Chargers clinch AFC playoff spot with win over feisty Colts
Fifty weeks after losing out on the final play of the last regular-season game and following a year filled with angst and injuries, the Chargers are heading back to the playoffs.
They clinched the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2018 on Monday night with a 20-3 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
“I’m just super excited,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “I’m really happy for this team, these guys, our owners, [general manager] Tom [Telesco]coach [Brandon] Staley, everyone involved because it hasn’t been an easy two years.
“We know what happened last year in the Las Vegas game. We know what’s happened this year. But we have a special group of guys. I’m just really happy right now to be a part of all this.”
The Chargers won their third in a row and fourth in five games to improve to 9-6. They are in sixth place in the AFC and still have an opportunity to move into the conference’s top wild-card spot with two games left.
All of which put significant distance between now and Week 18 of the 2021 season. That’s when the Chargers were eliminated by the Raiders on a field goal on the final play of overtime.
“This is not our final goal,” Staley said. “We expected to be at this point. I’m really proud of how this season has gone and what we’ve been able to demonstrate by making it into the postseason. That’s probably what I’m most proud of — not just being in it but how we made it.”
The Chargers surged over the last five weeks while most of the teams around them in the AFC standings faltered. They were 6-6 and on the outside of the playoffs heading into their Dec. 11 game against Miami.
But, despite numerous injuries to several of their key contributors, the Chargers pressed on throughout to reach the postseason in Staley’s second season.
“When we were 6-6, the playoff predictors … that percentage wasn’t too high,” Tranquill said. “To see what we’ve been able to do short-handed is just special.”
The game Monday was not without its own issues. The Chargers lost safety Derwin James Jr. in the second quarter after he was ejected for a hit on Colts wide receiver Ashton Dulin.
James led with his helmet and hit a defenseless Dulin up high. After a brief discussion, the officials called James for a 15-yard penalty and kicked him out. Dulin sat out the rest of the game because of a concussion.
James also ended up in the NFL’s concussion protocol and therefore was not available to reporters afterward. But he was seen in the postgame locker room celebrating with his teammates.
Staley said he did not believe the play by James was worthy of an ejection.
“No, I did not because I know Derwin’s intent,” he said. “I thought that he tried to lead with his shoulder. It’s a play where they obviously laid the guy out, you know, in a tough position, which is their fault, not ours, and Derwin made an aggressive play.
“We all know that Derwin’s not going to try to do that to anybody. We’ll have to look at it. But I know what Derwin’s intentions are. I’ve seen him make a lot of tackles on plays just like that. I know that his target was not above the neck. I know that.”
James had returned for this game after sitting out the previous two weeks because of a quadriceps injury. The NFL certainly will review the hit in more detail to determine whether additional discipline is warranted.
For the third consecutive week, the Chargers won largely behind their defense. They took advantage of a reeling Colts team that had turned to veteran quarterback Nick Foles, who had started only one game over the last two calendar years.
The Chargers limited Indianapolis to 10 first downs, 173 total yards and an average of 3.5 yards per play. The Colts failed to convert any of their 10 third downs.
“This was a complete performance,” Tranquill said. “The coaches had a great game plan. We were dialed in. We were ready, and we were heating him up, heating him up all night, sacking him all over.”
Morgan Fox (two), Tranquill, Khalil Mack, Kyle Van Noy, Kenneth Murray Jr. and Chris Rumph II all had sacks. James, Michael Davis and Asante Samuel Jr. each intercepted Foles.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Tranquill said, “this group is playing its best football in Week 16.”
And the Chargers’ defense could be on the verge of another boost. Edge rusher Joey Bosa, who has been out since Week 3 because of a core muscle injury, is still expected to return before the end of the regular season.
Offensively, the Chargers sputtered plenty Monday but managed to put the game away with a 12-play, 88-yard drive that consumed 6 minutes 33 seconds of the fourth quarter.
The march ended with a one-yard touchdown run by Austin Ekeler, who scored twice to bring his league-leading touchdown total to 16.
“There’ve been ups and downs, but we’ve still continued to find a way to get wins and give ourselves an opportunity here at the end,” Ekeler said. “That’s where the toughness comes from.”