Austin Ekeler was knocked “a little dizzy,” according to his coach.
Darius Philon didn’t play for a few snaps because of a hurting lower leg.
Joey Bosa finished despite what he called “a little dislocation” of his pinky.
And then the Chargers had to overcome the real obstacle Sunday to beat Cincinnati 26-21, an obstacle that wasn’t physical at all.
“They showed good mental toughness preparing for this game because everybody wanted us to talk about Pittsburgh,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “If it wasn’t Pittsburgh, it was Kansas City. This team was dangerous.”
Between their stirring comeback win over the Steelers and four days before their headlining AFC West showdown with the Chiefs, the Chargers encountered the stumbling Bengals, who have won only once since Oct. 7.
The meeting wasn’t easy or pretty. It wasn’t much of anything other than a win, the Chargers’ ninth in 10 games. And, in an NFL December, that’s all that really matters.
“Win the game, that’s what it’s about,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “If we would have lost, it would have been bad. It’s just about winning these games now no matter who you’re playing.”
The victory allowed the Chargers to maintain a three-game lead for the conference’s top wild-card spot. Kansas City remained a game up in the division by beating Baltimore 27-24 in overtime.
The Chargers and Chiefs will meet Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium. A Chargers victory would pull them even in the West, though the Chiefs still would hold the tiebreaker (division record).
The Chargers hope to have Melvin Gordon for the game, the running back sitting out the last two games because of a sprained ligament in his right knee.
Ekeler, who suffered “a stinger” Sunday when the Chargers’ secured the victory by recovering an onside kick, said he should be “all right” moving forward.
This win came only after a sustained struggle, the Chargers scoring nothing but field goals after the first nine seconds of the second quarter.
Each of their final eight possessions ended with a kick — four field goals and four punts. They gained only 133 yards and picked up only eight first downs after the first quarter.
“It’s things that I think we can fix, you know, execution-wise,” Lynn said. “So, we’ll make the corrections … and we’ll keep it moving.”
The three quarters of offensive lull followed two 75-yard touchdown drives to open the game, the Chargers making the Bengals defense look very much like the NFL-worst that it was going into the game.
Philip Rivers passed 14 yards to Keenan Allen for the first score and Ekeler barreled in from five yards for the second.
Those two series featured eight plays that gained at least 10 yards, including runs of 18 and 15 yards by Ekeler.
But over the remainder of the game, the Chargers produced only two more such plays.
Whatever flow the offense developed early disappeared as the Chargers started three consecutive series deep in their territory, two of them at the seven-yard line. The ground attack, in particular, ground to an immediate halt.
“The running game was popping early,” Lynn said. “We just got out of rhythm a little bit. We tried to get back in rhythm in the second half. We even tried to force the run a little bit.”
With all their other offensive parts stalled, the Chargers turned to the foot of rookie Michael Badgley, who was sitting at home in New Jersey looking for work when the season began.
Signed in October by the Chargers after Caleb Sturgis was injured, Badgley took over for the struggling Sturgis for good five games ago.
On Sunday, he kicked field goals of 31, 32, 45 and a franchise-record 59 yards, making him 14 of 15.
“We didn’t get to practice field goals Thursday because of the rain,” Lynn said, jokingly. “So we practiced today, I guess.”
The victory wasn’t clinched until the Chargers’ defense, with the score 23-21, stopped a two-point conversion with 1 minute 50 seconds remaining.
Jeff Driskel dropped back but could only hold the ball while waiting for a target to become open.
“My back was to the quarterback,” Hayward said. “I heard the crowd go wild. I assume we made a play.”
It was Philon who did so, breaking through to sack Driskel and end the Bengals’ last threat.
The play marked the third time this season that the Chargers have won in part because of a defensive stand in the final two minutes.
“I just felt awesome,” Philon said. “I can’t even explain it. I just helped my team get the ‘W.’ That’s the main thing.”