There was a point in the fourth quarter, after all the noise from the season’s first two weeks, where it looked like the Chargers season had reached a crossroads: Either this was going to be where a talented roster drove into a ditch, or where the dig out from 0–2 would start.
Is Brandon Staley’s job safe? Is Justin Herbert overrated? Is the roster ever gonna be maximized?
Those were the big picture questions asked on the outside over the last two weeks, after the Chargers let fourth-quarter leads slip against the Dolphins and Titans. And those questions looked like they were being validated again, against the Vikings, another proud playoff team trying to get going after an 0–2 start, with Minnesota quickly turning a 21–10 deficit into a 24–21 lead at the fourth quarter turn.
Staley, conversely, was more focused on, and buoyed by, the little-picture stuff he’d seen during the week, back in Orange County, Calif. Because that was the stuff, as he saw it, that was going to matter over the game’s final 10 minutes.
“The group that I looked at Monday after the Tennessee game when I got in front of them for our meeting, I know the group that I’m looking at,” Staley says. “Then when you get on the practice field Wednesday, you know the vibe. We practiced really well Wednesday, Thursday, Friday—I thought we practiced better Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. When I was in the team meeting [Saturday] night, it was a team that was ready to fight.
“We knew that this was going to be a tough game. That group is in the same position that we are. That group’s got a lot of pride because they were a playoff team too. We knew that we were going to get their best. I’ve said it time and time to you and to others that this team believes in itself. And we played like it.”
And mostly, the Chargers did after the Vikings took that lead. Los Angeles first marched 75 yards in seven plays to take the lead back, then stoned Minnesota inside the 10 on its last two possessions to preserve a 28–24 win.
Maybe it’s overstating it to characterize any Week 3 win as season-saving. But you could excuse Staley and his Chargers if they felt that way leaving Minneapolis.
And where the win could be a launching pad for a very-talented group is in how it happened, in that it revealed a mental toughness about the Chargers—one that’s been questioned in the past. That, too, wasn’t just about what was said before the game. It was also about what happened during the game. Star receiver Mike Williams went down and was carted off the field with what’s believed to be a season-ending knee injury in the third quarter. Derwin James Jr. left the game with a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter.
That left Staley and his staff to rely, really, on three things that would carry them through the clutch and to the win—and maybe to the places this team set out to go to in the first place.
• First, and most obviously, comes Herbert, of whom much has been expected this season. And his presence alone, Staley told me, was a bellwether for the whole roster when things got a little sketchy in the fourth quarter.
“No one’s ever going to believe we’re not going to win as long as Justin’s our quarterback,” Staley says. “We always feel like we’re going to win every game as long as he’s our quarterback.”
Simply put, when the Chargers needed him most, taking possession at Los Angeles’s 25-yard line with 11:20 left and down 24–21, Herbert gave them his very best. On what would become a seven-play, 75-yard, game-winning drive, the 25-year-old was nails, completing 5-of-6 throws for 82 yards. And that was even with a 23-yard connection to Keenan Allen called back for offensive pass interference, which wound up landing Herbert in the third-and-17 that led to probably his best play of the day, another 20-yard hookup with Allen.
"It was third down and forever,” Staley says. “He rolls left and throws it across the field to Keenan. And he just looks at our sideline. I said, Dude, you’re a bad man. You need performances like that against good teams on the road."
• Second, there was the guy on the other end of that connection.
The 31-year-old Allen gave the Chargers a day for the ages, with 18 catches for 215 yards, putting up a 49-yard touchdown pass to Williams to boot.
"He’s been there for me and for this team from day one,” Staley says. “This year, going into the year, I really talked to him about that plus-one that I need from him is that ‘it’ factor that he brings with his confidence and his swagger and just elevating everybody around him. What happened today was 10 and 13 just elevated everybody on offense. They had that swagger. They had that belief. Those two had a special connection.
“Today was one of those games where Justin was facing cover-zero pressure almost every snap, some type of pressure every snap, whether it was six- or seven-man pressure. To go 40-of-47 for 405 and have 18 of those completions go to Keenan, you need special performances like that on the road. They’re two of the special players in the league. Keenan shows you that, it’s a historical performance. He’s all-time NFL history, 15 catches or more, there’s no one better. I’m really lucky to coach him.”
Even more significant was how Allen kept going after Williams went down, notching four catches for 64 yards in the fourth quarter. And as for the touchdown pass, Staley says Allen’s been angling to sling one of those ever since missing Williams on a throw against the Chiefs two years ago. So Staley was pretty happy to check that box too. “He’s the type of guy that does everything well. He golfs. He plays basketball. He can win a quarterback challenge or two if he’s in it.”
• And third, just like Herbert and Allen, the defense stood tall when it needed to. After yielding big catch-and run touchdowns to K.J. Osborn and Justin Jefferson in the second half, plays that flipped the game, the Chargers defense flipped it back by stiffening in the red zone.
The first of the two biggest stops came with 2:57 left, and the Vikings in fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Michael Davis blanketed Justin Jefferson at the goal line and aggressively knocked Kirk Cousins’s throw to him away. The second came with 12 seconds left, and the Vikings at the Chargers’ 6-yard line, when Nick Niemann deflected a ball intended for T.J. Hockenson into the waiting arms of Kenneth Murray Jr.
"I thought our red zone defense won us the game today,” Staley says. “They were 1-of-4 down there, and I thought that we were close on the other one. I thought third downs and red zone were really good places for us today. They threw it 50 times. There’s going to be some yards in there, especially when you’ve got Justin Jefferson over there. We had to defend 78 plays because of those penalties.
“I just felt like our guys were attacking the ball. We were connected in coverage. Those two stops at the end of the game show you that this group has what it takes. It was a team effort today because Derwin went down.”
And so without James for now, and Williams probably for the season, the Chargers move forward with their year, knowing their toughness and will have been tested through three wild games that featured late lead changes, twists and turns.
Of course, Staley didn’t want to come out of it 1–2. But he does think, in a certain way, all this will serve the Chargers well.
“We’re battle tested,” Staley says. “We’ve played three really good teams, it’s not like we’ve been playing the bottom of the league. We’ve played playoff [type] teams in all three games, two of them on the road. We obviously lost a heartbreaker, the first one at home against a really good football team. Then we lost a game in overtime. I would be more concerned if we were getting blown out of the stadium or we weren’t playing well.
“It’s September. Our team is still discovering who it is. What I like is how hard our guys are playing. Our guys are playing hard and they’re giving us a chance every single day to win and we believe we’re going to win. Today we finally got that first taste of finishing a game.”
Then, Staley adds with an upbeat tone, “Don’t count us out.”
My guess is they’ll remember who did.