Chargers rely on late-game ‘miracle’ to preserve win over Bengals
More than three hours of sputtering and grunting and grinding came down to the final swing of a leg Sunday for the Chargers.
Standing on the sideline, Josh Kelley, a rookie in his first NFL game, was as helpless as the rest of the offense as he watched a kicker named Randy Bullock line up a 31-yard attempt.
“Hopefully a block, something, some miracle,” Kelley explained later, when asked what he was thinking in the moment. “I was just hoping something would happen … some type of craziness. And it happened.”
Indeed it did as Bullock’s try started wide right and stayed that way, giving the Chargers a 16-13 victory that arrived in the form of an exhale as large as the entire organization.
For most of their 2020 opener, the Chargers struggled to find the end zone, finish opportunities and shake a Bengals team coming off a two-win season and starting a rookie quarterback.
But as Tyrod Taylor took a victorious knee to drain the last two seconds, the Chargers had survived and opened life after Philip Rivers with a win clinched largely with their running game and defense.
Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the top pick in the NFL draft, impressed the Chargers but Los Angeles’ defense came up with enough plays in a 16-13 win.
“I was happy as hell when he missed the field goal,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “We’re 1-0. Football games are hard to win in this league.”
The Chargers didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. They didn’t lead until the fourth quarter. They didn’t secure anything for certain until the fourth quarter was all but over.
“Regardless of what it looked like throughout the game,” Taylor said, “we were able to still stay focused and win.”
After 14 seasons and 224 consecutive regular-season starts, Rivers was not the Chargers’ quarterback Sunday. Taylor was, and he finished 16 of 30 for 208 yards.
But the offense opened by failing to convert four of its first five third downs and twice couldn’t convert on fourth down in the second quarter. The Chargers’ first six points were the result of two Michael Badgley field goals that felt more like consolation prizes.
Badgley also delivered the winning points on a 22-yard kick midway through the fourth quarter, but that field goal came when the offense couldn’t reach the end zone after having first-and-goal at the Bengals’ two-yard line.
“I think it’s a good thing when you can win under these circumstances,” Lynn said. “But there were several times when we could have closed this game out. I felt like we just didn’t have that killer instinct.”
The drive that produced the Chargers’ only touchdown was jump-started late in the third quarter by a 46-yard kickoff return by rookie Joe Reed.
Of the 10 plays that followed, seven were runs. Taylor went three for three for 25 yards, but Kelley and Austin Ekeler carried much of the way. Kelley finally put the Chargers in the end zone with a five-yard run, tying the score 13-13 slightly more than two minutes into the fourth quarter.
“I thought he created,” Lynn said of the first-year running back. “I thought his yards after contact was good. It would have been hard to win that game without Joshua today.”
Kelley finished with 60 yards on 12 carries, the Chargers compiling 155 yards on the ground. Ekeler had 84 yards on 19 attempts.
A native of Lancaster who played at UCLA, Kelley admitted he didn’t sleep much Saturday night. He said he was “definitely nervous” warming up pregame. Afterward, he talked about how fast NFL players are and how hard they hit.
But in between, he sparked an offense that needed it and capped the game’s most productive rookie debut on a day when the Bengals started No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow at quarterback.
In becoming the first new starting quarterback for the Chargers since 2006, Tyrod Taylor found limited success in Sunday’s win over the Bengals.
“He’s just a baller, since the first day he got here,” Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram said of Kelley. “He’s been running the ball with no regrets and it shows. Tonight, he showed the world. He’s here to play.”
Still, the Chargers needed to avoid one last slice of potential disaster to open the season with a victory.
With Cincinnati already out of timeouts, the Chargers had a chance to put the game away when they took possession following an Ingram interception with a little more than five minutes remaining. But the offense went three-and-out, eating up only two minutes. Kelley was stopped for no gain on third-and-one.
Josh Jacobs scores three touchdowns for the Las Vegas Raiders in their 34-30 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
“Golly, we gotta do our part and finish with the ball in our hands and run that clock out,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “If we can get that third-and-one … we gotta get that. That’s huge. That’s on all of us.”
The offense then had to stand idly by as Burrow led the Bengals inside the the Chargers’ five-yard line in the final 20 seconds.
On the play right before the missed field goal, Burrow hit A.J. Green for an apparent touchdown, but the three-yard score was nullified by offensive pass interference when Green pushed off cornerback Casey Hayward.
Bullock then came on, and the Chargers received the “miracle” and “craziness” for which Kelley had wished.
“Obviously, we’ve been on the other end of a lot of those games,” Henry said. “We’re 1-0. It might have been an ugly one the way we won it, but we won.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.