All wins count the same in the standings.
Yet, the emotion emanating from the locker room after the Los Angeles Chargers’ 23-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday night could be the catalyst to a late-season run and possibly getting to the playoffs for the first time in four years.
“It was very cathartic,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “That feeling of like, ‘OK, we’re staying on track. We still have playmakers.’ Especially when we get guys back, and they can do what we have expected from them and what we have been missing from them.”
Even quarterback Justin Herbert, who rarely shows emotion, was more demonstrative. Herbert gave a first-down signal after a 10-yard scramble during the fourth quarter that put the Chargers in the red zone, where they would later go up two scores on Cameron Dicker’s third field goal.
After the game, Herbert spiked a football as he entered the locker room.
“It was pretty cool to see Justin coming out of his routine a little bit more,” Ekeler said. “He is usually the same guy every time after a win or loss, as far as I know, what he is going to do. He is going to come in and get collected. He is going to go around and dap everybody up, make sure everyone is good, and then sit in his locker for the next 20 minutes and unwind.”
Los Angeles is 7-6 going into the final four games with the possibility of getting key players back.
They got a big lift from the return of Mike Williams, who had missed four of the past five games with a high ankle sprain. Williams had six receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown.
The defense, missing three starters, had one of their best games. They allowed two touchdowns to Tyreek Hill on explosive plays, including an improbable 57-yard fumble return.
Still, Miami never got into the red zone, as its deepest penetration was the LA 37. The Dolphins had only nine offensive plays in Chargers’ territory.
With the defense short-handed, coach Brandon Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill created a game plan that allowed some players that had their first extensive action to play comfortably.
“What you want to do is take an approach where you feel like you can get consistency from the group out there so that they can play fast,” Staley said. “Then, have enough disguise and variation within that grouping of what you’re playing — blitzes, coverages, all that — so they can get in a comfort zone.”
Staley said on Monday that he is hopeful defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day (knee) and cornerback Bryce Callahan (core muscle) can return to practice this week.
The return of key players should bolster a group that will try to avoid last season’s stretch run when the Chargers dropped three of their final four to fall out of postseason contention.
Herbert throwing a lot. The Chargers are 2-2 when Herbert has at least 50 attempts in a game. Herbert had his 21st 300-yard game and his 39 completions were the second most in a game in franchise history.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The Chargers made six trips into the red zone against the Dolphins, but only got into the end zone twice. They had to settle for field goals three times and turned it over on downs on their first trip after DeAndre Carter was stopped at the Miami 2 on fourth-and-goal. Los Angeles is near the bottom of the league in red zone efficiency, with 23 touchdowns in 48 trips.
Ja’Sir Taylor. The rookie defensive back, who had seen only 11 snaps on defense in his first 12 games, showed he could hold his own. The sixth-round pick played mostly slot cornerback with Bryce Callahan inactive and gave up three receptions for 43 yards while being targeted five times. He didn’t allow a reception to Hill the two times he was targeted in coverage.
Foster Sarell. The right tackle continues to struggle in pass protection. Sarell allowed six QB pressures against the Dolphins and has given up 16 in the three games he has started in place of the injured Trey Pipkins, who continues to work his way back from an MCL sprain to his left knee.
S Derwin James (quadriceps) remains day to day. Staley said he expects Pipkins to return to practice and TE Donald Parham (hamstring) to be activated off injured reserve. Staley also said it is possible that OT Rashawn Slater (biceps) could be back toward the end of the regular season. Slater suffered his injury on Sept. 25 against Jacksonville.
3-1 — Herbert’s record against other quarterbacks selected in the 2020 draft. Herbert is 1-1 against Tua Tagovailoa after Sunday's win. Herbert also has a win apiece over Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts.
The Chargers host the Tennessee Titans, who have dropped three straight for the first time since 2018. The AFC South leaders are the last team Los Angeles will face in the regular season with a winning record.
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