A game that had no meaning in the AFC standings took on significant tones Sunday as the Chargers fell in their regular-season finale.
Coach Brandon Staley opted to play many of his starters through at least the end of third quarter of a 31-28 loss to Denver, the outcome having no impact on the Chargers’ playoff position.
Moments before kickoff, they locked up the conference’s top wild-card spot when Baltimore lost at Cincinnati 27-16.
Staley’s decision on playing time became a focal point after first-half injuries knocked from the game wide receiver Mike Williams and linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr.
Williams suffered a back injury and had to be carted to the locker room at the end of the second quarter. Murray went down with what the team described as a stinger.
Afterward, Staley cited the constraints of the NFL’s 48-player game-day roster and a desire to compete at the highest level possible for playing his regulars for most of the afternoon.
“These aren’t easy decisions …” he said. “In hindsight, it’s perfect for everybody on the outside. But these games are not easy to manage. They’re not, because you don’t have that many players. And we did it to the best of our ability.”
Multiple reports Sunday night suggested that Williams’ injury is not thought to be serious as the Chargers now prepare to play at Jacksonville in the wild-card round on Saturday at 5:15 p.m. PT.
“It’s definitely something that gets you a little emotional because that’s one of your top play makers, that’s one of your leaders on the team,” tight end Gerald Everett said of Williams. “He’s part of the identity of this organization.”
Among the Chargers’ regulars, edge rusher Joey Bosa was pulled from the game the earliest, not playing after halftime.
Bosa just returned in Week 17 following 12 games missed because of a core-muscle injury that required surgery.
Asked specifically if Bosa had tweaked something, Staley said, “No, Joey was taken out like the rest of the guys that we were trying to phase out of the game.”
In advance of Sunday, Staley indicated that the Chargers’ plans on playing time could be affected by the results of the Ravens-Bengals game, saying the Chargers would “make the appropriate decisions.”
But his postgame comments sounded more like the Chargers were going to play their starters extensively no matter what happened in Cincinnati.
Staley also said there was no reassessment of the situation after the injuries to Williams and Murray.
“At halftime, we had our game plan for the second half, which was the same as it was going into the game,” he said.
Staley also noted that several playoff-qualifying teams also played their starters extensively this weekend.
“I think when you look across the league at the other teams that are playing in the playoffs and what they did this last week, they’ll see a lot of high-level players playing in the football games,” he said. “I think that’s fair to say.
“I think they’ll see all the big-time quarterbacks, big-time players were out there for their football teams because they had to be. There’s only 48 guys that you can choose from.”
But the Chargers were one of the few teams that were locked into their postseason position at kickoff.
The New York Giants, who knew they would be the NFC’s sixth-seed entering Week 18, rested players such as quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley.
Tampa Bay also had nothing play for Sunday. Quarterback Tom Brady did start for the Buccaneers but was pulled in the second quarter.
Asked in the postgame locker room, several Chargers players supported Staley’s moves.
“This league’s all about momentum, man,” defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day said. “This league’s about building, about building a foundation, about stacking days, stacking blocks, stacking bricks.”
Still, even with the regulars playing deep into the game, the Chargers saw any momentum they might have carried into Colorado evaporate by the conclusion.
Having won four in a row and five of six, they lost to an opponent that had dropped seven of eight. The Broncos, who were the NFL’s poorest scoring team, reached a season high in points.
Veteran quarterback Russell Wilson capped a season during which he often failed to produce explosive plays by completing three passes covering at least 50 yards each.
Joseph-Day noted how his former team, the Rams, won five in a row late last season before going on a run to win Super Bowl LVI.
That team did lose its regular-season finale, too. But the game was tight — 27-24 in overtime —and the opponent — San Francisco — also was heading to the playoffs.
“We used this bottom half [of the schedule] to win out and like propel us,” he said. “You lose a game like this, it kind of exposes issues that teams can attack. … It’s just frustrating because, at least for me, I hate going out like that.”