Chargers hope to make the playoffs and have more healthy players than Chiefs.
The Chargers broke training camp back in August.
Then, they just broke.
“There have been so many moving pieces,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “It seems like we haven’t had a string of games where everyone has played together.”
A string of games? The Chargers haven’t had a single game of being completely whole.
In their season opener, they were missing cornerback J.C. Jackson. In Week 2, they were without wide receiver Keenan Allen. They went into Week 3 minus Jackson and center Corey Linsley and came out of Week 3 without Joey Bosa and Rashawn Slater.
Ever since, the revolving door hasn’t stopped spinning.
A lack of continuity in football can affect everything from chemistry to communication, yet the Chargers held things together well enough in the teeth of all their injuries to make it to Week 11 at 5-4 with playoff hopes.
Now, they face AFC West-leading Kansas City on Sunday night at SoFi Stadium, their second consecutive prime-time appearance with a chance to show they’re worthy — ailing body parts and all — of the repeated national exposure.
“You’ve seen how many injuries we’ve had, but we can’t make excuses,” safety Derwin James Jr. said. “No one cares. K.C. don’t care. We have to go play.”
The Chargers did see some positive signs health-wise Friday when Allen and fellow wide receiver Mike Williams, who were designated as questionable for the game, both expressed optimism about facing the Chiefs.
Allen has played only 45 snaps this season because of a hamstring problem and Williams missed the previous two games while recovering from a high-ankle sprain.
Even better, right tackle Trey Pipkins III was removed from the injury report after missing one game because of a lingering knee sprain. He should be back in the starting lineup.
The 2022 Chargers were expected to challenge Kansas City for supremacy in a division forecast as deep and dangerous. Instead, the Chiefs have opened a two-game lead while Denver and Las Vegas have wilted.
Without a full roster, the Chargers have had no chance to realize their full potential. Their road to a respectable record has come against the NFL’s easiest schedule to date, the Chargers’ opponents winning only 41.1% of their games.
Injuries do happen all over the NFL, but this team has absorbed an unrelenting series of long-term losses to some of its most significant players.
In response, the Chargers have had to rely more on those not expected to have major roles or, in some cases, no roles at all. They’ve filled in with players from their practice squad, Cleveland’s practice squad, the waiver wire and the street.
“Even though we haven’t been able to see what this team is like at 100%, we do have a good snapshot of what this team’s soul is made of,” defensive lineman Morgan Fox said. “We’ve seen a lot of guys emerge in roles and do a good job.”
As an example, Fox pointed to Breiden Fehoko, who came off the practice squad to play 42 snaps last weekend against San Francisco as the Chargers dealt with mounting absences along their defensive front.
By the end of that 22-16 loss to the 49ers, Fox, Fehoko and Sebastian Joseph-Day were the only available defensive linemen, each playing extensively in a fourth quarter during which San Francisco had possession for 12:38.
“We were laughing through the pain,” Fox said. “You’re looking at each other and suffering together. Just three guys battling.”
Tranquill called it “pure toughness” that carried Fox, Fehoko and Joseph-Day through the end of the game. He said their collective effort was inspirational, particularly with 15 of the 49ers’ 25 fourth-quarter plays being runs.
“Those guys aren’t built to play every snap,” Tranquill said. “A rotation is key. When you lose your rotation, it’s really difficult on a big man who’s 300 pounds. I thought those guys showed incredible toughness.”
Facing the Chiefs will require toughness and more, these rivals playing six one-score games over their last eight meetings. On Sunday nights, the Chargers have had five consecutive one-score finishes.
With Allen and Williams expected back, the Chargers’ offense would be closer to complete than it has been since Week 1. They had all 11 projected starters in the lineup that afternoon — until Allen went down in the second quarter.
“They are two of the best in the game,” quarterback Justin Herbert said. “It means a ton to us to just have them out there and to have a chance for them to play.”
Their chances for Sunday sound good. The Chargers’ chances, if Allen and Williams do return, sound better.