Herbert among Chargers to play late in meaningless game

DENVER (AP) — Not even the sight of his leading receiver being carted off the field with an injured back could alter Brandon Staley’s plan.

The Los Angeles Chargers coach kept playing the starters Sunday and acting as though his team had something to play for, even though by the time the game began, it was clear it meant nothing.

Even after Mike Williams left with an injured back in the second quarter, most of Los Angeles’ stars — Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Derwin James Jr., among them — stayed in the lineup.

Not until the fourth quarter of what turned out to be a 31-28 loss to the Denver Broncos did Staley have all of them on the bench to eliminate the risk of another key injury for a team that was locked in to play the wild-card round in Jacksonville before its game began. The Chargers will play the Jaguars on Saturday night.

“These aren’t easy decisions,” Staley said. “And hindsight is perfect for everybody on the outside. But these games are not easy to manage. They’re not. Because you don’t have that many players. We did it to the best of our ability.”

The Chargers (10-7) had to approach the week with some flexibility. They had the fifth seed, which brought with it the possibility of a matchup against a 9-8 Jaguars team instead of the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. Only if the Ravens beat the Bengals in a game that started 3 1/2 hours earlier would there be a chance for the Chargers’ seeding to drop.

Staley had said that he was taking the team to Denver to win and play their best — with adjustments to be made as necessary. When the Chargers kicked off, the Ravens had lost 27-16 and the fifth seed was assured.

By the time Williams was being carted off the field, Herbert had already thrown 17 passes. In all, the Chargers quarterback threw 37 passes for 273 yards and two scores before he was lifted early in the fourth quarter with his team trailing.

“I know everyone on this team wanted to go out and compete today,” Herbert said. “We believe in the front office, the coaching staff — whatever they decided. So we’re behind them 100%.”

A lot of this fits a pattern for Staley, who has been among the most aggressive NFL coaches when it comes to foregoing field goals and taking other risky strategical chances on fourth downs.

Swashbuckling ways aside, the Chargers have been dealing with injuries this season; Allen had a bad hamstring, Herbert had battered rib cartilage, Joey Bosa missed a bulk of the season with a groin injury and he, too, went off in the first half.

“Joey was taken out like the rest of the guys that we were trying to phase out in the game,” Staley responded when asked if Bosa tweaked something.

Ultimately, if Williams returns next week unscathed, Staley might get a break. In a best-case scenario, he might be able to argue that a deep run into the playoffs came in part because he kept his best players sharp in an otherwise meaningless game against the Broncos.

On Sunday, though, he was getting second-guessed on social media, then later, was forced to answer questions about his playing-time decisions in the postgame news conference.

“I believe Justin played the right amount,” Staley said. “I think when you look across the league, at the other teams who were playing in the playoffs and what they did this last week, I think you’ll see a lot of high-level players playing in their football games. I think that’s fair to say.

“I think you’ll see all the big-time quarterbacks, big-time players, were out there for the football teams. Because they have to be.”

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AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this report.

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