The “Fight for L.A,” the rallying cry created by the Chargers to introduce themselves to their new city, has been waged without many allies.
Critics saw empty seats in a miniature stadium in the preseason and scoffed. They saw late-arriving crowds and they cackled. In some cases — and definitely worse — they didn’t care at all.
Kickers missed kicks. Opportunities got wasted. And all — almost — was lost.
But in the penultimate week of the NFL season, the Chargers finally got themselves some help. And, in a Rod Serling-esque twist, the Los Angeles Rams, of all people, stepped in to help tag-team the Chargers closer to a spot in the playoffs.
Minutes after the Chargers gritted through a 14-7 win against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium, players inside the locker room locked their eyes to television screens and smart phones, watching the final seconds of the Rams’ game with Tennessee.
With the Chiefs already victors, clinching the AFC West with a win over Miami, a Titans comeback would’ve eliminated the Chargers from the postseason picture. With Marcus Mariota scrambling to keep a play alive on fourth down, the Rams’ defense slammed the door.
“Shout-out to Connor Barwin,” Chargers defensive tackle Damion Square said.
The Chargers’ path to the playoffs cleared a bit Sunday, thanks largely to the Rams. The Chargers can earn one of the AFC’s two wild-card spots if they can beat the Raiders at StubHub Center on Sunday, Baltimore beats Cincinnati and the Titans lose at home to Jacksonville.
The fact that the Chargers’ perceived “Fight for L.A.” competitors helped advance their cause is the latest in a season full of improbabilities.
Teams that go 0-4 don’t sniff the playoffs. Only one team has pulled that off and it happened 25 years ago. In an improbable twist, the San Diego Chargers were that team. To handle the gut-punching losses, the lukewarm reactions and a recent string of injuries, and still be in it entering the final week of the season doesn’t seem believable.
But here they are.
“I think that’s all we can ask for at this point — starting 0-4, digging the hole that we dug, to have a chance to be alive in Week 16,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Although there are games that you’re sick about, you’re excited to have a chance.”
Even after wins, regret has been a common theme. Players inside the locker room Sunday referenced losses to Miami and Jacksonville earlier this season as ones that are especially haunting as they look at the standings.
And, Sunday certainly had that potential. too.
The Jets, playing backup quarterback Bryce Petty, skipped passes all over the field, but seven points was their biggest deficit.
“I’ll tell you what,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said, “most games in the National Football League are grind-it-out like that.”
In the first quarter, punts for both teams outnumbered first downs. The Chargers finally managed to score thanks to Rivers and Antonio Gates connecting for the second straight week. But while the defense dominated, all it took was one play, a 57-yard touchdown run by Bilal Powell, to put everything in peril.
But unlike last week in Kansas City, the Chargers stayed poised in the face of danger.
“Looking back at [last week], we all were — including me — like, ‘We’ve got to do this,’ rather than just played like we did when we felt free, when we were digging ourselves out of an 0-4 hole,” Rivers said. “I thought we did a better job of that today. It was the same deal today. It was all on the line today. We lose today and it’s over, regardless of what else happened. I didn’t think we played tight today. We played free.”
Melvin Gordon scored a go-ahead touchdown, the defense held and the Chargers won — and then tightened right back up.
With the Rams clinging to a lead, players and staff members gathered in the locker room around Rivers’ phone to catch the final moments in Tennessee before it finally aired on the TVs. When the Rams iced the game, the room erupted in cheers.
“That wouldn’t have been very fun to see the Titans throw a touchdown pass with a minute left, right after we won a game, to essentially eliminate us,” Rivers said.
Sunday, it was the Rams’ turn to help a team that’s largely had to help itself after such a horrendous start.
“The 0-4 start sucked. It really sucked. But I think it brought us together as a team,” Chargers tackle Joe Barksdale said. “Everyone on the outside is dogging you, people have already given up on you, so it’s easier to come together as a unit and rely on each other. And I feel like that same kind of resiliency is the same thing that helped us go on that run and helped us today.”
The Chargers will need new allies next week to get into the playoffs — Baltimore and Jacksonville at the top of that list. They forfeited the right to fend for themselves by getting walloped in Kansas City.
But they’re still fighting.
“We knew we were going to battle,” Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward said. “We started off so slow this season. We’ve put ourselves in a better position even though we don’t control our own destiny.
“But, we’re still in it. You’re never out until they say, ‘You don’t have a chance.’