Swanson: Injured Chargers kicker Dustin Hopkins saves the day

INGLEWOOD — Dustin Hopkins didn’t care.

Twenty yards. Fifty-five yards. What difference did it make?

It was going to hurt either way. And either way, it was going to go through the uprights – at least that’s how it looked Monday when the Chargers’ veteran place-kicker fought through an ailing right hamstring to connect on all four of his field-goal attempts.

He hit from 37, 31, 35 and, finally, 39 yards for the win.

After each big swing, he grimaced and buckled and fell to the ground … only to get up and do it again. And again. And again. Until he gave the home team a 19-16 overtime victory at SoFi Stadium.

“It was like, ‘Well, give it a rip,’ and that was it,” Hopkins said during his walk-off interview on ABC, when he credited the Chargers’ offense for sticking with it and allowing him the opportunity to stick it.

“Even when things weren’t going perfect for them, to march down the field and not lose hope and confidence, it says a lot about our team.”

The Chargers, he said, know they’re “super-talented,” but, he cautioned, “that doesn’t get anything in the NFL unless you put it together. So to be gritty and hopefully find it in the weeks to come, it could be really good for us.”

On Monday, he was the grit he wants to see in his team.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert did Hopkins a favor when he slung one last pass to Mike Williams, trimming 9 yards from the distance oF Hopkins’ final kick.

Moments later, after Hopkins’ teammates had peeled him off the turf, he was crowd surfing in their arms, the hero because he – the injured kicker – proved the only reliable tool in either team’s offensive kit.

Otherwise, and not unexpectedly, the defenses dominated.

Denver entered Monday’s matchup with the top-ranked pass defense. The Broncos also came in averaging a league-low 15 points per game.

They outdid themselves Monday by one point thanks to a first quarter that made you wonder whether the reports of Russell Wilson’s demise were premature. The embattled quarterback, who underwent a platelet-rich plasma injection 10 days ago, according to ESPN, connected on all 10 of his pass attempts in a first quarter when Denver took a 10-0 lead.

After that, the Broncos scored only six more points and Wilson went 5 for 18.

The Chargers did their guests the courtesy of slowing down, too. Behind a banged-up offensive line, Herbert finished without a touchdown for the first time in 27 games and having completed just 37 for 57 for 238 yards – including only three of his seven attempts for 20 yards in overtime.

That left it up to Hopkins, the 6-foot-2 former Florida State kicker who in 2010 connected on a 55-yarder with three seconds left to beat Clemson, whose 145 consecutive extra-point attempts was the sixth-longest streak in NCAA history, and who left college as the all-time Division I record holder for points by a kicker (448).

Now 32 and in his ninth NFL season, Hopkins has accounted for 790 professional points in his time with Washington and the Chargers – who signed him to a three-year, $9 million deal earlier this year after he connected on 18 of his 20 attempts with the team last season.

It was a wise investment.

Coach Brandon Staley said after Monday’s skin-of-their-teeth victory that Hopkins – who missed the Chargers’ 30-28 victory in Cleveland on Oct. 9 with a quadriceps injury – was suffering a cramp or strain in that hammy, something that “just didn’t feel right.”

Hopkins said he felt something pop on his first extra-point attempt following Austin Ekeler’s 6-yard touchdown run with 9:09 to go in the second quarter.

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“You can’t say enough about him hanging in there,” said Staley of his kicker, who wore a black wrap around his hamstring on the sideline between kicks, and of his punter J.K. Scott, who stepped in and handled kickoffs to save Hopkins for field goals and the extra-point attempts that never transpired.

Said Herbert: “We’ve got so much respect for him. We know he’s hurting. … He’s tough. That’s all you can say about it. For him to go out there and play, put up with some pain like that, it’s great to see.

“Yeah, I was hurting pretty good,” Hopkins confirmed. “We’ll go back in and try to figure out what that looks like.”

Expect Hopkins, buoyed by his faith, to tough it out, whatever it looks like.

He paused before answering questions on the field Monday to give thanks: “I have so much to be thankful for, apart from football,” he told Lisa Salters. “When something like this happens, I’m blessed either way. But to be on the good side, obviously, it feels a lot better.”

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