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Justin Herbert and Chargers pick up where last season ended, against Raiders

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert walks off the field after a loss to the Raiders.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert walks off the field after a loss to the Raiders in January that ended Los Angeles’ playoff hopes.
(Steve Marcus / Getty Images)
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For someone paid well to harass them, Joey Bosa recently found himself disarmed by a quarterback.

The moment came during Chargers training camp, right after Justin Herbert scrambled out of the pocket and sprinted down the sideline for a long gain, delighting the fans in attendance.

Of course, his teammates on defense weren’t permitted to tackle, hit or get particularly close to Herbert. So …

“I talked some crap to him,” Bosa recalled. “Then I instantly felt terrible because he’s like, ‘What, Joey, come on. I love you.’ That’s Justin, such a great guy, exactly the type of person you want at that position.”

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Entering his third season, Herbert is coming off the first of what could be many Pro Bowl selections, already an NFL record-setter and undeniably established as this team’s next franchise quarterback.

He will make his 33rd career start when the Chargers face Las Vegas at 1:25 p.m. Sunday at SoFi Stadium, offering still more possibilities — regarding his future as well as the team’s.

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“In truth, whoever was in there, we’d have confidence,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “That’s the nature of football and that position. But with Justin, it does give you a little more feeling of, ‘OK, we really have a chance here.’”

Herbert proved just that in absurd fashion in his most recent game, also against the Raiders, in Week 18 of last season. Trailing by 15 points, the Chargers scored twice in the final five minutes to force overtime.

Herbert passed to Joshua Palmer for the first score, converting on fourth and 21 with a 23-yard completion. He then connected with Mike Williams for a 12-yard touchdown, one that came as time expired.

“I’ve talked about it with other guys at the Pro Bowl,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “In the fourth quarter, that quarterback can either win the game or he can’t. If he can’t, good luck. We got a guy who can win the game.”

While true — Herbert directed five winning drives in the fourth quarter last season — the Chargers didn’t beat Las Vegas in that Week 18 showdown. The Raiders prevailed on a field goal on the final play of overtime.

The defeat knocked the Chargers from playoff contention on a day when they would have advanced with nothing worse than a tie. In a game the Chargers led for only 1 minute 15 seconds of the second quarter, this one felt like a triumph lost.

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So, they trudged off the field at Allegiant Stadium and into an offseason that arrived like a slap to the face.

“We fought to the end,” Williams said when asked what he remembered most about that night. “And we lost. I was upset, hurt, down. I felt like we had a team that, if we had made the playoffs, we had a chance to make noise.”

The game was a classic and underscored Herbert’s sweeping impact. Just consider:

— The Chargers forced overtime despite rushing for only seven yards in the third and fourth quarters combined.

— Herbert still produced the game-tying touchdown at the end of regulation even though he began the drive by throwing incompletions on eight of nine attempts. A fourth-down penalty on the Raiders kept the possession alive.

— The Chargers converted only four third downs for the game but six fourth downs, each one coming on a Herbert completion.

“Having a guy that can control the game, a guy that in the fourth quarter can dominate the game, that means so much to an organization,” Allen said. “I never take that for granted.”

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When the Chargers drafted Herbert sixth overall in 2020, Bosa acknowledged that he had “no knowledge of him at all.” Herbert made his debut in Week 2, filling in when Tyrod Taylor was unable to start against Kansas City.

His first career pass was incomplete. Then Herbert connected with running back Joshua Kelley for a 35-yard gain. Four plays later, Herbert scrambled for a four-yard touchdown and, soon enough, even Bosa would know plenty about him.

“He’s such a great teammate, so humble and team-first,” Bosa said. “He’ll apologize after throwing for 400 yards because he just didn’t do enough to win. That’s him.”

When speaking to the media, Herbert routinely deflects credit to his offensive linemen and his receivers. Here’s the thing: Williams said he does the same in team meetings.

Herbert doesn’t talk about football as a job but as a passion, explaining that he gets bored in the offseason when practices stop. During his media session Friday to discuss this game, Herbert used the word “great” eight times.

“The energy around this guy is amazing,” Williams said. “Everybody can feel the high hopes and the potential. He brings up everyone’s spirits.”

Herbert will try to lift the Chargers again Sunday, this time against an opponent that eight months ago left them about as low as they could go.

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