They’ve won four games in a row and five of six, clinched a postseason berth and are as healthy as they’ve been in months, and suddenly the Chargers aren’t Chargering at all.
Entering the regular season’s final Sunday, they have a chance to complete the jump from 6-6 to the AFC’s top wild-card spot, which would bury even deeper the chronic notion that this franchise is cursed.
Still, as someone who has been a Charger longer than most, Joey Bosa wasn’t interested in contemplating the team’s turn of good fortune and what it might mean cosmically.
“[Let’s] just try to focus on what we do and not think about that,” Bosa said. “It reminds me of early in the season. ‘Oh, you have all these guys back healthy’ and then the [stuff] hits the fan.”
His is the perspective of a seven-year NFL veteran, one who knows well the reality of stuff hitting the fan. Bosa just returned after missing 12 games because of a core-muscle injury.
He also knows that, during his time with the Chargers, this will mark only the franchise’s second playoff appearance. The 2018 team was the conference’s No. 1 wild card and then won at Baltimore before losing at New England.
Bosa was at least willing to admit that the mood surrounding the Chargers remained encouraging during preparations to close out the regular season at Denver.
“I feel like the vibe around here and the energy is nice,” he said. “It’s positive. Guys are out at practice joking around, in a good way… Guys are just happy to be around here right now. I think we just have to continue that going forward.”
A victory over the Broncos or a Baltimore loss at Cincinnati in the earlier window of games Sunday would give the Chargers the conference’s fifth seed. That would mean a trip to either Tennessee or Jacksonville in the wild-card round.
If the Chargers slip to sixth, they would open the playoffs at Buffalo or Cincinnati, assignments that appear more challenging given the recent postseason success of those teams.
Either way, the Chargers have had a couple weeks to embrace a return to the postseason following three years of coming up short. Last season, they were eliminated from contention in overtime in Week 18.
“This is my fifth season and I’ve been only once,” safety Derwin James Jr. said of the playoffs. “That should tell you a lot. I’m very grateful. [But] we got a lot bigger goals than just making the playoffs.”
The Chargers have surged toward the end of the regular season behind a defense that elevated its play in the absence of James.
Since a quadriceps injury and a concussion, the three-time Pro Bowl selection has played only 25 snaps since Dec. 4. James appeared in the Chargers’ Week 16 game at Indianapolis but was ejected in the second quarter because of an illegal hit.
Yet, with players such as outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, cornerback Michael Davis and safety Alohi Gilman performing in very noticeable ways, the Chargers have held their last four opponents to an average of 11 points a game.
Without James, defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said he believes the rest of the Chargers had to focus more on the details knowing their star safety wasn’t available to save them if something went wrong.
“He can erase so much,” Hill said. “When it goes bad, he can make it look like it is a positive play. … I think when he is not there, it is a little bit more urgent for the guys to make sure that they are on point. …
“I think it’s just an urgency when those guys know he is not there, these reps have to be almost perfect. It has helped our team in that way. But we wouldn’t want to be playing without Derwin moving forward.”
With the significance of this game uncertain, the Chargers have gone from early field-goal favorites to slight underdogs. So now, a 4-12 team heading nowhere is favored over a 10-6 team that’s prepping for the playoffs.
That situation almost certainly would shift again if the Chargers find out just before kickoff that they need to win.
With such unsettled ground under his players’ feet, coach Brandon Staley said Friday that the Chargers remain interested only in the Broncos and trying to secure their 11th win.
“You know that they are going to demand our full attention, and our players know that,” he said. “Going into this game, they know that, ‘We’re going to play our players and we’re going to play well.’ As the facts on the ground change within the game, then yeah, things could change.
“But we’re not going in with the mindset like, ‘Oh, well he’s not going to play. He’s not going to play.’ We’re going [to Denver] to win this game and play our best. Then, as the game unfolds, we’ll see what happens.”