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5 Final Thoughts: Bolts Fully Focused Ahead of Season Finale


The Chargers are 5-11 and will wrap up the 2023 season Sunday at home against Kansas City. Kickoff is at 1:25 p.m. (CT) from SoFi Stadium.

Here are five final thoughts ahead of Week 18:

1. Locked in

We've reached the end of the Chargers 2023 season.

And while a postseason berth is not in the cards for the Bolts this year, the team still has plenty to play for against a division rival.

"We made a pact, as a coaching staff and team, that we were going to compete for three games," said Chargers Interim Head Coach Giff Smith, who took over in Week 16. "The motivation to get ready for this game is not an issue.

"You have seen these last two games, these guys have come out and played hard," Smith added. "We just have to find a way to get over the hump."

Chargers Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley said the Bolts staff have stressed the importance of making a final strong impression.

"You get one chance, on Sunday, to go out there and interview," Ansley said. "We have to do a good job of putting them in positions to have success and let them go play fast and play free.

"Just go be who you are. We don't need to be any more or any less," Ansley added. "Have a good time playing together, then we'll see what happens after the season."

Players said that message from the coaching staff has been received loud and clear.

"[The Chiefs], they're in the playoffs," James said. "But for us, it's coming out and making sure we finish. Making sure we finish strong.

"I know the guys out here. Every time we take that field, we always feel like we're playing for something," James added. "I know we're going to come out and we're going to finish this thing the right way."

Sunday will be the final game for a number of players in a Chargers uniform, something that is the case at the end of each season.

Easton Stick, who is slated to be a free agent, said the Bolts want to make sure a disappointing season ends on a high note.

"It certainly hasn't gone the way we wanted it to, the way that we would have drawn it up, the way we thought that it was going to go," Stick said. "Just unfortunate. That's the way it goes. Things happen.

"We have a job to do. We signed up for 17 of these things and we're excited about playing the last one," Stick added.

2. The finale for Giff

Smith will wrap up his eighth season with the Chargers on Sunday and also close out his 12th year as an NFL coach.

These past three games, of course, have put Smith in a new role as the head man.

Smith this week said he hasn't reflected much on the recent whirlwind.

"Really, there's so much that you're trying to do during these three weeks, it's hard to really sit back and see how it affects you as an individual," Smith said. "I've been extremely blessed in my life. I'm grateful for everything that's happened for me."

But make no mistake about it, the Bolts surely want to get a win for Smith in what very well be his final game as a head coach.

"It definitely would mean a lot," James said. "Everybody loves that guy. He's always there. Guys want to play hard. Guys know what's at stake. No one is showing up to lose the game.

"Everybody is coming to play hard and win," James added. "It would be big for us to come out and get that 'W' for him."

Smith downplayed trying to achieve any individual milestones and said his focus is on helping the Bolts get a team win.

"As far as anything personal goes, that's kind of irrelevant to me right now," Smith said. "I want to do right by these guys and the organization and go out there and beat Kansas City."

3. Henley ready for more reps

Rookie Daiyan Henley played just eight defensive snaps Sunday in Denver, but it was a sign of progress for the rookie.

"Just to be on the field in that role as a linebacker, the feel of it was amazing. It felt normal, felt natural. I missed it," Henley added.

Henley has primarily played special teams after being a 2023 third-round pick but has seen the field for 38 total defensive snaps this season.

Smith said this week that the hope is that Henley, who has battled a groin injury of late, can see a few more reps against the Chiefs.

With starting linebacker Kenenth Murray, Jr. doubtdul for Week 18 with a shoulder injury, Smith said the plan is for Henley and Nick Niemann to split reps next to Eric Kendricks.

Henley said he's eager to take on any role Sunday, and noted this week that his rookie season has been a learning experience behind Murray and Kendricks.

"My rookie year was as it was supposed to be," Henley said. "I came in knowing that I was supposed to learn and be under two guys that have played a prominent role.

"Just learn and grow and look forward to furthering my career," Henley added. "It's gone as expected and now I'm looking ahead to be prepared for anything that can happen."

But with Murray slated to be a free agent this offseason, there's a chance that Henley takes on a larger role in 2024.

"If there's one word to sum up what I'm thinking for 2024, it's 'more.' And that can be anything. It could mean a lot of things," Henley said. "But if you look at me and my history and who I am as a player, I always want more."

Check out the best photos of the Chargers from Thursday's practice at Hoag Performance Center

4. Prepping for Gabbert

The Chargers won't see all-world quarterback Patrick Mahomes on Sunday as the Chiefs quarterback will rest up before the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

It's much to the chagrin of James.

"I definitely wanted to play him," James said. "Every time I want to compete against the best."

Instead, the Bolts have prepared for backup Blaine Gabbert, who was the No. 10 overall pick all the way back in 2011.

Ansley provided a quick scouting report on Gabbert, who has appeared in 68 career games with 51 touchdowns and 49 interceptions.

"We've watched the things that he's done at KC. He played some in the preseason, some this year when Patrick was out of the game," Ansley said. "A very different skillset. He's more of a pocket guy. He's big, strong. He has a really good arm.

"We have to do a really good job of keeping a roof on it. He has good touch on the deep ball," Ansley added. "I don't know how much of the scramble element that he brings that Patrick brings, they're totally different in that aspect, so things are probably going to be more on time. We have to do a good job of staying tight in coverage."

Gabbert's last start came in Week 17 of the 2018 season when he was with the Titans.

"Y'all have heard me say it before: There's a scoreboard, so it's kind of irrelevant who they're playing; you're playing to win," Smith said. "I know that Mahomes is out and they're playing Blaine, and he's a quality player.

"It's still the Chiefs and it's a team that you want to beat, and it's a division game," Smith added. "There's enough to go into that one."

5. Focused on the end zone

Stick said this week that he's shown plenty of progression — and had a ton of fun — while taking over for Justin Herbert in the final month of the season.

"It's been a blast," Stick said. "You do this because you want to play, you want to compete, and that's what you miss when you're not in there.

"It's been a blast, every minute of it — the ups and downs. It's been awesome," Stick added. "I'm really grateful for the opportunity and looking forward to ending it the right way."

One thing Stick is focused on Sunday? Getting the Bolts offense into the end zone.

After scoring three offensive touchdowns in Stick's first start in Week 15, the Chargers have scored just one in the previous two games.

And while kicker Cameron Dicker's efficiency has helped make up for the lack of touchdowns, those associated with the Bolts offense want to end the season strong.

"I think it's just a good example of just how small the margins are in this league," Chargers Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore said. "Our season may not have gone the way we all hoped for and expected, but it shows how small the margins are that we lost a number of games, certainly, that were really close and those little things all matter.

"We've been preaching that the last few weeks, just talking about how important the details are and the little things, all those things add up," Moore added.

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