So, what now for the Chargers?
With little reason to believe club executives will come to their collective senses any time soon and dismiss coach Brandon Staley — and maybe make it a two-for-one deal by also bidding farewell to general manager Tom Telesco — the Chargers’ playoff chances have come down to one narrow and perilous path.
For them to have the faintest chance of qualifying for postseason play after their turnover-marred 20-10 loss to the AFC-leading Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night dropped their record to 4-7 and gave them their first three-game losing streak under Staley, they must win out.
“For sure. That’s exactly what it is,” wide receiver Quentin Johnston said.
And that’s exactly the problem. A team this talented, a team with quarterback Justin Herbert using his legs Sunday at SoFi Stadium to lead the Chargers in rushing yards with 47, shouldn’t be losing so many close games and shouldn’t be in this predicament.
Their loss to the Ravens (9-3) was another of the achingly close-yet-so-far deficits the Chargers have faced this season — at least until wide receiver Zay Flowers dashed around left end to give Baltimore breathing room with 1 minute and 44 seconds left.
Five of the Chargers’ seven losses have been by three points or fewer. That’s a lot of coulda-shoulda-woulda regrets.
“We’ve had a lot of close games this year,” Johnston said. “It always just seems to come down to last-minute plays or our execution not good enough, which we’re just going to have to keep going back as a team and fixing it.”
Staley said the close losses are a sign players are still buying into his messaging, “otherwise you’d get blown out of the stadium. And that hasn’t happened.”
True enough. Before Sunday, their only double-digit defeat this season was a 31-14 loss at Kansas City on Oct. 22.
But those narrow defeats inflict a thousand small, sharp cuts each time, and Staley acknowledged Sunday that each one stings more than the ones that came before.
This team should, by now, be better at finishing strong. Add to that a dollop of frustration that this has happened again and again and again.
“It means a lot to these guys and I feel like our guys know the quality that we have and we just have to hang tough. It’s not the popular answer but it’s the right answer,” Staley said. “We’ve got to hang tough, we’ve got to keep working at our game in all three phases. And if we do that, then you’re going to see good football from this team.”
Their four turnovers Sunday doomed them, though the Chargers weren’t really out of it until Flowers’ 37-yard touchdown run. The crowd, which occasionally broke out in chants of “Fire Staley,” was solidly behind them in the late going.
“We were right there in the fourth quarter with a chance to win, despite three turnovers. And so that’s what our season has been. It’s been tight and we haven’t been able to finish some of these games, and that’s what we need to keep working at,” Staley said.
“We need to keep working on all three phases in order to close these games out as a team. It’s not going to be one phase to win it. We’ve got to make sure that when it gets tight, that we come alive and make the winning plays. That’s going to be where our focus is.”
They will take the first step Sunday at the 2-9 New England Patriots, who have lost four straight. After that, the Chargers play Denver at home, travel to Las Vegas, play Buffalo at home, travel to Denver for a New Year’s Eve game, and finish at home against Kansas City.
There are at least three winnable games in that stretch. But instead of doing the math and looking at the big picture, Staley is zeroing in on the immediate task at hand. He can’t win them all unless he wins the next one.
“Our focus is on beating New England. That’s where our focus needs to be,” he said. “The AFC is wide open. It will be until the end, like it has been. So the only way that we’re going to have a shot is if we beat New England, and that’s where our focus needs to go right now.”
Herbert also said he’s taking the future in small, digestible bites.
“We’re just focused one week at a time,” said Herbert, who completed 29 of 44 passes for 217 yards Sunday with one touchdown and one interception after completing merely nine of 13 passes for 79 yards in the first half.
That’s really all they can do, and it might not be enough. Johnston, at least, remains optimistic about the win-out scenario.
“I have no doubt that we’ll get it done,” he said. “We’ve just got to put these last few games behind us and keep moving forward.”
They have no choice. And, now, no margin for error.
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