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Chargers resurrect their playoff aspirations in bounce-back win over Broncos

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler celebrates after scoring a first-half touchdown against the Broncos.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler celebrates after scoring a first-half touchdown during a 34-13 victory over the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

He had just gained another 112 yards from scrimmage and scored his 18th touchdown of the season.

The Chargers34-13 victory over Denver still ringing in his ears, Austin Ekeler was asked about his team’s now completely resuscitated postseason hopes.

“I still don’t even know the situation yet,” the running back admitted. “I just know we got to win next week.”

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Yes, it is that simple.

The winner of the Chargers’ game next Sunday night at Las Vegas advances to the AFC playoffs.

Both teams are 9-7. The Chargers beat the Raiders 28-14 at SoFi Stadium in Week 4.

Justin Herbert broke Philip Rivers’ single-season record for most touchdown passes in Chargers history Sunday, showcasing how much he continues to improve.

Now, they’ll meet again in Week 18, in the high-stakes capital of America.

“Gotta win,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “Playoff mindset. Everything’s on the line.”

The Chargers reached this precious point by experiencing repeated success even before kicking off Sunday.

Losses by Baltimore and Miami in the early window of games was the exact lead-in the Chargers needed to regain control of their postseason fate.

Still, they had to bounce back from their flattest performance of the season against a Broncos team depleted by COVID-19 and clinging to the faintest of playoff possibilities.

After leading only 10-0 late in the first half, the Chargers pulled away behind another record-setting afternoon by Justin Herbert and a stout, stifling defense.

“For me, it was about this week,” coach Brandon Staley said. “It was about our response. I felt like our guys answered in a big way.”

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert passes against the Broncos in the first half.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

An answer was necessary after the Chargers’ poor showing in a 41-29 Week 16 loss at lowly Houston. That defeat knocked them out of a playoff spot and invited plenty of outside doubt about their next-level credentials.

But in the week leading up to this game, the Chargers welcomed back eight starters — seven from the COVID reserve list — and regrouped to roll over fading Denver.

“Today, we needed to play like this,” Staley said. “I felt like we really showed what we’re made of as a team.”

Herbert’s final line — 22 of 31 for 237 yards and two touchdowns — likely didn’t drop any jaws, but it did topple one significant record. He now has a single-season, franchise-best 35 touchdown passes.

In his second year, Herbert topped by one the mark of 34 set by Philip Rivers in 2008, Rivers’ third season as a starter.

“It’s not a coincidence that these records are happening for him,” Staley said. “It’s because of the type of person he is, the type of competitor he is and the type of player he is.”

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Chargers’ 34-13 victory over the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium on Sunday — scoring and statistics.

In the fourth quarter, they celebrated Herbert’s achievement on SoFi Stadium’s 2.2-million pound, dual-sided videoboard. Along with the text detailing the achievement, they showed Herbert standing on the sideline.

As applause rained down upon him, he glanced up to see his face and, noticing what was happening, attempted to move outside the reach of the camera’s lens. He was unsuccessful.

Asked about the moment afterward, Herbert explained: “The defense was still out there. I wanted to give them all the attention.”

Later, of the record, he added: “I think it is a huge accomplishment. But it doesn’t get done without the teammates — the receivers, tight ends, especially the offensive line that’s done an incredible job protecting me all year.”

Herbert hit Allen late in the first half for an eight-yard touchdown and connected with Mike Williams in the fourth quarter for a 45-yarder that set the record.

Chargers fans cheer on their team during the second half of Sunday's win over the Broncos at SoFi Stadium.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Ekeler scored on a three-yard run and Andre Roberts on a 101-yard kickoff return, the Chargers’ first such score since Michael Spurlock went 99 yards against Oakland in December 2012.

That was more than enough points for a defense that kept the Broncos out of the end zone until the game’s final, garbage-time minutes.

The Chargers limited Denver to a 3.1-yard average in 27 rushing attempts. The Broncos failed to convert seven of their first eight third downs and finished three of 11. The Chargers entered with the NFL’s worst defense on third down.

“Our run defense directly impacted our third-down defense,” Staley said. “Just a lot more penetration. I felt like we were playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. I felt like our edges were a lot more physical.”

The Chargers had their starting secondary intact for one of the few games all season. Staley praised their overall play, particularly their tackling. Safety Nasir Adderley finished with eight stops.

Takeaways from Chargers vs. Broncos: Andre Roberts has made many key returns since he was added to the roster, and ran 101 yards to score against Denver.

So, now, the Chargers are promised one last game, but one that could lead to so much more.

The start time of their matchup against the Raiders almost certainly will be moved for prime viewing purposes, either to Saturday or Sunday night.

It’s win-and-you’re-in week for the Chargers, the longest regular season in NFL history going down to the final gun.


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