April 13, 2024

The Chargers have underachieved and underwhelmed their way to three games under .500, a sunken position that has all but mathematically buried their playoff hopes.

A sophisticated simulation machine is not required to determine that this team has only a slim chance of playing beyond Week 18.

But, for the record, the sophisticated simulation machine developed by the New York Times puts the Chargers’ postseason chances at 9%.

“It’s definitely been tough,” safety Derwin James Jr. said Wednesday. “Not the way anyone would have predicted — even myself — coming into this season.”

James, most certainly, did not see this coming. In fact, nearly three months ago, he saw just the opposite.

That’s when James was asked why, after back-to-back seasons of ho-hum defense, he thought the Chargers would leap forward in 2023.

“A bunch of grown men coming together,” he explained in early September. “We’re not kids. We’re not little boys. When a bunch of grown men make up their minds and they’re tired of something, that’s when things change.”

Things have changed — only not for the better. The Chargers are the NFL’s poorest defense in yards passing allowed, their inability to prevent big plays continuing uninterrupted.

The leaky defense has torpedoed a season that began with lofty expectations, coach Brandon Staley convinced he finally had the defenders to execute his scheme.

On Sunday, the Chargers had probably their most encouraging performance in limiting AFC-best Baltimore to 20 points and a combined five of 16 on third and fourth down.

Although it appears too late to salvage their season — and perhaps save Staley’s job — the Chargers have an excellent chance to double-down defensively this weekend against a New England team that has a quarterback controversy.

The controversy, unfortunately for the Patriots, is whether Bailey Zappe or Mac Jones can generate any offense.

 Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) calls signals during a Week 12 game against the Giants.

Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) replaced starter Mac Jones in the second half of their game last week against the Giants.

(Bryan Woolston / Associated Press)

Then again, maybe Malik Cunningham will come off the practice squad to face the Chargers this weekend in Foxborough, Mass.

Asked Wednesday who he was preparing to defend, Staley answered, “All three.”

The reality is it really shouldn’t matter, New England’s offense struggling to the point where the Chargers should begin the day with the feeling of playing downhill.

Against the Ravens, Staley shook up his secondary by using Deane Leonard, Essang Bassey and Jaylinn Hawkins in place of Michael Davis, Ja’Sir Taylor and Dean Marlowe.

The defense improved notably as the Chargers didn’t allow Lamar Jackson to hijack the game or Baltimore to dominate possession, the Ravens running 69 plays and the Chargers 66.

It was the sort of showing that might have resulted in three or four more victories earlier this season. But, befitting the disjointed nature of their fall, the Chargers did it against an opponent still good enough to beat them.

James said the defense versus Baltimore “was the most we’ve been connected, I feel like, this season.” He praised the newcomers for seizing the opportunity and executing the plan.

Still, the Chargers failed to get a late stop that would have given quarterback Justin Herbert and the offense one more chance. The Chargers, for the third consecutive game, also didn’t secure a takeaway.

Even in its finest form yet, the defense wasn’t good enough, at least not against a Ravens team on its way to improving to 9-3.

“We executed for four quarters,” Staley said. “That’s what we have to build on. Our guys are playing hard. They’ve played hard the whole season, but our execution is what gave us the chance to win that football game.

“How we played in the critical situations in the game gave us a chance. I think the execution part is where we’re going to keep continuing our focus. That’s what we need to build off of.”

New England coach Bill Belichick told reporters Wednesday he wouldn’t announce who his starting quarterback will be against the Chargers. Last week, that player’s identity remained a mystery until just hours before kickoff.

Jones then started against the New York Giants, had two passes intercepted and was benched for the fourth time this season. Zappe replaced him and had another interception as the Patriots lost 10-7 in a game that featured 14 punts.

After Belichick’s media session Wednesday, Zappe took the first snaps of practice during media viewing, according to multiple reports, and then Cunningham followed.

So, this is what awaits the Chargers at Gillette Stadium, a reeling opponent that could help a defense plenty familiar with reeling.

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