After a season of uneven performances, the Chargers’ defense has leveled off — and leveled up — over the last two weeks.
The group has been so good that it has impacted not only the opposition’s offense but also its own offense.
“It’s not even so much what they did but how they did it,” center Corey Linsley said. “Just the energy they’ve had. You can feel it. They’ve had this attitude that they won’t be denied. That breeds so much confidence in the rest of us.”
Behind smothering defensive efforts in victories over Miami and Tennessee, the Chargers went from outside the playoffs to the brink of clinching a berth in what felt like just a few snaps.
The reality is they won consecutive games over teams also competing to advance to the playoffs while everyone around them in the AFC standings stumbled.
Now, they travel to Indianapolis for a Monday night game in which they can secure a postseason spot with a victory.
“That’s the whole purpose of playing football right now,” quarterback Justin Herbert said, “to be able to extend your season and to play well after what you’re guaranteed.”
The Chargers’ latest opportunity comes against an opponent that has lost four in a row and seven of eight, that has an interim head coach and that is changing quarterbacks for the third time this season.
In their last two games, the Colts were outscored by Dallas in the fourth quarter 33-0 and blew a 33-0 halftime lead in an overtime loss to Minnesota. The latter was the greatest single-game collapse in NFL history.
A Chargers defense playing as well as it has all season will receive a boost Monday when Pro Bowl safety Derwin James Jr. returns after missing two games because of a quadriceps injury.
With James back, the Chargers will be as intact as they’ve been since early in the season, the team’s collective health rallying at the right time.
The fact the Chargers are favored by slightly more than a field goal speaks to the betting nation’s wobbly faith in them and the any-given-Monday nature of the league.
“Everyone’s talented,” Chargers defensive lineman Morgan Fox said. “If you start backing off or taking your foot off the gas, everyone in this business has the ability to jump right back in the game.”
Jumping back in describes what’s happening with Nick Foles, who won a Super Bowl with the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles but barely has played over the last two calendar years.
Indianapolis’ interim coach, Jeff Saturday, is turning to Foles over Matt Ryan in an attempt to salvage the remains of the 2022 season.
Despite Foles’ recent inactivity — one start since mid-November 2020 — the Chargers say they aren’t anticipating any rust to show.
“It’s not like we’re over here thinking Nick Foles is going to fold,” Linsley said. “This guy has a ring. He’s played a long time and he knows what it is. I’m pretty sure that’s the farthest thing from our minds.”
Added defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day: “We don’t pay that any mind. The blown lead thing, any of that. This won’t be an easy game.”
The Chargers have played seven consecutive one-score finishes and, for the season, own just one victory by a margin greater than six points. If this game is close, they’ll at least be in familiar waters.
Also familiar is what happened to the Chargers exactly one year ago. The team was 8-6 and in a playoff spot when it visited the downtrodden Houston Texans the day after Christmas.
On an afternoon when both teams had significant COVID-19 absences, the Chargers, who entered as 13-point favorites, lost 41-29. Coach Brandon Staley said he didn’t intend to revisit that experience.
“I don’t think that is an effective strategy because there are so many guys who weren’t even here,” he said. “I think what is most relevant is what is in front of you …
“You have to make it about your team, not anybody else’s team or not anybody else’s situation. I think if we put the focus there, then we’ll make the improvements we need to make to be as good as we can be.”
The Chargers can be their best yet under Staley with a win Monday, the franchise’s first playoff berth since the 2018 season there to be taken.