Chargers face challenges as regular season winds down

Now what? Now that the Chargers have clinched an AFC wild-card berth, where do they go from here? Can they defeat the Rams and Denver Broncos, teams going nowhere, in their final two regular-season games and improve their playoff seeding, possibly moving to fifth from sixth?

Can the Chargers continue to improve their play and make an extended playoff run in their first postseason appearance since the 2018 season?

Throughout the season, over the course of the first 15 games, there’s been a sense that the Chargers can do better, that their best is yet to come. There has been a notion that the promise and expectations of a team on the rise haven’t been met as a nerve-jangling season has unfolded.

No question, the Chargers’ improved defensive play has sparked a three-game winning streak going into Sunday’s game against the Rams at SoFi Stadium. Chargers coach Brandon Staley said there was plenty of room for improvement Sunday and next week against the Denver Broncos.

The return of edge rusher Joey Bosa after a three-month layoff because of a groin injury that required surgery could give the Chargers’ a much-anticipated boost heading into the final two regular-season games and the playoffs beyond. Bosa will play a limited role Sunday against the Rams.

“We still have a lot more gears that we can get to as a defense,” Staley said when asked if the defense was playing its best in recent games. “There are so many more things that are within this group. This is what we have to attack in the next game and these next opportunities that we get.”

Certainly, the Chargers’ offense doesn’t appear to have come close to the consistency that was expected of it going into the season. It’s been effective when needed, especially in recent close games against the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans, but seems capable of so much more.

The returns of wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams have done wonders for the Chargers’ offense during their three-game winning streak, adding depth and experience to a position that cried out for it while they were sidelined by hamstring and ankle injuries, respectively.

“I think just to move the ball consistently, to execute in the red zone, limit turnovers and convert on third downs,” Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert said of the offense’s goals. “The same things that we are attacking every week. It’s a great opportunity for us to get better. Still two weeks of work and improvement, so hopefully we will get things to be more consistent.”

It has been a season marked by wild swings of success and failure, injuries to key players, an ability to keep plugging away and, ultimately, reach the point they expected to reach all along. Consistency has been elusive in many of their games, but there’s still a chance to achieve it.

The Rams – with no chance to defend their Super Bowl title after they were eliminated from the NFC playoff race, but with plenty of talent and motivation – could prove to be a challenge for the Chargers to overcome Sunday. The Rams could be just what the Chargers need to push them to greater heights.

As much as he would like to rest key players such as Herbert, Allen, Williams, running back Austin Ekeler and other skill players on offense and standout defensive players such as defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day and edge rusher Khalil Mack, Staley also wants to win the final two.

Playoff seeding is important for the sixth-seeded Chargers. If the playoff started Sunday, they would play the third-seeded Cincinnati Bengals. Winning their final two could move them into fifth and a date with the AFC South winner, either the Titans or Jacksonville Jaguars.

One victory would keep them from falling to seventh.

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Are the Chargers and Rams actually rivals Sunday?

“We’re worried about all of it, but we are trying to win every game to improve our positioning, for sure,” Staley said when asked about resting players. “You factor in those individual health situations, I think, on a case-by-case basis. That is kind of how you have to treat it. The facts are on the ground this week.

“We have to play this week and then we’ll see what happens next week. You’re taking both of those things into consideration, but I think the biggest thing for us is we want to be playing our best football and how we do that is attacking these next two weeks in the right way and this game against the Rams because this team is going to really bring out the best in us. They are a playoff-caliber team and organization.”

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