Alexander: For Chargers, this playoff berth can’t be a one-off

The great quarterbacks, the ones we remember, make their reputations in the postseason. Finally, Justin Herbert will get his chance.

It has been a building process. The Chargers were 7-9 in his rookie season. They were 9-8 last year and missed the postseason by the length of a 47-yard game-losing field goal in Las Vegas on the season’s final night, after a timeout call in overtime by Coach Brandon Staley that was debated for weeks afterward.

This year, Herbert and the Chargers left nothing to chance. They are 9-6 after Monday’s 20-3 playoff-clinching victory in Indianapolis and with games left against the Rams this week and Denver in the Jan. 8 finale they’ll be playing for seeding and for momentum instead of for their postseason lives.

The trick is that it becomes a habit, not a one-off.

A franchise that has had two playoff appearances in the last 12 years, between Los Angeles and San Diego, needs to make this a regular occurrence for Herbert to receive the attention that his talents warrant.

Ultimately, it will take getting to and winning a Super Bowl to put this quarterback and this franchise in front of the nation’s consciousness. As great a career as Philip Rivers had in a Chargers uniform, he was never considered nationally as on the same level of the marquee quarterbacks of his era – Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger – because he never got to a Super Bowl.

Herbert is young. He has time. But that time can elapse before you know it.

“His (Herbert’s) first two years here have been nothing short of amazing, and I think that he played well enough to be in the tournament,” Staley said during a Zoom session on Tuesday. “And certainly, last year was an incredible year for us. We all know what he did to lead us to nine wins. We fell a little bit short last year, but his play was representative of a quarterback that can lead you to a world championship, and this year has been no exception.

“Quarterbacks are defined in the postseason. That’s how the history of this game is written. Now, he gets an opportunity to compete, like he always does.”

Maybe, just maybe, the events of Jan. 9 in Allegiant Stadium were a driving force this season. That 35-32 loss to the Raiders in last season’s finale left an empty feeling that didn’t go away, and Herbert brought it up to reporters on Monday night in Indianapolis.

“It (was) such a tough way to lose last year to the Raiders there at the end,” he said. “We had some games that went not our way last year. We were able to fix that this year and learn from that.

“You know, I think those guys in that locker room, they deserve that. They worked so hard this year, and they’ve earned it. … It didn’t go our way the past two years, but they stuck with it.”

Sticking with it has been the story of this season to date. The Chargers had a wobbly stretch that knocked them back down to 6-6, with three losses in four games – back-to-back defeats against the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs in November and another rough day in Las Vegas in a 27-20 loss at the start of December, sandwiched around a 25-24 victory at Arizona on a gutsy two-point conversion call with 15 seconds left.

But the path to the playoffs was paved with home victories over Miami and Tennessee, both teams in playoff position at the time, both with Pro Bowl safety Derwin James Jr. injured and others stepping up big-time defensively. Those victories put the Chargers in position to clinch early, and now they’re in a spot where by running the table they could conceivably grab the No. 5 seed, which would mean avoiding a playoff opener at Buffalo or Kansas City (whichever finishes second in the AFC) or Cincinnati.

And maybe that’s the key – to be healthy and playing your best by the time the games matter most. Staley can broach that subject on Sunday with his former boss, Sean McVay, whose Rams used that formula to win a Lombardi Trophy last season.

James is in the concussion protocol after the helmet-to-neck hit Monday night that leveled Indy’s Ashton Dulin, got James ejected from the game and led to both men being examined for head trauma. But edge rusher Joey Bosa figures to be back soon, though Staley continues to tease, giving the media the “we’ll let you know” answer when his availability comes up.

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The offense can be better, too. Monday night was the best showing for the running game since Week 11 and, with 101 yards in 32 carries and two Austin Ekeler scores, only the third time this season the Chargers reached double figures in rushing yards. A more solid running game eases the pressure on Herbert to do it all himself.

“Over 80 percent of the touchdowns in the NFL happen inside the (20),” Staley said. “We had four opportunities and we were two of four. If you score touchdowns on those drives that’s eight more points, and when it’s 28-8 you’re feeling different about the movie. We just have to get into sync together because we’re moving the football, and there’s a lot of good plays in there but it’s just been up and down. It’s going to take everybody.

“We got good enough players, we got good enough coaches. We just have to put it all together.”

The unspoken but obvious message: When you have a dynamic quarterback, you’ve got to help him out.

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