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Bolting in right direction? Chargers look to end AFC West woes in Denver

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, center, celebrates with teammates after scoring on a touchdown run.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, center, celebrates with teammates after scoring on a touchdown run against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In the end, the result meant nothing in the standings, the most memorable scene from the day ultimately being a halftime performance of mutton busting.

Indeed, small children riding sheep triumphed over the Chargers’ 23-9 victory at Denver.

The date was Dec. 30, 2018, which might sound like a long time ago and certainly is a long time ago in the context of the Chargers not winning an AFC West game since.

Coach Anthony Lynn’s team now returns to Denver trying to end a seven-game divisional losing streak.

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The only team with more consecutive defeats within its division is Detroit with eight, the Lions being the type of franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991.

“We talk about it a little bit,” Chargers left tackle Sam Tevi said. “The more we talk about it and more salty we get.”

Back in that 2018 regular-season finale, the Chargers had a chance to win the AFC West title, if Kansas City had lost to Oakland. That chance disappeared when the Chiefs clobbered the Raiders 35-3.

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Those results locked the Chargers into a wild-card spot, and, the next week they went on the road to beat Baltimore before being eliminated at New England.

Talking about the Chargers and the postseason also might seem dated, particularly with this team sitting at 2-4 and just a week removed from ending a four-game losing streak.

On the plus side for Lynn and his players, the Broncos also are 2-4 and lost their most recent game 43-16, to the Chiefs.
“I don’t think we care who’s in front of us,” defensive end Joey Bosa said, downplaying the significance of finally securing an AFC West victory. “We just want to get back to .500 and keep rolling.”

Six of the seven straight division losses for the Chargers have been by one score. The average result: 24-19.

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The futility in the AFC West has come during a stretch when the Chargers have gone 7-16 since winning that playoff game against the Ravens.

A day after Ryan Groy’s positive coronavirus test prompted the Chargers to cancel practice, the team is adjusting its focus back on the Denver Broncos.

By beating one-win Jacksonville a week ago, they at least reacquainted themselves with what success feels like, their hope now being that a little can lead to a lot.

“Any time you win, you carry a little momentum,” Lynn said. “I think momentum is important. So we’ve got to try to keep that going.”

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The fact the Chargers and Broncos are still closing in on an on-time kickoff is news enough. Both teams had to cancel recent practices after positive coronavirus tests.

Because of the virus and a biceps injury, Ryan Groy will be out for the Chargers. He has started the last three games at right guard in place of the injured Trai Turner.

The Chargers did activate Trey Pipkins from the COVID-19 reserve list Saturday after he was forced to isolate because of close contact with Groy. Pipkins has been starting at right tackle in place of Bryan Bulaga, who has a back problem.

Still, with their other injuries, the Chargers could start their fourth different offensive line of the season Sunday as they attempt to cobble together a group that can protect Justin Herbert and give a struggling running game a chance.

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One option to return upfront is Tyree St. Louis, who hasn’t played since Week 4 but has started a pair of games at right guard.

Lynn, mentioning St. Louis’ versatility to also play tackle, referred to him Friday as “a healthy body,” something that is, in fact, notable in that position group.

The play of the offensive front figures to be key against a Denver defense that is among the best in the league. Only seven teams have permitted fewer yards on average than have the Broncos, who rank 10th against the run.

Chargers placed guard Ryan Groy on the reserve COVID-19 list but are not sure if anyone else is infected. They could be short-handed on offensive line vs. Broncos.

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The Chargers have sputtered on the ground since losing Austin Ekeler in Week 4 because of a hamstring strain. Josh Kelley and Justin Jackson have been unable to establish consistency.

“I’m looking for someone to take over that backfield,” Lynn said. “Right now, you’re just throwing a guy in here, a guy in there. I want someone to get in and get in a rhythm and just take over.”

As they continue to search for a solution, the Chargers will encounter the player who used to be their answer at running back. Melvin Gordon is now leading Denver in rushing.

Gordon, who spent five years with the Chargers, signed as a free agent with the Broncos in March after a failed contract holdout saw him miss four games to start last season.

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“Gonna be fun,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “I know he’s going to be excited to go against us. He’s a hard runner. ... “We’re going to get a chance to hit him a little bit. I’m pretty sure he’s going to try to run angry like he normally does.”

Emotion should bubble between these AFC West rivals as the Chargers attempt to feel something they haven’t felt after a division game in 22 months.

Etc.

Defensive back Desmond King was ruled out for Sunday for reasons not injury related, the Chargers announced. King also missed a game last season under similar circumstances.


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