With renewed confidence, Chargers look forward to playing at Denver

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) runs the ball during the first half.
Austin Ekeler
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

He was worked up to the point he had to work out, the Chargers’ collapse so epic that Austin Ekeler was left on the floor.

And he didn’t even play.

“I just remember doing pushups after that game,” Ekeler recalled. “I was just so mad…For whatever reason, when I get mad, I have to vent. I have to start working out.”

This is a running back who, pound for pound, is generally accepted to be the Chargers’ strongest player. Still, Ekeler was powerless to prevent his team from blowing a 21-point lead last season in a loss at Denver.


Sidelined at the time because of a hamstring injury, Ekeler was marooned in Southern California as the Chargers fell to the Broncos 31-30 on a touchdown scored as time expired.

He’ll play Sunday, though, when the Chargers return to Colorado, coming off an emotional, gripping victory and — based on a publicly professed belief that seems to be growing in the locker room — now a changed team.

With the Chargers being the favorite to win Sunday, the Denver Broncos could provide a great deal of value to bettors if they pull off an upset.

Ekeler is among the Chargers who have talked about the different feel surrounding this group, the subtle confidence that began taking root sometime after Brandon Staley was hired as head coach in January.

The subject surfaced again after the Chargers’ 41-37 win over Pittsburgh last weekend, when they bumbled away a 17-point fourth-quarter lead before rallying to punch the Steelers and a mountain of momentum square on the chin.

“You’re just confident if you keep fighting, you stay with it, that you’re going to pull it out,” edge rusher Joey Bosa said. “I don’t think you can really get that confidence until you go through it and get those ones like we have.”

The Chargers have trailed in the fourth quarter in five of their six victories. In four of those wins, they lost a fourth-quarter lead before coming back. They are 5-3 overall in one-score games with the stirring Pittsburgh triumph providing the latest boost.

After giving back every bit of their 17-point edge, the Chargers prevailed by dropping a pair of knockout hammers: a 53-yard touchdown pass from Justin Herbert to Mike Williams and consecutive sacks by Bosa and Kyler Fackrell.

“I think what our team has really embraced is that all of these games in the NFL with good-on-good come down to the fourth quarter,” Staley explained. “I said it from the second I was hired. I said it in training camp, and I’m saying it now…the games against the best competition come down to the end and that’s when you have to have it.

“If you kind of feel like you’re ready for it and you know that, then I think you can thrive and execute better. I think that you really can. Getting comfortable in that space where you need to have your best stuff when it’s tight…I think that we’ve been in a bunch of those things this year and our guys kind of feel like, ‘Hey, we’re good living in this space. We’re going to have what it takes and we’re ready to go nose-to-nose with this however it unfolds.’ I’m proud of our guys.”

The Chargers’ run defense has improved the last four games by limiting opponents to an average of 3.7 yards per carry. Up next, the Denver Broncos.

Ekeler said Staley has altered the Chargers’ culture with his aggressiveness, the urgency he has promoted by frequently going for it on fourth down. “Attacking games a little bit differently” is how Ekeler explained it.

As another example, the veteran running back pointed to how Staley and his offensive assistants have found a way to use Williams often and effectively, something the previous coaching regime didn’t do.

Ekeler noted that there is now “some new chemistry — a new feel to the team— than we’ve had in the past.”

The Chargers might need all of that feel good Sunday in Denver, where five of their last six visits have resulted in one-score finishes. The only one that wasn’t came in 2018, in a regular-season finale that meant nothing to the Broncos.

The Chargers lost in Denver on the final play last season and on the final play in 2019. They fell there in 2017 when a potential tying field goal was blocked with five seconds remaining.

So they could be living in that teetering fourth-quarter space again, these new Chargers potentially facing another test of their belief and their chemistry.