Column: Nutty Bolts are better than stinking Rams. Can Chargers finally win over L.A.?

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, left, runs with the ball as Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, left, runs with the ball as Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker gives chase during the Chargers’ 23-17 win Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Midway through the second quarter of their Sunday night tussle with the Miami Dolphins at SoFi Stadium, the swarming Chargers defense forced the Dolphins’ Jeff Wilson Jr. to fumble.

Except, in the ensuing scrum, the ball popped loose from the pile and into the hands of the fastest man on the field, whereupon Tyreek Hill raced 57 yards with the newfound gift to score the Dolphins’ first touchdown.

They’re nuts, these Bolts.

Midway through the third quarter in this same game, the Chargers’ Michael Davis was perfectly covering a streaking Hill on a pass route down the right sideline.


Except Davis’ feet became tangled up with Hill’s feet, and Davis fell, whereupon Hill broke free to catch a 60-yard touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa for the Dolphins’ second touchdown.

The Chargers were missing many pieces on defense but still found a way to shut down Miami’s explosive offense and Justin Herbert shined in a 23-17 win.

Dec. 11, 2022

They didn’t break, these Bolts.

In the six seasons since their return to Los Angeles, the Chargers have stumbled and staggered and slapsticked their way out of seemingly every important opportunity, but it wasn’t happening Sunday.

Knocked backward by two freak plays, the Chargers and their incredible quarterback kept hurtling forward until they finally secured a dominating 23-17 victory over the NFL-darling Dolphins, setting themselves up for the most important month in their Los Angeles existence.

Win and they’re in. Win their final four games against four beatable opponents and this 7-6 team surely will make the playoffs. Win at home against the Tennessee Titans and Rams, and on the road at Indianapolis and Denver, and the Chargers will crawl through an open window of opportunity best described in three words.

Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill scores after a recovering a fumble by teammate Jeff Wilson Jr. and running 57 yards.
Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill heads for the end zone after a recovering a fumble by teammate Jeff Wilson Jr. and running 57 yards for a touchdown.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams stink.

The space is there for the Chargers to make their first real mark on this city since they moved back here. There can be only one playoff team in town this winter, and the Chargers need to fill that void.

They’ve outlasted the cries to send them back to San Diego. They’ve built a solid fan base equal in noise to the Rams’ fan base — even if both teams’ fans are regularly outnumbered. Now they have a real chance to make a dent in the domination of the defending Super Bowl champions.

They’re ready for that next step. Now they need to take it.

 Justin Herbert signals first down after the Chargers quarterback scrambled past the Dolphins defense.
Justin Herbert signals first down after the Chargers quarterback scrambled past the Dolphins defense.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

But if Sunday night’s victory over the favored and playoff-bound Dolphins was any indication, yeah, the journey is going to be nuts.

The Chargers outgained the Dolphins 432-219. Herbert nearly tripled the output of his struggling counterpart Tagovailoa. The previously injured Mike Williams and Keenan Allen caught 208 yards’ worth of passes in the first game this season that they’ve started and finished together. The Chargers controlled the Dolphins in every corner of a nationally televised game that originally felt like a Dolphins coronation.

“I felt like it was the hardest we played all season,” coach Brandon Staley said.

And still, the Chargers nearly blew it again in the end, Joshua Palmer fumbling a Dolphins onside kick in the final moments, Nick Niemann saving the day with a last-gasp recovery.

“Incredible team win for us … the way our guys competed out there … guys trying to prove themselves,” Staley said.

If the Chargers are going to get this done, they’re probably going to have to do it like that young boy who, with “Bolt Up” scrawled across his bare chest, led Sunday night cheers on the giant videoboard.

The kid was screaming but, in these chilly temperatures, he also was shivering.

Despite pushing the Dolphins all over the field, the Chargers didn’t really clinch it until Herbert used both his arm and legs — a 10-yard scramble! — on a 79-yard, fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a 28-yard Cameron Dicker field goal with 2:40 remaining.

Chargers linebacker. Chris Rumph II, pressures Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had to throw the ball away.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“We’ve got to keep going,’’ said Herbert, who completed passes to nine receivers in throwing for 367 yards and a touchdown without an interception. “If we want to get to where we want to go … it starts with watching film, fixing our mistakes … there’s a lot of football to be played … we just got to keep going.”

The Chargers’ clinching field goal marked not only the end of the game, but also the beginning of a final-month push.

The benefits of a Chargers playoff berth are obvious. The consequences of falling short of the playoffs also are obvious, and not pretty.

Falling short could, and probably would, result in the firing of longtime general manager Tom Telesco. This is his 10th season, and his teams have made the playoffs only twice, and that sort of prolonged inefficiency would spell doom for virtually any general manager in this league.

Telesco struck gold with draft picks such as Herbert, Joey Bosa and Derwin James Jr., but struggled to build the sort of depth that would have allowed the Chargers to withstand some of their numerous injuries.

It’s more unlikely, but still remotely possible, that a failure to make the playoffs also could put Staley’s job at risk. If there’s a new general manager, he could seek out an offensive guru to hone Herbert’s massive skills. It’s only Staley’s second season, but after blowing a couple of games and probably a playoff berth with poor game management in his rookie year, this season his specialty — defense — routinely has ranked among the league’s bottom three.

That same struggling defense certainly shined on Sunday, holding Tagovailoa to 10 completions on 28 attempts for just 145 yards. The hot young quarterback looked completely lost. The evolving young coach looked pretty smart.

“Our secondary tonight really answered the call,” Staley said. “Our guys came with the right mindset tonight.”

That mindset must continue.

These next four games are huge.

On this night, anyway, the nutty Bolts were bigger.