The Chargers and Cowboys square off Monday night from SoFi Stadium.
Here are five final thoughts ahead of Week 6.
1. Welcome to primetime
A new season begins Monday night.
The Bolts will be fresh and rested coming off their bye week but the Chargers will face one of their toughest tests of the season in primetime as they welcome the Cowboys (3-2) to SoFi Stadium. Kickoff is at 5:15 p.m. (PT).
How big is Monday night's outcome?
Consider this note entering Week 6: of the 16 teams in the AFC, seven have a winning record and seven have a losing record.
The Bolts (along with the Browns) are right in the middle at 2-2, meaning a win bumps them up while a loss means there's a hill to climb. In short, there's a big difference between being 3-2 and being 2-3.
"It's a big deal. Win a game and we're above .500. If we don't, we're chasing it again," Chargers running back Joshua Kelley said. "It's a big game and we're playing a good team. You saw what happened last week so they're coming in hungry [after a 42-10 loss].
"They're going to have something to prove but so do we," Kelley added. "We know what's at stake in this league every single week. We just have to come out and play hard. Just play our game."
Chargers linebacker Eric Kendricks added: "Right now is a time when you learn a lot about your team. These are important games and it's what your team builds on."
Kendricks, now in his ninth season, said that the Bolts are focused on the little things ahead of Week 6 as they try to notch their third straight win.
"We know what our expectations are. It's going out there and meeting our standard," Kendricks said. "To me, it's more about how are we connected on defense? How are we connected on offense? How's our vibe in the locker room? Our effort? I look at that kind of stuff.
"We have these four games under our belt. I don't want to say football is starting because it's already started," Kendricks added. "But we're coming off a bye week so now it's more real and we have to start stacking these games."
The playoffs are a long ways out, but it's also October now. And it's the perfect time for the Bolts to get above .500 and throw themselves into the early AFC playoff race.
2. The starting CB trio
The Bolts moved on from J.C. Jackson last week, trading the cornerback and a 2025 seventh-round pick to New England in exchange for a 2025 fifth-round pick.
"We just felt like this was the best course for our team," said Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley. "There was a body of work to go off of. We felt like this direction was what was best for our football team."
Now, the focus fully shifts to starting trio of Michael Davis, Asante Samuel, Jr. and Ja'Sir Taylor, the latter of which will man the slot.
"I feel good about our trio," Samuel said. "We just come to work every day and try to execute the calls. We just have to play together and stay on one accord."
That group has started the past two games and has helped cut down on the number of explosive pass plays (15-plus yards) allowed.
In the first two weeks of the season, when Jackson was in the lineup, the Chargers allowed a league-worst 20 explosive pass plays.
The past two games? The Bolts have nearly cut that number in half to 11, which tanks 19th.
Chargers players and coaches on the defensive side of the ball believe this is the strongest combination of cornerbacks for the Bolts to go forward with.
"We believe in that group. That group is where we've played our best football as a team since we've been here," Staley said. "We have full trust in those guys. Those guys have played really well together. Now, they get to play together full-time."
Chargers Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley added: "You have a lot of guys that have played a lot of ball together back there. When they play together, they've been successful. We're glad that we've got some continuity back there, some guys that have played a lot. Zont [Samuel] has played a lot, Mike [Davis], Ja Taylor is coming into his own. Those guys are really working hard. We're excited about the challenge and moving forward."
Dallas enters Week 6 with 25 explosive pass plays on offense, tied for 13th in the league.
3. Focused on the red zone
Looking for an area that could decide Monday's game?
Focus in on the red zone, an area of situational football where the Chargers have thrived so far in 2023.
Entering Week 6, the Bolts offense ranks fifth in red-zone scoring percentage at 68.75 percent. Aside from a down performance (two touchdowns on five red-zone opportunities in Week 2), the Bolts have been above 75 percent in their three other games.
"I think the red zone has been going well. Red zone is always going have ups and downs, a little bit, through a season," said Chargers Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore. "Tennessee was our one low spot, but I think that our guys are doing a really good job down there. I think just continuing to play football.
"Sometimes red zone turns in this big old science project. I think part of the emphasis is just that we're playing ball down there," Moore added. "When you get into the red zone, there's still first and second down, there's still third downs, there are a lot of just traditional situations, the space is just different. You have to, obviously, plan accordingly for that, but I think that our guys have done a nice job down there."
Quarterback Justin Herbert has been especially clutch inside the 20-yard line. Among quarterbacks with at least 20 pass attempts in the red zone, Herbert ranks sixth in Pro Football Focus' pass grade (69.3) and has a 6:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
"I think we have done some good things on offense in the red zone," Herbert said. "It's important to score touchdowns down there when you get those shots.
"I think we've done a good job of that, but we can always be better," Herbert added. "I could be better at quarterback, complete more passes in the red zone to be sure that we're moving the chains, but I've liked what I've seen so far."
Defensively, the Chargers are tied for ninth in red-zone scoring percentage allowed at an even 50 percent.
"We always talk about to play good red-zone defense, it's all about communication," Ansley said. "That's the first thing, making sure everyone is on the same page.
"Then, anticipation and then having the right leverage. I think that if you can do those things, you can be hard to play against down there," Ansley said. "The first four weeks we've been solid, but we have room for improvement, for sure."
Entering Week 6, the Chargers are one of four teams — along with the Bills, Ravens and Packers — who are top-10 teams in the red zone on both offense and defense.
4. Ekeler set to return
The Bolts are getting a big boost to the lineup Monday night with the return of Austin Ekeler.
The running back suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 and has missed the past three games.
"Missing games, as an athlete, man it's always so frustrating. But it something where you can't really hold onto that frustration, You have to realize, 'OK, how can I get myself back?,'" said Ekeler, who added the bye week came at a good time for him.
It's safe to say the Bolts will welcome Ekeler back with open arms this week.
"Obviously, Austin is one of the top running backs in this league," Moore said. "We'd love to have him back and we're really excited to have him."
Joshua Kelley added: "He can do so much — run game, pass game, all of that. I know what he's capable of doing. It's just going to be great for our room, the offense in general and as a team."
Ekeler's return is hopefully a jolt to a Chargers run game that racked up 233 yards in Week 1 but has tallied 246 combined rushing yards over the past three games.
"Different matchups present different opportunities," Moore said. "Certainly, we've played a couple of different styles through the first four games. That's how the seasons go. You're going to have to play different styles.
"You're always trying to improve the run game, just like we're trying to improve the pass game," Moore added. "We'll do different things. Hopefully, those things can benefit us moving forward."
The Cowboys defense ranks 24th in rushing yards allowed per play (4.47) and are 21st in rushing yards allowed per game (123.4).
5. A spark on special teams
The Bolts special teams units have had an up-and-down start to the season.
But Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken said Friday that he used the bye week to do a full evaluation of his group.
"There's stuff we have to continue to improve on and get more stout ... and they know that," Ficken said.
One area that could help the Bolts is improved health at the top of the roster. For example, Ekeler's return means Kelley is back in a more prominent role on special teams.
Ficken knows it will be all hands on deck against the Cowboys and returner KaVontae Turpin, who was a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2022.
"It's a challenge. But the thing that is encouraging about these guys ... they're going against Turpin and they say, 'We want a challenge.' They want to go out there and make a difference," Ficken said.
Keep an eye on wide receiver Simi Fehoko, who could be in line to play gunner again with Deane Leonard doubtful with a hamstring injury.
"What I love about Simi is that he's very versatile in everything he does," Ficken said. "He can play inside, outside, play with length, strength, speed.
"The guy is very instinctive and has awareness with how he plays," Ficken added. "He recalls information and I love having him here. He's exactly what you're looking for in a special teams wide receiver."
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