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Chargers Fully Focused on 5th Seed Ahead of Week 18 Finale

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The Bolts are 10-6 with one game left before the playoffs begin.

Here are five takeaways from Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley and running back Austin Ekeler from Monday's media availabilities:

1. All about the No. 5 seed

The Chargers are currently the fifth seed as the top Wild Card squad in the AFC playoffs.

And they can remain in that spot with a win Sunday or if the Ravens lose in Week 18.

The Bengals could also come into play here, but those scenarios won't be known until Monday night's game is decided.

So, with a playoff spot secured but seeding not fully determined, how will the Bolts approach Sunday's regular-season finale in Denver?

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley gave his answer Monday afternoon.

"Our approach is definitely going to get shot to win this ballgame and play as well as we can play heading into the playoffs," Staley said. "I think that there's certainly an advantage to be in the No. 5 seed [for re-seeding], from where I stand, so we're going to try and get there."

Staley also noted that player health and recent momentum will also play a part, too, but the Bolts main focus will be on securing a No. 5 spot that will end up playing the winner of the AFC South.

"The case-by-case nature of the players, I think that that is the approach that we're going to take, in terms of whether or not to sit them," Staley said. "If there's something that we feel like that would be a good decision, we'll take that case-by-case.

"I think that going into the playoffs, you have to be playing football to get to where you want to go, so we're going to try and maximize our group heading into the playoffs, for sure," Staley added.

Running back Austin Ekeler echoed Staley's thoughts on Monday afternoon.

"We have gotten to a spot where we have a chance to go to the playoffs," Ekeler said. "We secured that and now we have a chance where, 'OK, let's try to continue to bump up our seed.'"

Five of the seven AFC playoff spots have been secured, with the AFC South and the 7th seed still to be determined.

Staley was asked Monday if he'll watch the Bills-Bengals matchup, and quipped that he'll likely just focus on what lies ahead of him and the Bolts.

"The whole multitasking thing is a total myth, in my opinion," Staley said with a laugh. "I just try to put my entire focus where it needs to be, whether that's on our team or the team that we're playing. That's my direction.

"There are some people that maybe can do that, I'm just not one of them," Staley added. "I'll make sure that I read the box score, and if there is something that I can learn from it, we'll be in tune with that, but our focus is going to be on us and on the Broncos this week."

The Chargers Week 18 game will kick off at 1:25 p.m. (PT) in Denver.

2. Evaluating the run game

The Chargers run game popped off in a big way Sunday, racking up 192 yards on 31 attempts with two scores.

That was the second-highest rushing total of the season, and it came at a time when the Bolts had been looking for a spark from that unit.

Austin Ekeler, who ran for 122 yards and both touchdowns, said Monday that he felt it was just a matter of time before things clicked.

"We knew we were capable. We were just trying to get back to it, which is not easy. Simple, but not easy," Ekeler said. "And then, guess what? We're going to have to do it again. That's going to start to, I guess, gives us that confidence, 'OK, we're starting to run the ball a little bit more.' Give [Offensive Coordinator] Joe [Lombardi] that confidence in the run game to call more runs if we are able to continue to establish ourselves.

"I think we have one more game with the Broncos coming up where it's like, 'Alright, let's dominate the run game again.' Then I think that opens up the playbook for us a lot more and makes us a little bit more of a dynamic offense when we are going into the first round of the playoffs," Ekeler added. "Definitely trying to get that going because we know that Justin [Herbert] is going to come out there and do his thing. It's like, 'Okay, is the run game going to show up today or not?' So, we have to make sure we are out there doing that."

Ekeler's 72-yard touchdown run — the longest of his career — was the jolt the run game needed on an exceptional day.

Even without that big gain, the Bolts would have averaged 4.0 yards per carry on their 30 other attempts against the Rams.

If the Chargers — who have ranked near the bottom of the league all season in rushing stats — can have a competent run game in the playoffs, that would create a much-needed balance on offense.

"I think that everyone is aware of where we are ranked and stuff like that. These guys know, and they know that we have been working our way to a performance like that," Staley said. "I don't think that anyone believed that we were far away from accomplishing a performance like that. We just needed to stay together and find that rhythm in that right set of runs and get our guys doing the right jobs at a high level."

Staley said after the Miami win that it was the hardest he'd seen the defense play all season.

On Monday, he said the same thing about the offensive side of the ball.

"I do think that it was the hardest we have played, [Sunday] on offense. I thought we finished our plays, run and pass, but particularly in the run game," Staley said. "I thought that our tight ends had, probably, their best game blocking. I think our receivers, probably, had their best game blocking.

"I thought that we were in the right runs, we had some good run-game checks to get us into the right play call," Staley added. "Then, our running backs did what you have to do in order to have a performance where you run for 192, as they broke a lot of tackles. I think that all of those things came together yesterday. It was awesome to see us get 31 runs off in that game for 192."

Joshua Kelley added 45 yards on nine attempts, while Larry Rountree III had 15 yards on 10 carries.

3. Special teams continues to shine

The Bolts will still play after Sunday's regular-season finale in Denver, but Week 18 will be another chance for the Chargers special teams units to continue their exceptional season.

Staley knows how key that unit will be in the playoffs.

"We have to continue to improve because, as you know, every possession counts in the postseason," Staley said. "You have to make sure that you maximize the hidden yardage and that you're getting an advantage from your unit. I think that that's what we've been able to do all year."

Have they ever.

Entering Week 18, the Chargers rank first in punt coverage. They have allowed just 58 total yards on 17 returns (3.4 yards per return). JK Scott also leads the league with 33 fair catches forced.

In the other aspect of the kicking game, the Bolts rank third overall in field goal percentage at 93.5. They have had three kickers combine to make 29 of 31 field goals, and the Bolts are one of five teams that are perfect on extra points this season.

Cameron Dicker has made 19 of 20 field goals since joining the team midway through the year.

Staley on Monday went into detail on how Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken and special teams assistant Chris Gould revamped that phase of the ball.

"What we did in the offseason, we put the investment where we wanted to, which was to become a complete football team. You guys heard me say that after last season, that we were going to invest in becoming a complete football team," Staley said. "I think that we put that into action with going to get Josh Harris, who is a Pro Bowl deep snapper, by improving our punter — I think that JK was an outstanding addition."

Staley later added: "I think that we've really put the investment in special teams. Then, you can't say enough about the job that Ryan and Chris are doing, coaching that unit. There's a lot of belief, in terms of the way things are being coached from a technique standpoint and from a scheme standpoint, getting people doing the right jobs. Obviously, being able to handle the kicker transition has been critical. I'm really proud."

Take a look back at the Chargers Week 17 New Year's Day victory over the Rams in monochrome

4. Parham's perseverance pays off

The Chargers final touchdown Sunday meant a little more than others.

Donald Parham, Jr's fourth-quarter score didn't matter much to the end result, as the Bolts were already up by double digits at that point.

But his 3-yard touchdown was massive for Parham, who has been limited to just five games this year due to various injuries.

Parham suffered a severe head injury late in the 2021 season but returned and made plenty of splash plays in training camp. However, a hamstring injury (and another concussion) made for a rigorous season for the 6-foot-8 tight end.

Staley on Monday praised Parham's toughness and noted that Sunday was his best all-around game of the season.

"A tremendous story of perseverance, of will, inside of a player," Staley said. "Football has tested his patience. To see him go out like that and play a really complete game — I thought that he blocked extremely well yesterday, he was a factor in the passing game.

"To score a touchdown, a big red-area touchdown for us, it was a big moment for him. Everyone on the sideline, you could see it, the way that his teammates feel about him, his coaches feel about him," Staley added. "We have to continue to build off of that performance. Hopefully, he can continue to play with the confidence that you're seeing because he is a weapon for us."

5. Injury updates

The Chargers came away pretty healthy in Week 18.

"In terms of the bumps and bruises, normal," Staley said, "but nothing to report just yet, in terms of practice for Wednesday."

That included Joey Bosa, who played 24 snaps in his first action since Week 3. Staley said Bosa came out of the game fine.

Staley said safety Derwin James, Jr., remains in the concussion protocol and that his practice availability for this week will be known in a few days.

As for Trey Pipkins III, the right tackle briefly left the game but played 57 of 64 snaps against the Rams.

Staley commented on Pipkins, who has battled through a sprained MCL since Week 5 against the Browns.

"You have to have toughness if you're going to play offensive line in the NFL, and I think that he has displayed that time and time again," Staley said. "From the onset of that initial injury to now, I think that this guy has really battled for us, and then produced.

"Because the other thing that you have to be able to do is not only just be out there to play, to be available — it's one thing to be available — but then to produce, and show that you can also produce when you're not feeling your best, I think that he has accomplished both of those things," Staley added. "He's been a great example of that toughness that I'm talking about within our football team. I'm really proud of him."

Pipkins has started 13 of 16 games this season.

Staley also provided an update on the other tackle spot, as Rashawn Slater remains on Injured Reserve with a torn biceps.

"He is still working through his return to play. He's working through things and progressing well," Staley said. "If he returns to play, I think that you guys will sense that momentum, in terms of how we will handle it."

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