After three hours of football, an end to eight weeks of uneven performances and the return of a ground game rumored to be dead, the notion finally hit Austin Ekeler.
“I was taking a shower thinking, ‘This is what it used to be like,’ ” the Chargers running back said. “ ‘Let’s get back to this feeling.’ We just gotta keep riding this now.”
One day after all the clocks turned back, Ekeler and his teammates revisited 2018 with a rather stunning and lopsided 26-11 victory over the favored Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Dignity Health Sports Park.
The Chargers controlled the ball and the pace, dominated quarterback Aaron Rodgers and suddenly, with absolutely no warning, looked like the team that came within one victory of the AFC title game a season ago.
“This should be a huge confidence booster,” safety Rayshawn Jenkins said. “We gotta make that bolt mean something again. I feel like it’s starting to now. We gotta get back to the football we can play, like today.”
After opening the season with an overtime victory against Indianapolis, the Chargers dropped five of six games to tumble head-first toward oblivion, an unexpected and unsightly development for a team thought to be among the AFC’s finest.
Things turned so sour that after ending a losing streak at three games last weekend at Chicago, the Chargers lost their offensive coordinator when Ken Whisenhunt was fired.
That move and the promotion of quarterbacks coach Shane Steichen to play caller apparently was so effective that it inspired the offense and the defense.
Despite struggling to reach the end zone, the Chargers still opened a 26-3 lead early in the fourth quarter and limited Rodgers to 61 yards passing and six first downs until Green Bay’s final two possessions.
“I think we kept it simple and kept it flowing,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “It was good to get everything rolling. When we kinda got them on their heels, we kept pushing.”
Playing more up-tempo and often going with what Ekeler described as a “half huddle,” the offense rediscovered the rhythm and balance that had been missing of late.
Philip Rivers completed 21 of 28 passes for 294 yards. Mike Williams caught three passes for 111 yards, the first 100-yard game of his career. Henry finished with seven receptions for 84 yards.
The biggest news, however, was the reemergence of the running attack, which hadn’t produced as many as 40 yards in a game since Sept. 29 in Miami.
Against the Packers, the Chargers ran 38 times for 159 yards. Melvin Gordon carried 20 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns. Ekeler finished with 12 rushes for 70 yards.
“I think our run game was pretty simple,” Ekeler said, “and I think that helped, as well. We ran probably four, five different run plays, and that’s it. So it’s easy to get into a rhythm.”
It certainly helped that the Chargers, in a stark departure from the last four weeks, actually took and held the lead Sunday.
During their three-game losing streak, their only lead lasted barely three minutes. Last week against the Bears, the Chargers had the lead and the ball for 31 seconds.
But they never trailed in this game, opening a 9-0 halftime edge on three field goals by Michael Badgley, whose 2019 debut was a productive one after sitting out because of a groin injury.
Badgley kicked a field goal early in the third quarter before the Chargers finally reached the end zone on Gordon’s one-yard run to make it 19-0.
After the Packers had scored their first points on a Mason Crosby 54-yard field goal, the Chargers effectively decided the game early in the fourth quarter by taking three more points from Badgley off the scoreboard.
Facing fourth and goal, coach Anthony Lynn chose to again deploy Badgley, who converted the 19-yard attempt. The Packers were called for offside, however, and Lynn decided to send the offense back on the field and try for a touchdown.
“We had a chance to extend the lead … make a statement,” Lynn said. “And we did it.”
Gordon again followed fullback Derek Watt over the left side of the offensive line and into the end zone.
Sunday represented a rebirth for Gordon, who had produced little in his four games since returning from an ill-fated contract holdout. He looked more decisive and elusive, more dangerous, at one point even spectacularly hurdling Green Bay cornerback Chandon Sullivan in the open field on a 16-yard gain.
Lynn’s choice to go for the touchdown, and the Packers’ throats, on fourth and goal was a much-appreciated boost.
“It shows his confidence in us as an offense, and that’s what you need, especially during this time, when our backs are against the wall,” Gordon said. “We have to have faith, have to know that everyone around us has faith in us to get it done.”
The Chargers restored some faith in the future and did so in the oddest of ways: by making it feel like 2018 again.