The Chargers are 5-3 following a Week 9 win in Atlanta.
Here are five takeaways from Sunday's Chargers-Falcons thriller:
1. A crazy Chargers ending
Wait, what happened?
You aren't alone if you're still processing a wild and chaotic ending that saw multiple fumbles and possession changes in the final minute of a game that ultimately ended with a 20-17 Chargers win.
Let's break it all down, beginning with just 46 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The Bolts faced third-and-4 at the Atlanta 22-yard line, as a first down could have allowed them to ice the clock and try a field goal.
Austin Ekeler took the handoff a muscled forward for three yards, but the ball came loose as he hit the ground. Atlanta defensive lineman Ta'Quon Johnson picked it up and ran the other way but fumbled himself — untouched — just before the Falcons 40.
Left guard Matt Feiler, who had sprinted the other way trying to get Johnson, fell on the ball at the 43-yard line.
"You know, we always practice running after the ball just in case something like that happens," Feiler said. "I was just kind of doing that, I saw the ball come out and luckily it bounced our way and somehow, I just fell on it."
Justin Herbert said he was actually ready to tackle Johnson near the 40.
"I was going to make the tackle and I think I dove at his legs and saw that he didn't have the ball," Herbert said. "Realized that it came out and we had the ball. It was kind of a weird couple of moments, but I wasn't going to give up on the play."
Got all that? It was one of the weirdest sequences you'll ever see on a field.
So instead of likely facing fourth-and-1 at the 19, the Bolts now had first-and-10 at the 43.
No matter, as Herbert hit Joshua Palmer for a 22-yard strike to put the Bolts back in comfortable field goal range. Two plays later, Cameron Dicker — the Chargers third kicker of the season — nailed a 37-yard field goal at the buzzer to seal the win.
"A lot [went through my mind]," said Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley.
"It's the NFL, anything can happen," Staley continued. "A lot happened in our game today and our guys [responded]. We had to go play after that play, it was a rollercoaster."
"Our offense performed beautifully," Staley later added.
Of course, all that happened after Ekeler appeared to score on a long touchdown run earlier in the quarter, only to be ruled down after officials let the play go as it happened.
And it was after Khalil Mack made a game-changing play early in the third quarter. With the Chargers up 10-7, Mack ripped the ball away from Falcons wide receiver Drake London at the 6-yard line.
In the aftermath of everything, Ekeler said he was thrilled with the win but expressed disappointment with his play down the stretch.
"I had no idea where the ball was, but I definitely knew the ball was out," Ekeler said of his fumble. "I'm looking around and it's behind me so I never would've saw it. Then I'm on the ground and all of a sudden I see they all start running and I'm still on the ground like 'Where is the ball?'
"It's probably the worst feeling as a running back. To see someone running the other way when you fumbled the ball," Ekeler continued. "Especially when we put so much emphasis on ball security throughout the entire week for as long as we've been playing.
"So, it's like a devasting feeling when you give it up. Especially in the fourth quarter," Ekeler added. "The whole team is relying on you to hold onto this ball so we can kick a field goal and get home."
But his fumble actually ended up back in the hands of the Bolts, who secured their third road win of the season.
2. Bolts find a way despite injuries
By the end of Sunday's game, the Chargers were even more banged up than when the game started.
Defensive tackle Austin Johnson suffered a knee injury, with Staley saying it was likely a sprained MCL. Right tackle Trey Pipkins III, who had already been dealing with that exact injury, left the game in the fourth quarter and did not return.
And that doesn't include the laundry list of other players — Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa, Rashawn Slater among them — who weren't available against Atlanta.
But the Bolts found a way to get to 5-3, even if it wasn't pretty.
"This isn't exclusive to any team, it's hard every week in the NFL, and we're learning that as a club," Staley said. "Since I've been the head coach, we've played in a bunch of close ones, and we're comfortable in this space. When you have as many people go down as we have throughout the season and you go on the road, it's not going to be poetic.
"Maybe it could be if you're full strength and you had a full army out there, and maybe it could be that way, maybe like in the first game for us or part of the second game, but for us, it's just we got to be able to fight the fight based on who we have and based on what's happening," Staley continued. "I think our guys are really used to that and when you go 10 to nothing down on the road, I think you show a lot of about who your football team is and that's not the first time that it's happened this year.
"We've been able to hang tough together and get going and then finish the game playing our best, what I thought you saw that with our football team was offense/defense kicking game," Staley added. "It took all three phases to finish the game on the road, and I'm really glad that our guys got this one, because they earned it."
At the near halfway point of the season, the Bolts find themselves in a Wild Card spot. (Kansas City is 5-2 and plays on Sunday Night Football).
Staley was echoed a similar sentiment that he shared going into the bye week, that a rugged seven-game stretch to open the season would only prepare the Bolts for a tough final 10 games.
"After seven games you get a real accurate picture of the fight in the football team and then you've had experience, all these things that most people experience in a full season, but we've did it in seven games," Staley said.
He later added: "t's not whether we win or lose, but how we play. How we compete. That's what our focus is on, it's on us, on the Chargers and how we compete and how we play. If we to do that we are going to be able to continue to improve and get some guys back and hopefully be playing our best down the stretch."
Herbert said: "It's a fight for every win. It's not easy. It's never easy in the NFL and that's a really good football team that we played against, but for those guys to be able to step up and deal with punches, the adversity and answer I thought that was huge for us."
3. Herbert shines on offense
Herbert's final stat line won't be the gaudiest of his career.
The Bolts quarterback completed 30 of 43 passes for 245 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
But Herbert's performance went beyond the box score, as he looked as good as he has since Week 2 — when he suffered a rib injury.
"It's been better each week. I think time is the best thing for it, to heal, recover," Herbert said. "I just do everything I can in the treatment room to do my best on Sunday.
"It's one of those things that you just kind of have to go through and go through with time, making sure that you're not getting in harm's way, not taking unnecessary shots, things like that, but it has gotten better," Herbert added.
The biggest aspect of Herbert's game that appeared to be in full swing was his pocket presence. Herbert routinely stepped up in, and around, the pocket to deliver darts all over the field Sunday.
"We thought that it was an advantage for us today to try to create more plays outside the pocket and we needed that," Staley said. "I thought he was very good with his mobility … he was able to buy some time to really use his legs effectively.
"You're going to have to do that, when your premium guys aren't out there all the time," Staley added. "You're going to have to use your legs to create some space and create some time for your guys and he played the game the way he needed to play it today and I was proud of him and he practiced well, and his teammates really just fought hard for him today."
Herbert was especially good on third downs, even after a slow start. The Bolts didn't convert their first two tries on third-and-2, but ripped off six straight conversions, all through the air.
Perhaps his best throw was a third-and-15 conversion to Palmer that gained 25 yards and jumpstarted the offense.
Or maybe it was his final throw of the day, a 22-yarder to Palmer where the quarterback delivered as the Falcons were ion man-to-man coverage.
"Justin was extremely poised today at the quarterback position, made a bunch of big plays for us. We were really, really good on third down," Staley said. "I think we were 8-of-16 on third down and you know our guys just hung tough."
Get an inside look at the Chargers celebrating their Week 9, 20-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium!
4. Run defense responds
The Bolts had another slow start, going down 10-0 before rallying for a win.
That's now four straight games where the Chargers have trailed by double digits in the opening quarter, even though they've come back to win three of them.
On Sunday, it was a 10-0 hole against the Falcons.
"We like to be [down] 10-0. We like to get it the hard way," Tranquill quipped with a smile. "It feels like a different thing every week. But I like the way we've made adjustments.
"They get 10 points early and we hold them to seven points the final three quarters to give our offense a chance," Tranquill added. "We have things to correct, for sure, but a win is a win is a win."
The Bolts run game mirrored their overall performance.
Yes, the Chargers allowed 201 yards on 35 attempts, but 60 of those yards came on the opening drive … including 44 on one run. And 94 of those yards came in the opening quarter on 12 carries.
The rest of the way, the Chargers gave up 107 yards in 23 carries — a much mor respectable performance.
"They did a good job. Early on in the game, they were moving the ball on us," Tranquill said. "But in the second quarter I felt like we started stopping the run on early downs so they got into third-and-longs and we could get our pressures going.
"We just had to make some adjustments there," Tranquill added. "But we made enough stops to win the game."
Staley said: "I think our guys just settled in and we got into the right personnel groupings that we felt like would match up with those guys and I just felt like our guys really communicated, stay connected, and we did a good job of tackling after that and kept the ball in front of us and then put a roof over the coverage. Didn't let them get any plays in the deep part of the field, so we have taken away the passing game, and then we could really put our attention to the run game. They are a really good running team, and we try to do our best to, after that first series to kind of flush that one and come back and play good ball."
5. A 3-phase win
Once again, it took the entire roster for the Bolts to get a victory.
And while the offense came through in the clutch and the defense rallied after a tough start, Staley also praised the special teams unit.
"It took all three phases. I thought we got some big plays out of our special teams punt, punt return, and just can't say enough about our guys really proud of them.," Staley said.
Besides Dicker's game-winning kick, he also made a 31-yard field goal and a pair of extra points.
DeAndre Carter averaged 9.7 yards on three punt returns and added an 18-yard kickoff return.
And, as usual, the Bolts punting and punt coverage unit was on point.
JK Scott averaged 42.0 yards per punt on four kicks, landing one inside the 20. Atlanta called for a fair catch on three attempts, while one punt rolled out of bounds.
Total punt return yards allowed by the Chargers? Zero.
Derwin James, Jr., summed up the win.
"By not flinching," James said. "All three phases sticking together, hanging it out. Defense getting a stop, offense driving, and special teams ending it. So, I'd say all three phases."
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