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Chargers stifle Colts, clinch first playoff berth since 2018 season

INDIANAPOLIS — The Chargers took care of business on Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, dispatching the Indianapolis Colts and clinching an AFC playoff berth with a 20-3 victory, their third in a row after losses in three of their previous four games had cast serious doubts about their postseason dreams.

Running back Austin Ekeler scored on 1-yard runs in the second and fourth quarters and Cameron Dicker kicked 24- and 21-yard field goals as the Chargers improved to 9-6 with regular-season games against the Rams (5-10) and the Denver Broncos (4-11) still to be played.

The Chargers intercepted Colts quarterback Nick Foles three times and sacked him seven times in their best overall defensive game of the season, dominating a disjointed Indianapolis offense. Foles completed 17 of 29 passes for 143 yards as the Colts (4-10-1) lost their fifth consecutive game.

After the New York Jets lost Thursday night to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New England Patriots lost to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Las Vegas Raiders fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday, it cleared a path for the Chargers to clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2018.

After the dominoes fell in the Chargers’ favor in recent days, all they needed to do to clinch an AFC wild-card berth was to defeat the Colts and erase years of futility that included an overtime loss to the Raiders on the final day of the regular season last year that sent them to an early vacation.

On Monday, the Chargers welcomed safety Derwin James Jr. back to their starting lineup after he sat out two games because of a quadriceps injury. James didn’t last the first half, though, ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Indianapolis wide receiver Ashton Dulin with 5:19 left in the second quarter.

Two plays earlier, James was penalized for a face mask infraction after Indianapolis wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. caught a 7-yard pass on a first-and-15 play from the Colts’ 24-yard line. The matching 15-yard penalties ignited the Colts’ first scoring drive.

After a scoreless first quarter, and zero to show for their first three possessions, the Chargers took a 7-0 lead after Ekeler’s 1-yard run with 8:41 left in the half. The Colts countered with Chase McLaughlin’s 46-yard field goal with 4:21 remaining in the half, after James’ ejection.

James and Dulin were each examined for head injuries after James’ initiated their collision before heading to their respective locker rooms. The Colts later announced Dulin would not return to the game because of a concussion, leaving them shorthanded at wide receiver for the second half.

Losers of four consecutive games and seven of eight, the Colts turned their quarterbacking duties over to Foles, benching Matt Ryan after Indianapolis squandered a 33-0 halftime lead en route to a 39-36 loss to the Minnesota Vikings last week, the largest blown lead in NFL history.

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Foles was shaky at best in his first start of the season and only his second appearance. Chargers cornerback Michael Davis picked off one errant Foles pass in the first quarter, returning it 30 yards. James leaped to snare another off-target pass along the right sideline on the Colts’ next possession.

The Chargers failed to take advantage of the twin takeaways, sputtering offensively until second-quarter drives produced Ekeler’s touchdown run and Dicker’s field goal. There was nothing wrong with their defensive play, though, shutting out a fourth consecutive opponent in the first quarter.

Foles’ third interception, picked off by Asante Samuel Jr., set up Dicker’s 21-yard field goal that extended the Chargers’ lead to 13-3 with 6:01 left in the third quarter. The Chargers had a first-and-goal at the Colts’ 10-yard line but failed to punch it in. Dicker then kicked his second short field goal.

The Chargers failed to score a third-quarter touchdown for the 10th consecutive game, dating to a 30-28 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 9. However, they still held a 10-point lead over the Colts and their flailing quarterback, and it might have seemed like twice that with a quarter to go.

More to come on this story.

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