The Chargers moved two games above .500 for the first time since early November.
A thrilling Week 15 win over the Titans moved the Bolts to 8-6 and one step closer to making the playoffs, as they moved into the sixth seed in the AFC.
Here's a breakdown of news from the Chargers 16th week of the season:
Monday: Defense shines again in 2nd straight win
The Chargers earned a hard-fought win over an AFC playoff contender for the second-straight week. Their 17-14 win over the Titans at SoFi Stadium puts the Bolts in the driver's seat when it comes to the playoffs, as the team controls its own destiny.
The last two games have shifted the season — and they've done it without one of their leaders on defense.
Holding the Dolphins and Titans each to under 300 total offensive yards, the Chargers defense have put together great back-to-back performances against two very different offenses without James.
Whenever James returns, Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley expects to be better, but until then, these couple of games without him have allowed them to see more players step up. Something that could be big down the road.
"We expect to play better with one of the top players in the league out there," Staley said. "I think that that will be a great infusion of leadership, production and energy. I think what it has really allowed us to do is take a good look at some guys in some leading roles.
"In these last couple of games, you've been able to see [DB] Ja'Sir Taylor out there playing, you've been able to see [S] Nasir [Adderley] and [S] Alohi [Gilman] in different roles than they normally play for us," Staley added. "I think that has been good."
And the players on that defense have stepped up big time.
Going up against the high-flying offense in Miami or against the physicality of Tennessee, the Chargers defense has stepped up. Staley credits the defenses' play to an increased energy that has been on display in recent weeks.
"I touched on a little bit after the game, but I think that it's hard to have maximum energy when you're going through so much zig-zag, so much in-and-out, so much stuff," Staley said. "It's hard to have that full tank when a lot is going down. We've just had a little bit less of that.
"We have a little bit more certainty, in terms of who we're playing with, who we've been practicing with," Staley added. "I think our guys are comfortable in their roles and they're comfortable in the gameplan. You're seeing that full game being played, that complete performance."
The defense will look to continue their success this week, as they will travel to Indianapolis and play on Monday Night Football. And they might get back James, who continues to progress.
"He's progressing," Staley said. "We are hoping to see him back in practice at some point this week. With the extra day, we're going to make sure that we take full advantage of it, but I still consider him day-to-day.
"He's feeling better, for sure," Staley added. "If you were able to see him work out pregame, he is trending in the right direction."
Tuesday: How the Chargers can clinch a playoff spot
What a difference a couple of weeks make.
After back-to-back wins over AFC playoff contenders, the Chargers now control their own destiny in the final three games of the regular season.
The Bolts hold the sixth seed in the AFC and have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot as early as Week 16.
Chargers Senior Writer Eric Smith wrote:
Well, look at the Chargers. The Bolts have two straight impressive wins as they climbed from the ninth seed to the No. 6 spot entering Week 16. All three phases are contributing these days for the Chargers, who are looking for their first playoff berth since 2018. The Chargers can clinch a playoff spot Monday night in Indianapolis but know that there is still plenty of work to be done in the final three weeks of the regular season.
By the time the Chargers get ready to kick off on Monday Night Football, they will know whether they have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot.
A loss by the Jets, Patriots and Raiders, coupled with a Chargers win, and the Bolts will be able to punch their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Wednesday: James, Mack named to Pro Bowl
The Chargers defense had a couple players punch their ticket to the Pro Bowl.
Both James and outside linebacker Khalil Mack were announced as starters 2023 Pro Bowl Games in Las Vegas on Wednesday. This marks James' third time and Mack's seventh being named to the Pro Bowl.
In addition to James and Mack, six more Chargers were named alternates for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games: Running back Austin Ekeler (first alternate), center Corey Linsley (first), quarterback Justin Herbert (second), long snapper Josh Harris (second), punter JK Scott (fourth) and wide receiver DeAndre Carter (fifth) as a return specialist.
Since the Chargers don't play until Monday, their schedule this week looked a bit different than it would in a regular week. At 8-6, they will use the extra day as a way to recover, as Week 16 could be a big one.
Especially the last couple of weeks, the team has gotten big contributions from many players, but there have been a couple all season who have stood out.
Chargers Senior Writer Eric Smith wrote Wednesday about a couple of unheralded players who have been crucial in the story of the Chargers season, including Ja'Sir Taylor, Breiden Fehoko and many more.
In the case of most improved player however, Smith tabbed cornerback Michael Davis as his most improved player in his weekly mailbag, as Davis has stepped into a starting role and excelled.
But he's been pressed back into a starting role over the last two months and has thrived of late, rising to the occasion and being one of the Bolts best defensive players. Since Week 9, he leads all NFL cornerbacks with 10 forced incompletions.
I chatted with Davis a few weeks ago about what he was focusing on and he gave a simple answer: Effort.
If you play hard, he said, good things usually happen. That's been the case for Davis, and the entire Chargers offense, in recent weeks.
In transactional news, the Chargers announced they had signed defensive lineman Christopher Hinton to the active roster and placed defensive lineman Joe Gaziano on Reserve/Injured. The team also signed defensive lineman Aaron Crawford and wide receiver Jason Moore Jr., to the practice squad.
Thursday: Chargers return to practice
The Bolts returned to the practice field on Thursday — and got a good sign as well.
James was back on the practice field for the first time in over two weeks. Practicing in a limited capacity, the defense could be getting one of their leaders back this week.
The defense has been surging recently, and James' return could be a major boost that can improve the unit even more. With three games remaining in the regular season, the defensive familiarity will look to continue to get better, as it has been one of the many factors for the recent success.
"We had seen them practice all the time, but being able to see them in games and in your system, playing against quality people, I think that is certainly true, that it was a discovery process," Staley said. "I think that we have a lot better picture of how to use them now — now that they have been in games — and what their strengths are. The picture has changed for us all season."
"Now, a lot of these guys who are new, I think that we have a lot better sense of how to use them," Staley later added. "And, they're playing really good within the framework of our team, playing our style of football. I think that is what you've seen the last two weeks, the style of football that we believe in, with the way that we've been able to play it."
And awaiting them in Indianapolis is a Colts team that is coming off of a game where they were on the wrong side of history. The Colts broke the NFL record for biggest blown lead in NFL history last week.
Still though, they did score 33 points against a division-winning Vikings team as Staley points out, and despite what happened last week, the Chargers know they have to bring their best on Monday night.
"You know what this team is capable of doing because they've done it," Staley said. "They have a lot of quality leadership on their football team. When you take a look at who is out there for them in all three phases, they have a lot of outstanding leaders on that football team — guys who are proven NFL players, not just as premium NFL players, but leaders within a football team."
"We're going to be prepared for their best because they have a lot of good coaches and players on their football team," Staley later added. "All you have to do is watch the game film and watch them compete every time that they play. Their guys play extremely hard, and they have a lot of good players. We're expecting a really tough game on Monday night."
The message is the same in the locker room, as veteran defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day knows the Colts are hungry. They still have a lot of talented players, and the Bolts will be prepared for their best.
"They have a lot of great players on both sides of the ball," Joseph-Day said. "It's going to be a challenge. We're going to their place, they're going to be ready. They have a great interim head coach right now [Jeff] Saturday, Hall of Fame guy, ex-player that's hungry.
"They're all hungry and I know they're disappointed from last week and they're going to be ready to play. That's the mindset we all have to have," Joseph-Day added.
Check out the best photos of the Chargers Thursday practice at Hoag Performance Center
Friday: James set to return in Week 16
All eyes this week have been on James and whether or not we would see his return on Monday.
The safety practiced in full on Friday and was asked if he was playing Monday. He responded with a simple nod — he should be ready to go.
"I'm feeling amazing. Feeling better," James said. "Took some time to get it healed and feeling better. A lot more confidence on it."
James' return to the defense is one that the group will be able to build on, as they continue to gain momentum down the stretch. Chargers Defensive Coordinator Renaldo Hill says that the teams progression is what they want to see, as this is the time of year you want things to start clicking.
"We knew that we had some tough times early in the year," Hill said. "This is the time where we want to kind of start progressing. We want to be a playoff team and have that run going into it. We want to be playing our best ball at the end.
"I think that is what guys are seeing, that's what they are feeling, and that's what we want to keep progressing on throughout the rest of the season," Hill added. "Keep growing as a defense. By the end of this thing, hopefully, we like what we see."
As the defense hopes to get healthier, the offense has had a couple of weeks with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams back in the lineup. Not only that, but the offensive line also has been able to stay on the field, something that benefitted the running game.
Both touchdowns in Week 15 came on the ground, a development that offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi hopes continues as they will see another good run defense.
"I think that it helps getting the five up front working together," Lombardi said. "The tight ends are improving. I think that [RB] Joshua Kelley being back is a big help for all of that. I think that we're improving.
"That was a good run defense we were facing, so I thought that — everything considered — it was a positive," Lombardi added. "This is another good run defense. Just keep plugging away, keep working at it. Hopefully, we have that breakthrough."
Prior to Friday's practice, Smith talked with JJ Stankevitz, who covers the Colts for their team website, to preview Monday's matchup.
Saturday: Chargers gear up for Indy
For a Week 16 injury report, the Chargers were as clean as they could be on Christmas Eve.
Cornerback Kemon Hall was the only Bolts player to be ruled out for Monday night's matchup, as James and everyone else came off of the report on Saturday.
"He's had a good week of practice," Staley said about James. "That's the main thing, that he's full speed and he's going to be able to lead us like he knows how and you're going to get that same playmaker out on the field. Excited to have him join up with everybody."
The Chargers will travel to Indianapolis on Sunday, as they have an opportunity to either clinch or set themselves up nicely to clinch a playoff berth. Depending on results from Saturday's matchups, the Bolts might be able to clinch with a win over the Colts.
Being in a similar situation last year, Herbert understands that the team will need to learn from last year's mistakes to avoid a similar situation from happening again.
"You have to learn from those mistakes. It didn't go our way last year," Herbert said on Saturday. "We lost a couple there at the end and we, unfortunately, didn't make the playoffs. That's the whole purpose of playing football right now — to be able to extend your season and to play well after what you're guaranteed.
"Obviously, it was a tough, tough year last year, but you have to look at the film," Herbert added. "You have to see what you did wrong. You have to make those games happen in December and November, when it matters most, and especially January."
That's the-big picture look, as the performances the last two weeks have set up the Chargers nicely.
However, as Herbert points out, there are still three regular season games remaining, and the most important game is the next one against the Colts. Taking everything one week at a time has been the message throughout the team.
"We have another great opportunity this year, you really have to take it week-by-week," Herbert later said. "The Colts are the most important game this week because it's happening in a couple of days. If you can focus like that, week-in and week-out, I think you'll like the way you end up."
Check out the best photos of the Chargers Saturday practice at Hoag Performance Center
Videos of the Week
Mic'd Up | Mike Williams
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams was mic'd up during the Week 15 win vs the Tennessee Titans.
Homecoming | Donnie Edwards
In this edition of Homecoming, Chargers legendary LB returns to his alma mater Chula Vista High School. Joined by Hayley Elwood, Edwards looks back at the moments that shaped his life and how he tries to give back.
Playmakers | Know Your Opponent with Laura Overton
The Indianapolis Colts reporter/producer/host joins Hayley Elwood on the latest edition of Playmakers podcast to discuss this Monday's matchup, matchups to watch and much more.
Chargers Weekly | Colts on MNF Preview, AFC Playoff Picture Coming Into Focus
Matt "Money" Smith and Chris Hayre recap the Chargers Week 15 win over the Titans and preview the Week 16 matchup against the Colts, as well as which games to monitor for the playoff picture.
Third Wheel | Breiden Fehoko and Morgan Fox
Defensive linemen Breiden Fehoko & Morgan Fox join host and quarterback Chase Daniel to put their knowledge of their teammates to the test in this three-round battle, on this episode of Third Wheel.
Tweets of the Week
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