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Chargers lose Justin Herbert to injury and any realistic chance of making playoffs

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is sacked by Broncos cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is sacked by Broncos cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian during the first half of the Chargers’ 24-7 loss Sunday. Herbert was sacked four times and sustained a broken right index finger.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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An already fractured season suffered its most significant setback yet Sunday when the Chargers lost Justin Herbert to a broken right index finger.

The team’s franchise quarterback could not return after being hurt late in the second quarter of what became a 24-7 loss to Denver at SoFi Stadium.

Herbert is scheduled to undergo further testing Monday with the Chargers facing a short turnaround before traveling to face Las Vegas on Thursday night.

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“You feel bad for hanging the team out like that,” Herbert said. “You never want to be taken out of the game.”

The second half Sunday represented the first significant stretch Herbert has missed because of injury since taking over as the Chargers’ starter in Week 2 of the 2020 season.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert tries to scramble away from Denver Broncos linebacker Jonathon Cooper in the first half.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

This season, he was able to continue playing through a fractured left middle finger suffered Oct. 1 against the Raiders.

With this problem on his throwing hand, however, Herbert’s availability now is in question. He said he couldn’t return against the Broncos because he was unable to grip the ball.

Herbert also did not rule out the possibility of needing surgery.

“It’s something that we’ll know more [about] as the week goes on,” he said. “If there’s any chance to play, I’ll do everything I can to be out there. I’m going to do everything I can in the treatment room to get back to 100%.”

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The injury occurred on one of the several hits Herbert absorbed as Denver’s pressure continually overpowered the Chargers’ protection plans. He was sacked four times on a day when the offense again failed to sustain any success.

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Chargers’ 24-7 home loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday — scoring and statistics.

Dec. 10, 2023

The Chargers trailed 17-0 into the fourth quarter before finally striking after backup quarterback Easton Stick hit rookie Quentin Johnston for a 57-yard gain. Three plays later, Austin Ekeler scored the Chargers’ only points.

“The best thing for us is that we play on Thursday,” coach Brandon Staley said. “We have to put this one behind us quickly.”

The loss dropped the Chargers to 5-8 and all but ended whatever fading playoff chances remained for a team that has underachieved this season, leading to speculation of sweeping changes in the coming weeks.

Late in the third quarter, chants for Staley’s firing could be heard. Those chants returned before the game concluded.

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In his third season — with a regular-season record of 24-23 — Staley took the Chargers to the playoffs last season. But that team blew a 27-0 lead at Jacksonville in the AFC wild-card round and lost 31-30.

Chargers quarterback Easton Stick passes against the Denver Broncos in the second half.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Asked about the possibility of losing his job, Staley said he was focused solely on the Raiders.

“I have a team that’s hurting in there,” he explained. “We have to rally. We have to make sure that we get a good two days of practice before we travel and get ready to play a division game.”

General manager Tom Telesco also has been under fire. He’s in his 11th year, with his teams winning only two playoff games.

The expectation remains that ownership will allow the rest of the season to play out before making any decisions but the Chargers certainly are performing like a team in need of a comprehensive reset.

“Obviously frustrated,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “The season didn’t go how you wanted it to. Still got, what, four games left. Keep battling.”

Allen called the loss of Herbert “very tough,” noting that nearly every starting snap in practice has gone to the team’s fourth-year quarterback.

While expressing confidence in Stick, several Chargers acknowledged the obvious: Herbert being out is something that would be difficult to overcome, especially for an offense that has sputtered mightily of late.

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The Chargers finished Sunday 0 of 12 on third down and one of six on fourth down. They punted five times, lost the ball on downs four times and twice turned it over.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert walks off the field with his right hand covered.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert walks off the field with his right hand covered after sustaining a fractured finger in the first half of a 24-7 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In their last three games, the Chargers have totaled 10, six and seven points, producing two touchdowns on 34 possessions.

“We gotta get more touchdowns,” Ekeler said. “That’s not good, not good at all. We gotta make sure we’re putting some drives together. We have some splash plays here and there, but it’s been broken. We’ve gotta put a drive together.”

Herbert was nine of 17 for 96 yards with one interception before he went out. Stick finished 13 of 24 for 179 yards. He fumbled twice, losing one of them.

Before Sunday, Stick had played only two regular-season snaps, both coming in 2020. He was a fifth-round pick in 2019 and served primarily as the Chargers’ third quarterback before being promoted to backup this year.

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The Chargers continued to falter and now have lost starting quarterback Justin Herbert to injury, proving this franchise needs to clean house.

Dec. 11, 2023

During a season in which they’ve experienced an unexpected number of losses, the Chargers now face the possibility of their most crippling loss if Herbert is unavailable moving forward.

“It sucks, especially at the quarterback position where that’s your leader on the field,” Ekeler said. “But the dude’s so tough. I’m so proud of him and how he’s continued to grow as a person and in his leadership on the field.”

All of that could be missing when the Chargers meet the Raiders with their season nearly extinguished.

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