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Chargers’ Derwin James Jr. feeling the spirit of the season

COSTA MESA — Derwin James Jr. arrived bearing expensive gifts Friday. He played the role of Santa Claus without actually dressing the part, handing out watches and personalized chains for his fellow defensive backs and also for the Chargers’ coaching staff.

“Christmas love, Christmas spirit,” the star safety said of offering one gift or the other to his teammates and coaches. “One of the best holidays of the year. Why not share it with your brothers?”

While one side of the Chargers’ locker room was basking in the glow of the heavenly gifts, the other was in an uproar. The Chargers’ wide receivers took one look at the watches and chains and wondered when or if veteran teammate Keenan Allen would come through for them, too.

“Keenan is a bad vet,” James said, breaking out in laughter. “He didn’t get his young receivers anything. He ought to be ashamed of himself.”

Good-natured banter ensued.

The spirit of the season definitely was in the air.

“I’m feeling amazing,” James said. “I’m feeling better.”

James’ return to the field for the Chargers’ game against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night could be a gift that keeps giving for the rest of the season. He sat out the past two games, critical victories over the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans, because of a strained quadriceps muscle.

“I took some time to get it healed and it’s feeling better,” said James, who was selected earlier this week to the Pro Bowl for the third time in his career and for the second consecutive season. “I kind of played through it and it got worse. Now it’s better. I sat down and rested it and now it’s better.”

James nodded in the affirmative when asked point-blank if he could play Monday.

He went on to praise the Chargers’ defensive backs who rallied together while he was sidelined for victories over the Dolphins and the Titans. They limited Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to 10-for-28 passing in Week 14 and held Titans running back Derrick Henry to a relatively modest 104 yards in Week 15.

Safeties Alohi Gilman and Nasir Adderley stepped up in James’ absence, playing aggressively in each of the past two games. It afforded Chargers coach Brandon Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill the opportunity to use the depth in the secondary to their advantage.

Now, with James expected back Monday against the Colts, the Chargers will be at something close to full strength. Or as close as they can be at this point in what’s been an injury-filled season. They are, after all, without cornerback J.C. Jackson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 7.

“Those guys played at a high level these past couple of weeks,” James said of the play of Gilman and Adderley, in particular, and the entire secondary as a group. “Lots of confidence. I’m just trying to be there to help and bring that energy and experience and help us to get where we want to go.”

Oddly enough, the Chargers’ fortunes changed dramatically for the better while James was sidelined. He was injured during their victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 27 and struggled through a Dec. 4 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders that left them with a 6-6 record and an uncertain playoff future.

Instead of folding, the Chargers gained strength with James on the sideline cheering them to victories over the Dolphins and Titans, two teams that seemed destined for the playoffs at the time. Now, the Chargers still face must-win games, but they don’t need help from other teams to advance.

Actually, the Chargers can clinch their first playoff berth since the 2018 season with a victory over the Colts on Monday, plus losses Saturday by the New England Patriots to the Cincinnati Bengals and by the Raiders to the Pittsburgh Steelers. A tie between the Raiders and Steelers would work, too.

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The New York Jets’ loss Thursday night to the Jacksonville Jaguars was the first step toward clinching for the Chargers.

Additionally, there are clinching scenarios that would also require a loss by the Dolphins to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

“There’s no better feeling than controlling your own destiny,” James said. “We don’t have to look over our shoulders or be fans of other teams, you know what I mean? When you can control your own destiny. If we win them all, we’re in. It doesn’t even matter. Just win this one, then the next one, then we’re in.”

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