INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- For much of the last three decades, Sundays have been like open wounds for the Chargers and their fans. Games that appeared won suddenly ended in defeat. Breakthroughs turned into breakdowns.
But if Monday night's 28-14 victory over the previously undefeated Raiders showed anything to a national TV audience and sellout crowd in SoFi Stadium, it's that those wounds could be scarring over. These Chargers are resilient and resourceful, refusing to bow when moments become heavy.
They showed it two Sundays ago in Kansas City. After sprinting out to a 14-0 lead over the back-to-back AFC champions, the Bolts surrendered 17 consecutive points. And just when it appeared the past would be prologue, quarterback Justin Herbert and the offense repeatedly stood tall, even going 59 yards in the final two minutes for the decisive touchdown.
And just when it appeared they were wobbling against the Raiders, yielding 14 consecutive points to open the second half and giving life to a largely pro-Las Vegas crowd that sometimes made Herbert rely on a silent count, the second-year star found tight end Jared Cook for 13 yards on fourth-and-2 at midfield, setting the stage for a touchdown that would make it a two-possession game again.
Said Herbert: "That's a game we might not have won last year."
Or in previous years, when the Chargers seemed to have a patent on close losses and bizarre defeats. Who will ever forget the playoff loss to New England in which the game appeared to be won after safety Marlon McCree intercepted Tom Brady, only to have McCree fumble away the football instead of staying down? Or Philip Rivers losing a fumbled snap at the Kansas City 15-yard line in overtime with the score tied and under a minute to play? Or Ryan Leaf having more turnovers (5) than passing yards (4) against the Chiefs? Or Michael Badgley missing an extra point in regulation and a field goal in overtime against the Saints?
I could go on, but you get the point. The decision to go for it from midfield was bold because the Raiders were surging and would've had a short field with a failure to convert. But coach Brandon Staley is attempting to create a winning culture founded on an unwavering trust that players will do the right things in the difficult moments, a belief that was rewarded six plays later when running back Austin Ekeler scored from the 11, leaving the Raiders and any here we go again thoughts in his wake.
"It's belief -- looking at each other in the huddle and knowing the situation and understanding that we've got the right guys, we've got the right play calls, and we know what we're doing," Herbert said. "We just need to execute it."
That attitude begins with Staley, a first-year head coach who was working at the Division III level a handful of years ago. The former Rams defensive coordinator is ruthless in his approach. While some coach to survive games, relying on prevent defenses and conservative approaches, Staley coaches to thrive. He doesn't seek to hold a lead as much as he strives to build on it, taking calculated gambles where others might not.
The Chargers (3-1), who moved into a tie with the Raiders and Broncos atop the AFC West, converted on two of three fourth downs Monday. Against the Chiefs, they were 1-for-1. Ditto against the Cowboys. Staley's willingness to keep the offense on the field is based on not only analytics and matchups, but also a complete trust in his quarterback and a desire to have the ball in the 23-year-old's hands in critical situations.
Herbert, who was 25 of 38 passing for 222 yards with three touchdowns, has all the physical tools for success, but it's his ability to successfully read situations and coverages that takes his game to a higher level. In the final minute against the Chiefs, he checked out of a run play because he spotted one-on-one coverage on the outside, then hit Mike Williams for the definitive score. Against the Raiders, on fourth-and-2, he immediately diagnosed that linebacker Denzel Perryman would be matched up on Cook and knew that was where he needed to go. For one thing, Cook is six inches taller than Perryman. For another, Perryman is a downhill thumper who struggles in coverage. The thought process was as precise as the high, soft throw.
Any nervousness Chargers fans might have had about the outcome dissipated six plays later when Ekeler scored. But the fact that there were any moments of anxiousness was surprising, considering how dominant the Chargers were in the first half. Herbert completed 20 of 25 passes for 175 yards and three scores in the first two quarters, while the defense held the Raiders to 51 yards of offense, the fewest for a first half in Jon Gruden's head-coaching career, beneath the 62 yards the Bucs gained in 2006 when he was there.
Things were so bad for Las Vegas that the team had more penalty yards (53) than offensive yards. So bad that its seven possessions in the first half gained 3, minus-8, 5, 7, 33, 9 and 2 yards. So bad the Raiders did not achieve their initial first down until 9:02 remained in the half. So bad that Derek Carr, who entered the game as the league's passing leader, completed just 7 of 13 passes for 52 yards.
"We knew once we hit him a few times he really gets shook," Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa said. "And you saw on (one) sack he was pretty much curling into a ball before we even got back there. Great dude, great player ... but we know once you get pressure on him, he kind of shuts down."
That then begs the question of why Carr was able to make a game of it in the second half, throwing touchdown passes on back-to-back possessions, the first a 10-yard pass to Hunter Renfrow, the second a 3-yard completion to Darren Waller to make it 21-14. Carr was 9 of 10 for 76 yards in the third quarter, ultimately finishing 21 of 34 for 196 yards, two scores and one interception.
But Carr's biggest problem might have been the quarterback on the other sideline, and how with each successful fourth down, with each important victory, the Chargers are giving credence to the idea that they are not to be confused with their recent or distant past.
"All those drills, all those four-minute drills, all those two-time drills that we do during practice during the week, it shows up in game time," said Herbert. "That's the toughest part of the week is practice and going through that grind of watching film and doing all that, so that when you go out there Sunday, you play free."
Particularly in pressure moments.