Defense propels Chargers to 1st playoff berth in 4 seasons

After underachieving for most of the season, the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense is peaking at the right time.

The Bolts have won three straight games and clinched their first playoff berth since 2018, mainly because the defense is finally putting everything together.

In Monday night’s 20-3 win over Indianapolis, Los Angeles had a season-high seven sacks, picked off Colts quarterback Nick Foles three times, and didn’t allow a third-down conversion in a game for the first time in 12 seasons.

Granted, the Colts came in with the league’s 25th-ranked offense, and Foles was the third quarterback to start a game for Indianapolis this season. But the Chargers were equally strong on defense against Miami and Tennessee before their dominant performance in Indy.

On Dec. 11, the Chargers snapped Miami’s five-game winning streak and shut down a Dolphins offense that was second in the league in average yards per play (6.29).

One week later, Los Angeles did not allow any explosive runs by Tennessee’s Derrick Henry before rallying on a late field goal by Cameron Dicker.

The winning streak and defensive turnaround provide some vindication for coach Brandon Staley, who got the Chargers job after coordinating the Los Angeles Rams’ top-ranked defense in 2020.

Until this recent run, LA’s defense had been disappointing. It was ranked 26th, allowing 371.7 yards per game in its first 12 games.

During the past three weeks, the Chargers have allowed a league-low 34 points, given up an average of 225.3 yards per game and recorded 13 sacks, which is second to Philadelphia’s 19.

“We just have a unit that’s connected out there, a team that’s playing extremely hard, playing extremely disciplined, doing all the things that you need to do to put a dominant effort like that,” Staley said. “We still have work to do, but I like where we’re going.”

The defense may get another big lift this week if linebacker Joey Bosa returns to practice. He has been out the last 13 weeks after suffering a groin injury against Jacksonville on Sept. 25.

Even though the Chargers have clinched a playoff spot, they are motivated by the possibility of improving their seeding. Los Angeles (9-6) is currently the sixth seed, one game behind Baltimore.

The fifth seed would face the AFC South champion — Jacksonville or Tennessee, both of which currently have losing records — in the wild-card round. Potential first-round opponents for the sixth seed include Buffalo, Kansas City or Cincinnati.

Staley said he would rest players only if they were at risk of missing the playoffs.

“Our plan is to continue to improve as a football team. I think that is the most important thing, that we continue to improve, and the only way you are going to do that is by competing,” Staley said. “On a case-by-case basis, if there is someone that is not right, certainly, we don’t want them out there if it is going to inhibit their ability to play in the postseason and play at a high level.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Ball control. The Chargers had three drives of 10 or more plays against the Colts, giving them 35 this season, tied for third in the league.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Justin Herbert hasn’t thrown a TD pass in consecutive games for the first time in his three-year career. He also committed four turnovers in the past two games, including three interceptions.

STOCK UP

Morgan Fox. The sixth-year defensive lineman had his first two-sack game on Monday night. He has three sacks in the last three games and 5 1/2 this season.

STOCK DOWN

Derwin James. The safety returned after missing two games with a quadriceps injury but got ejected in the second quarter for hitting Colts receiver Ashton Dulin with the crown of his helmet. James, who earned his third Pro Bowl selection last week, had an interception earlier in the game.

INJURIES

James is in the concussion protocol after his hit on Dulin. RB Zander Horvath sprained an ankle against the Colts and is questionable to practice this week.

KEY NUMBER

16 — Touchdowns for Austin Ekeler (11 rushing, five receiving) this season, which leads the league. He is the fourth player in the past 15 years to have two straight seasons of at least 15 scrimmage TDs. The others are the Titans’ Henry, former Charger and Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, and Todd Gurley.

NEXT STEPS

The Chargers host the Rams in the second regular-season matchup since the Rams moved back to LA in 2016 and the Chargers followed one year later. The Rams won the 2018 game 35-23. Five former Rams players now suit up in powder blue.

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