Chargers can clinch playoff berth by beating Colts on Monday

After all misplays, mistakes and missed opportunities, after all the injuries, after all the makeshift lineups, the Chargers are right where they expected to be all along. A victory Monday night over the Indianapolis Colts will enable them to clinch their first AFC playoff berth since 2018.

Not all of the offseason upgrades to the Chargers’ roster, and there were many, paid dividends as expected. Free-agent cornerback J.C. Jackson suffered a season-ending knee injury in a disheartening Week 5 loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars, for one glaring example.

Not all of their many injuries were so easy to overcome. Quarterback Justin Herbert fractured his rib cartilage in the final minutes of a Week 2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and it was several weeks before he looked like his old mobile and creative self again, for one noteworthy example.

The Chargers persevered, though. They toughened up after a loss in Week 13 to the Las Vegas Raiders dropped them back to .500, taking must-win games from the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans in the next two weeks, improving their record to 8-6 heading into Monday’s game.

When the New York Jets lost Thursday to the Jaguars, the New England Patriots lost to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Raiders lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday, it opened the door for the Chargers to sprint through to the playoffs with a victory over the Colts (4-9-1).

Herbert and wide receiver Keenan Allen each said they weren’t scoreboard watching in the final weeks of the season. They said they weren’t looking at the standings or checking out the playoff-clinching scenarios for the Chargers or any of the other teams around the NFL.

“No, I didn’t know that,” Herbert said when asked if he was aware that the Chargers could clinch with a victory Monday. “It’s good to know. That’s cool to know.”

So, there were the Chargers players, clustered around TVs in the locker room after Saturday’s practice, watching the final minutes of the Patriots’ loss to the Bengals, cheering gleefully when New England’s Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled at the Cincinnati 5-yard line to end a final threat.

The Chargers knew what was at stake. They were in a similar position last season, but losses to the Houston Texans and Raiders sandwiched around a victory over the Denver Broncos cost them a playoff berth. The loss to the Texans on the day after Christmas was a serious clunker.

“You have to learn from those mistakes,” Herbert said. “It didn’t go our way last year. We lost a couple there at the end and we, unfortunately, didn’t make the playoffs. That’s the whole purpose of playing football right now, to be able to extend your season and to play well after what you’re guaranteed.

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“Obviously, it was a tough, tough year last year, but you have to look at the film. You have to see what you did wrong. You have to make those games happen in December and November, when it matters most, and especially January. We have another great opportunity this year.”

When training camp began back in late July, the Chargers were the trendy pick to make a deep run in the playoffs. They had signed Jackson as a free agent from the Patriots, acquired edge rusher Khalil Mack from the Chicago Bears and drafted well as they sought to improve upon last season’s 9-8 record.

Now, they need only to beat the Colts, losers of four in a row and seven of eight, to complete the first step in their journey. It’s another must-win game, of course, and they said repeatedly over the past few days that they had no intention of overlooking the Colts despite their record and their flaws.

The Chargers expect the best from the Colts, who are coming off a game in which they squandered a 33-0 halftime lead en route to a 39-36 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Chargers said all the right things about Indianapolis and its motivation going into Monday night’s game.

“Well, they’ve beaten a lot of quality teams this year,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “They beat the Chiefs, the Raiders, the Broncos. I think that Dallas is playing as well as anybody in the league, and going into the fourth quarter, it was 21-19 (before the Colts lost 54-19). (Against) Minnesota … they were up 33-0 at halftime. You know what this team is capable of doing, because they’ve done it.”

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