opens his mouth in celebration of his touchdown.

Chargers wide receiver Joshua Palmer celebrates his touchdown against the Cowboys in a 2022 preseason game.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Chargers have played in six consecutive one-score games after back-to-back sizable victories over the Rams and Indianapolis Colts in Weeks 16 and 17 last season.

They’ve gone 2-4 during that time despite having a lead of at least seven points in each game. Four times, they’ve had double-figure advantages, including in two games they lost.

“When we’re up, nobody in this locker room is easing up or thinking the game’s over,” cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor said. “Those guys on the other side of the ball get paid too.”

Despite the angst to which the Chargers have subjected their fans, the players said there’s no palpable anxiety in the huddle or on the sidelines when the time remaining shrinks and the significance of every play swells.

It seems that being closer to the heat means feeling more chill.

“You’re so focused on what’s happening on the field that, unless you’re up by 30 or 40, you’re just locked in,” Ekeler said. “You’re not out there thinking, ‘Oh, boy, here’s another one-score game.’ ”

Said Palmer: “You don’t really have time to feel your emotions. I don’t feel my emotions until after the game. In the moment, there are no emotions.”

Taylor, in fact, explained that he experiences more pressure in practices that are designed to expose players to increased internal fire.

“That’s where it’s more stressful because we’re going over tons of different things just to prepare,” he said. “When the game finally comes, it’s easy to relax and play free because you’re prepared.”

And now come the Cowboys, whose most recent visit to SoFi Stadium to face the Chargers happened in September 2021, when Dallas won 20-17 on a field goal as time expired.

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