Despite mishaps, Chargers find road to a good start in win over Washington

Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams (81) celebrates his deciding touchdown catch with teammate Josh Palmer (5).
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams (81) celebrates his deciding touchdown catch against the Washington Football Team with teammate Josh Palmer (5).
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

They ran 10 plays, moved 75 yards and scored a touchdown barely five minutes into the season.

Their quarterback was perfect on six pass attempts and their rebuilt offensive line opened enough room for 30 yards rushing.

The final three yards were covered by Austin Ekeler.

“Man, we were rocking, huh?!” Ekeler said. “I think that’s one of those where we came out more ready to go than they did.”

The Chargers were ready to go Sunday, certainly. Even more significant than that, they were ready to stop.


They kept the ball for the final six minutes, 43 seconds — running 15 plays and converting four third downs — to drain FedEx Field of all emotion and suspense and put Washington to sleep 20-16.

Justin Herbert might not show a lot of emotion, but the Chargers quarterback’s play speaks loudly as he skillfully leads a road victory over Washington.

Sept. 12, 2021

After their first drive finished in the end zone, their last one concluded with Justin Herbert taking a knee three consecutive times, emphasizing the most glorious sort of surrender.

The Chargers triumphed despite two red-zone turnovers, despite falling behind in the third quarter, despite dropping several passes.

They won on the road — traveling some 2,500 miles and over three time zones — against a team that made the playoffs last season.

And they won Brandon Staley’s debut as head coach.

“If you want to do anything in this league worth anything, you’ve got to be able to win away from home,” Staley said. “I think the West Coast to East Coast thing is an illusion. It’s what you make of it. We came here to play.”

The Chargers converted 14 of 19 third downs, allowing them to enjoy big advantages in first downs (27-15), total yards (424-259) and offensive plays (78-49). They had a time of possession edge in excess of 12 minutes.


Brandon Staley’s first win as an NFL coach Sunday came on the birthday of his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2004.

Sept. 12, 2021

After Ekeler’s opening touchdown, the Chargers maintained the lead into the second half before falling behind 16-13 when Washington scored on its first series of the third quarter.

In attempting to answer back, Herbert led the offense inside Washington’s 10-yard line. But on second down, he was hit by defensive end Montez Sweat while in his throwing motion.

The ball — initially an apparent incompletion — went into the end zone. After a brief consultation, the officials ruled the play a fumble and a touchback, giving Washington the ball.

“I felt like I threw it,” Herbert said. “I’d have to take a look at it.”

The review officials in New York upheld the call.

Again, on their next possession, the Chargers moved deep into Washington territory. On first down at the 20-yard line, Herbert’s pass intended for tight end Stephen Anderson instead sailed into the hands of cornerback William Jackson III.

Barely 12 minutes remained, and the Chargers had just given away two phenomenal chances to take the lead.

“The guys never had a doubt,” Herbert said of his defensive teammates. “They came off the sidelines and said, ‘Justin, we got your back.’ I appreciate that, and I’m gonna go back out there and keep shooting.”

Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson (24) tries to stiff arm Chargers safety Derwin James.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

On the next play, rookie cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. closed quickly and hit Washington running back Antonio Gibson near the five-yard line. Teammate Kyzir White arrived and punched the ball loose.

Kenneth Murray Jr. recovered the fumble, giving Herbert the possession at Washington’s three-yard line.

“You can’t play good run defense if your corners can’t tackle,” Staley said. “There’s no greater illustration of that than Asante. The thing about the guy is he can get you the ball. That’s what he did. He went and got us the football.”

Chargers’ 20-16 victory over Washington by the numbers. Chargers, Washington individual statistics.

Sept. 12, 2021

For Samuel, the tackle was a measure of redemption. He committed a first-half pass interference penalty that cost the Chargers 35 yards, though Staley said Samuel wasn’t completely at fault on that play.

On third down after retaking the field, Herbert hit Mike Williams for a three-yard touchdown that would prove to be the game-winner.

The victory wasn’t officially sealed, however, until the Chargers’ final series. Herbert converted four crucial third downs with completions to Keenan Allen (17 yards), KJ Hill Jr. (19), Williams (20) and Allen (nine) again.

“So proud of how our offense responded,” Staley said. “We just really hung tough in that fourth quarter and played as a team to finish the game off.”