Three minutes into the third quarter of their Oct. 10 visit to Los Angeles, the Cleveland Browns held a 14-point lead on their way to a 42-point, 530-yard afternoon and, seemingly at the time, a fourth victory.
Instead, a game featuring 13 touchdowns, including three on runs by Austin Ekeler in the final 7 minutes, 24 seconds, and nine lead changes overall ended with the host Chargers securing their fourth win. By totaling 26 points in the final quarter, L.A. outlasted Cleveland, 47-42.
Guided by first-year head coach Brandon Staley and led by second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, the late Chargers rally resulted in the team’s best five-game start to a season since 2014.
But a week later, having been gashed for 230 yards on the ground by the Browns, the Bolts gave up 187 more rushing yards in Baltimore. Only this time their offense offered few answers, as they succumbed to the Ravens, 34-6.
Their Week 5-6 variation was nothing new for one of the NFL’s most annually enigmatic teams, regardless of its location (from San Diego to L.A.), coach (from Marty Schottenheimer to Norv Turner to Staley) or quarterback (from Drew Brees to Philip Rivers to Herbert).
Usually talented (especially offensively) and always stylish (either in Navy or light blue and gold), the Chargers haven’t had the look of a serious Super Bowl contender in more than a decade. Often, when appearing on the verge of a breakthrough, they’ve slid backward.
In 2018, under head coach Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles was loaded on offense at the skills spots and led on defense by rising young stars Joey Bosa and Derwin James. After a Wild Card win at Baltimore and lopsided Divisional loss to the Patriots in Foxborough, the next step forward seemed imminent the following fall.
However, they finished 5-11, before beginning 2020 with a 3-9 record. Last among those losses was a 45-0 embarrassment to the Pats last December.
“One of the worst football games I’ve ever been a part of in my 30 years in the National Football League as a player and a coach,” Lynn said. “That was unacceptable and embarrassing.”
A few years earlier, Lynn had been rightfully heralded for his leadership through the franchise’s move from San Diego and transition without a home-field advantage while playing at a soccer-first stadium. A month later, despite closing out with four straight wins, Lynn was let go.
His successor, the 38-year-old Staley, was hired off the staff of Los Angeles’ other team. Like Lynn early on, he’s been largely lauded.
With a defensive scheme predicated on limiting big plays and trying the patience of opponents; calculated fourth-down attempts (7 conversions in the first 8 tries); and the continued development of Herbert throwing to one of the league’s best receiver groups, Staley had the Bolts atop the AFC West entering Week 6.
But now in Week 8, the Chargers are a half game behind Las Vegas, whom they defeated, 28-14, on Oct. 3. And as they entertain the 3-4 Patriots at SoFi Stadium, they’re faced with two challenges all too familiar.
If the Pats can take advantage of each, they should put themselves in position to continue another irritating constant for their AFC counterparts, as winners of their last six encounters.