The real Chargers? L.A. resembles contender in win over Packers

CARSON, Calif. -- Philip Rivers brought an unexpected guest to the interview room following the Chargers' stunning 26-11 victory over the Packers. Squirming in his arms was 8-month-old Anna, his seventh daughter and the last of his nine children. She wore a sky-blue dress with gold underpants and had a cuteness quotient that was off the meter.

His media obligations done, Rivers trekked back onto the field in Dignity Health Sports Park and subbed one daughter for another while the rest of the family milled around. It is not uncommon for Rivers to bring his children onto the field after a home game, but neither is it customary. Perhaps the 16th-year veteran was seeking to create memories that are not guaranteed to him beyond this season, which is the last on his contract. Will he retire in the offseason or play another year? And if he does return, will it be in Los Angeles?

There are so many unknowns that maybe Rivers wanted to smell some of the roses even as he professes to be focused on the game at hand. One certainty, though, is that games like Sunday's give him reason to believe that the Super Bowl appearance that has eluded him his entire career is not beyond his grasp.

Matched against a Packers squad that was 7-1 and had won four in a row, the Chargers, dealing with some inner turmoil after firing their offensive coordinator during the week, turned in their most complete performance of the season. They dominated the Packers in every phase of the game: converting each of their four field-goal attempts; holding Green Bay to 84 yards of offense through three-plus quarters and 184 overall; and running for a net of 139 yards after being held to 39 or fewer the previous four games.

On a sun-soaked afternoon, before an overwhelming Packers contingent among the 25,435 in attendance, Los Angeles looked like the contender many thought the team to be entering the season. Which begs the question: Who are the real Chargers (4-5)?

They lost by a touchdown to the Texans, Broncos and Steelers, and by a field goal each to the Lions and Titans. They've lost games they should have won, fumbling inside the 1-yard line at the end in Tennessee, and won games they should have lost, like when Indianapolis and Chicago missed what should have been chip-shot field goals.

"This game just shows that we can come out and compete with any team," said cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. "We've been doing it all year, we just haven't found a way to win some of those close games like we did last year. Every game we've lost has been by seven points or less."

Recent history is that the Chargers start slow and finish fast in a season, but this year felt different following the dismissal of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt on Monday night. The move hinted at panic. After all, the Chargers ranked in the top 10 in scoring two of the previous three seasons under Whisenhunt and were 13th the other year. But philosophical differences over play-calling and the lack of a consistent run game contributed to the change and created an air of uncertainty about how the offense would function with quarterbacks coach Shane Steichen assuming play-calling duties in collaboration with the rest of the offensive staff.

At times on Sunday, it was common to see Steichen huddled on the sideline with head coach Anthony Lynn, line coach Pat Meyer, tight ends coach Rip Scherer and receivers coach Phil McGeoghan. While the tendency is to think that too many voices could be a bad thing, the play-calling process, with rare exception, ran smoothly. Depending on the situation, Steichen would mention on the headset that he was considering two or three particular plays, and the other coaches, depending on their area of expertise, would offer their support or suggest something different based on their knowledge of their personnel and what the defense is doing.

"I thought Shane called a good game," Lynn said. "He understands what I want and is plenty aggressive."

Perhaps his strongest trait was a willingness to keep it simple. Rather than go through his call sheet trying to mix things up, he simply stayed with what was working. The Packers struggled to slow the Chargers' one-back, three-receiver sets, so Steichen often stayed with that package -- Rivers estimated they ran it on 25 of their 68 snaps -- because it was so effective, particularly in the run game, which was a point of emphasis coming in.

"We've been challenged every single week to run the ball better," said left tackle Russell Okung. "Honestly, it's inexcusable to have two really good backs in Austin Ekeler and Melvin Gordon and not run the ball well. I took that as a personal challenge. I know our group did. At some point in time, you just get fed up. What does it take? We've all got to be better; how do we be better? Get back to the details. Get back to the fundamentals. And Shane did a good job calling the game."

A noticeable difference in the run game was the Chargers' desire to work the interior of the line rather than the perimeter of the defense. They consistently ran between the guards, finding creases that allowed them to extend drives and keep the ball out of the hands of Aaron Rodgers, who had thrown for 10 touchdowns in his previous three games and posted the first perfect passer rating in Packers history two weeks ago.

Their early possessions didn't result in touchdowns -- they settled for field goals on four of their first five possessions, three of them in the red zone -- but their opening series set the tone, lasting 15 plays and 8 minutes. During one four-possession sequence that bridged the second, third and fourth quarters, their series lasted 13 plays, eight plays, six plays and 10 plays. They did not have a three-and-out all day and won time of possession 35:51 to 24:09.

"This was a good slice of humble pie for us. We're kind of rolling, 7-1, and starting to listen to the chatter maybe a little too much," said Rodgers, who finished 23 of 35 for 161 yards and a touchdown and was sacked three times, twice by Melvin Ingram. "That was a good learning experience for us. We have to come ready to play. I don't think we were locked in from the start, unfortunately. I'm not sure exactly the reason. So we have to look in the mirror and be very honest about our performance -- myself, first, and then our offense, our energy, our attention to detail. We have to get better."

The Chargers were saying the same thing about their run game coming into Sunday, but those concerns were absent postgame. Gordon finished with 80 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Ekeler had 70 yards on 12 carries. In the pass game, Mike Williams had three catches for 111 yards and tight end Hunter Henry added 84 on seven receptions.

It was the first time all season the team won without Rivers throwing a touchdown pass. He was 21 of 28 for 294 yards and zero turnovers. At times in the past, he played as if burdened with the reality that the team will go as he goes, but days like Sunday can allow him to exhale and lean on other parts of the offense, which he's fine with. He knows that reaching their ultimate goal will require balance and complementary football from all phases.

"We should have won a couple of games early and we would be feeling a heck of a lot better," he said. "But we're in a position to at least be in the mix."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter at @JimTrotter_NFL.

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