Column: Chargers’ tenacity finally starting to show even if it’s too late to save season

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert speaks with coach Anthony Lynn.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert speaks with coach Anthony Lynn during a 19-16 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Sure, now the Chargers win three games in a row, long after their path to the playoffs closed and the only suspense left in their season is guessing how many NFL records will be rewritten by rookie quarterback Justin Herbert.

The Chargers’ 19-16 victory over Denver on Sunday at SoFi Stadium was built on contradictions, of sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back. Playing with a lineup depleted by injury and illness, they surrendered a double-digit lead for the fifth time in 15 games but beat another non-playoff team on an unlikely grand slam’s worth of field goals by Michael Badgley — who leads the NFL in missed field goals — and a last-minute interception by wide receiver-turned-defensive back Mike Williams.

Their victory was part improvisation, part determination, and never sure. But after coming up with an astonishing number of ways to lose one-score games over the past few seasons the Chargers’ last four wins have been by a single score, commendable for their resolve if not their form.


“I’m obviously happy to win games. I don’t care how we win them. I just want to win games,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “But every now and then I would like to win one that’s not a one-score game, sure.”

After reclaiming the lead on a late field goal by Michael Badgley, the Chargers extend their winning streak to three games with a victory over the Broncos.

Dec. 27, 2020

The Chargers are 2-6 against AFC West opponents — two more division wins than they had last season — and at 6-9 with one game to go, they’ve improved on last season’s 5-11 record. But they should have been better than a bad team that has had had to scrap and claw to beat other bad teams.

The season might have been different if the tenacity they’ve displayed the past few weeks had appeared earlier and if injuries hadn’t hit them so hard. And if their offensive schemes were more imaginative and bolder. But they are who they are and they are where they are. Players have come to terms with that.

“You don’t get frustrated because it’s a so, what now mentality. Once we lost those games it’s on to the next,” rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. said Sunday. “To be able to get these last few wins is exactly what I expected the team to do, and just continue to fight it out. Because we signed up for 16 games and we need to play all 16 to the best of our ability.”

Club executives will have to sort out what this winning streak means and if an upward-trend justifies retaining Lynn and his debatable play-calling next season. It was interesting that Herbert made a point on Sunday of praising his teammates and coaches, suggesting Lynn’s voice is still heard and given weight.

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs clinch the top seed in the AFC playoffs after escaping with a 17-14 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Dec. 27, 2020

“I know that in that locker room no one is going to give up,” Herbert said after he engineered his third straight winning drive, which was capped by Badgley’s 37-yard field goal with 41 seconds left in the fourth quarter.


“No one gave up on us when we lost some close games and everyone believes in this team and we believe in the coaching staff, we believe in the players in that locker room. Whether it’s practice or games, people are going to show up and give us their best effort. I’m honored to be a part of this locker room and this team as well.”

Herbert added to his growing legend on Sunday. His 28th passing touchdown of the season gave him the rookie single-season record for passing scores, breaking the record of 27 Baker Mayfield set in 2018. His 253 passing yards, on a 21-for-33 performance, gave him 4,034 passing yards this season, fourth-most by a rookie in NFL history. He and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes are the only players in NFL history to exceed 4,000 passing yards in their first 14 starts. Herbert needs six completions to pass Carson Wentz’s rookie record of 379 completions. That’s easily attainable for him in the Chargers’ finale next week at Kansas City, where the Chiefs are unlikely to play many first-string players.

Herbert is taking all he can from every experience, reveling in the camaraderie of the team’s rare wins and wringing lessons from their losses. “You have to be tough,” he said. “As tough as it is sometimes, when you throw picks, you throw incompletions, you lose games. It’s adversity and it’s going to happen and it’s all about how you react to it….

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Chargers’ 19-16 victory over the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Sunday.

Dec. 27, 2020

“In the NFL you’ve got to kind of find a way to win games and there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it and we kind of experienced that in the first half of the season. But as these games have gone on, I think our team has begun to learn and we’ve gotten better and we’ve watched the film, we’ve had good weeks of practice and we’ve gotten better. And that’s one of the best things to see. And I know that no one is going to give up. It’s been great to see.”

Cornerback Chris Harris also said he has seen no one surrender. “We want to finish strong, finish the season strong and have momentum coming into next year, and we got one more game to do it,” he said.

Momentum doesn’t usually carry over from one NFL season to the next, but attitudes and expectations can become entrenched. With Herbert leading them, the Chargers have a chance to establish a winning culture and reach the point where a three-game winning streak will be a jumping-off point to success and not the highlight of their season.