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Chargers Mailbag: How the Bolts Can Still be a Playoff Team


Welcome back to the Chargers Mailbag!

We'll be running one of these every week during the regular season, so send in submissions for the Mailbag here on Twitter or by sending me an email.

Off we go...

Yes. Contrary to what some people believe, the Chargers are still eligible to qualify for the postseason.

The last time I checked, the NFL season was 17 games and not six.

So even though the Bolts aren't where they want to be right now with a 2-4 record, there is still plenty of time left to turn things around.

Does that mean the Chargers have to play better than they have over the first six games? Of course.

As we head into late October, the Bolts are still searching for a complete 60-minute game that features consistent contributions from all three phases.

Sunday's loss to the Chiefs kind of summed up the season so far in the sense that the offense and defense each played a good half — but not together — and a solid game on special teams was tainted a bit by a long punt return allowed.

Things simply haven't clicked yet for the Bolts, but I also believe there is indeed a path to the playoffs.

There are currently seven AFC teams who have at least four wins, so they make up your playoff field at the moment.

For this exercise, we'll break the Bolts remaining schedule down into three groups and look at how they can find a way to be a playoff team.

First, of course, there is the AFC West (4 games) against Denver (twice), Las Vegas and Kansas City.

Let's say the Bolts get a season sweep of the Raiders, split against Denver and pull off a Week 18 win at home against the Chiefs.

That's a 3-1 mark in those games and gets the Chargers to five wins.

Then there's the NFC North matchups (3 games), with Chicago and Detroit at home while Green Bay is on the road. The Lions are legit, but the Bolts should be able to win the other two games.

We're now at seven wins for the Chargers.

Now let's get to the remaining primetime tilts against AFC contenders (3 games), which would be the Jets, Ravens and Bills.

These are the ones to watch, especially the Week 9 road game in New York on Monday Night Football. If the Bolts want to make the playoffs, they likely need that one for tiebreaker purposes. And perhaps the Chargers get a split at home against Baltimore and Buffalo.

That's another 2-1 stretch and gets the Chargers to a 9-7 record.

That leaves one game against the Patriots, who didn't really fall into either of the above three categories. That Week 13 matchup will be far away from home, against a Hall of Fame head coach and perhaps in crappy weather.

It doesn't matter. The Chargers will need to win that one, which would give them double-digit wins in our very hypothetical exercise here.

A 10-7 record was good enough to earn the Bolts a Wild Card berth a season ago. Would it be enough this time around? My crystal ball is currently broken so that's an unknown.

I do think 10 wins would put the Bolts in the mix for a playoff spot since I expect the AFC to beat itself a bit over the next two months with so many good teams playing each other.

And yes, the Bolts are still a good team in my eyes. They just need to find that consistency mentioned above, and also find it rather quickly.

As for the morale of the team right now, there's obviously a bit a natural frustration after two straight losses.

But while there was that feeling in the postgame locker room Sunday, there was also a sense of fight and determination that was easy to pick up.

Derwin James, Jr. conveyed the sentiment well.

"These last six games, we just need to flush them. We have 11 more to go," James said. "We have a long season. We just got to keep playing hard.

"Right now, it looks bad. We're still believing in each other," James added. "We lost two tough games to two teams that are going to be in the playoffs. We just got to keep playing hard and keep leaning on each other."

But the best summarization of the team's mindset came from Justin Herbert, who described the game of football almost perfectly.

"Football is tough," Hernert said. "Whether you're winning or whether you're losing, it's a tough sport and it requires tough people. We have a tough locker room.

"It hasn't gone our way the last couple of games, but no one is going to panic or quit or give up," Herbert added. "I know we're going to attack practice this week the same way that we have each week. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Good question from Seth, as "reset" has been a bit of a buzzword for the Bolts the past few days.

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley first mentioned the term after Sunday's loss and then expanded on it in detail on Monday.

"I think that after you lose two games in a row, you need to, as a group, just reset and focus on your fundamentals, focus on the identity of your football team," Staley said. "Just put one foot in front of the other, not be thinking too much about the telescope, making sure that you're focusing on the microscope and just controlling the things that we can control.

"That is all this football team needs to do. We have a good team," Staley added. "Through six games, we haven't gotten the results yet, but I think that a reset just takes the pressure off and just gets us focusing on the things that really allow us to perform the way that we're capable of."

It's tough to reset physically in the middle of the season, but I think Staley is alluding to more of a mental fresh start here.

As he mentioned in that quote, the Chargers are 2-4 and not happy with where their record currently stands.

But agonizing over back-to-back losses won't help the Chargers much Sunday night against the Bears.

Instead, the Bolts need to focus on the task at hand and pour everything they have into getting a home win against Chicago in Week 8.

If they can do that, it will breed some confidence throughout the roster and help them carry some momentum across the country against the Jets.

As for Linsley, there's zero doubt that his absence is a massive loss. The man is one of the best centers in the game and is among the best of the best in terms of identifying defensive fronts and pressure packages.

But Linsley is also on the Non-Football Illness List with a non-emergent heart-related issue, so it's worth noting that his health comes first and is of the utmost importance.

A few questions this week on the Herbert-Johnston connection.

The answer is this: it simply takes time for a quarterback and wide receiver, especially a rookie wide receiver, to build a trust and rapport that shows up on game days.

Throughout all of OTAs and training camp, Herbert was pretty much running with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Joshua Palmer in practice. And that's the way it should have been given the pedigree of those top three receivers.

With Williams now out, Johnston has moved a spot up the depth chart but doesn't have the same reps that Allen and Palmer have with Herbert, whether that's this offseason or the past few years.

The bond between Herbert and Allen is a no-brainer, but the connection between Herbert and Palmer is there, too, likely due to multiple years of working together with the starting offense.

Johnston made a fantastic play of his lone reception in Week 7 — a 20-yard gain on third down — that showed the rapport between the two is starting to blossom a bit.

In my mind, the perfect way to sum this all up boils down to a play in the fourth quarter, which we'll break down with four photos below.

The Chargers trailed 24-17 with seven minutes left and were looking to convert on third-and-5 from their own 27-yard line.

Herbert, alone in an empty backfield, has three receivers to his right, with Allen being the closest in the slot. Johnston is at the bottom of the screen on the far left of the formation.


Herbert takes the snap and looks to his right, first looking at Austin Ekeler and Donald Parham, Jr. before focusing in on Allen, who is coming open in the middle of the field. Johnston, at the bottom of the formation, has also beat his man and is open, too.


Herbert, who knows Allen is money on third downs, fires the ball toward the savvy veteran and best receiver on the team. But he doesn't see linebacker Willie Gay, who has dropped in coverage and stands at the 26-yard line.


Gay jumps up to knock Herbert's pass attempt down to force a punt. Allen was wide open, and a clean throw likely means a first down for the Bolts. Johnston, meanwhile, also remains open 10 yards from the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field.


If the Chargers convert there, who knows, maybe they tie the game and the end result is different?

But why did Herbert throw it to Allen instead of Johnston? Staley was asked about this on Monday by The Athletic's Daniel Popper and said Herbert's progression on this play takes him from right to left, meaning Johnston is the fifth and final player Herbert will look at.

"Put yourself in Justin Herbert's shoes and start right to left, and that will be the answer to your question," Staley said. "Keenan had a good win on that play."

This doesn't mean that Herbert doesn't trust Johnston. It simply means that each and every NFL play is a complex and takes a bunch of little things going right for it to be successful.

Over the long term, I think Johnston will be a good NFL player, as he's shown flashes of burst and athleticism.

The stats, however, haven't been there. But they will come if Johnston keeps up the progress he's shown of late.

"I feel like his alignment and assignment are improving. He's playing with confidence," Staley said. "I thought that [Sunday] was a step forward for him.

"If he continues to take the practice field the way that he has, you're going to continue to see the improvement," Staley added. "Like I said, that is all that he needs to be focused on."

Not much to report on the first two players.

Gilman is dealing with a heel injury and we'll see if he practices this week. The Chargers have not given an update on Linsley since he went on the NFI list.

I do think Ogbonnia and Guyton will help out on both sides of the ball.

Ogbonnia was really coming into his own last season as a rookie before his knee injury. And Guyton has an established trust with Herbert that should help out on offense.

Put another way, it's never a bad thing to add a stout defensive tackle and a speedy wide receiver to your roster in the middle of the season.

Not much to add on Junius' point about the offense here, I just thought it was an interesting point to include.

The Bolts are down their starting center and a top wide receiver, and also have numerous players dealing with injuries. That's to make an excuse, it's just the reality of things right now.

Yet the Chargers offense still ranks fifth overall in EPA per play. This unit hasn't been fully clicking the past few games, most notably in the second half.

But if they can stretch their success from two quarters to three, that could mean different results on the scoreboard than what we've been seeing.

Let's end with a fun one, but also a pretty dark submission, too.

To start, may I never, ever be in that scenario.

But if it had to pick one meal, it would come from a place called The Chuckbox in Tempe, Arizona. (I went to Arizona State so this meal was a college staple of mine).

The Chuckbox is a hole in the wall where they cook burgers and chicken sandwiches on an open grill.

The place has nearly burned down multiple times over the past few decades, but the food is both simple and incredibly delicious.

So, give me a hot and spicy chicken sandwich with both fries and onion rings. And I'll wash it down with a cold beer from a local Arizona brewery.

There might be fancier restaurants and more in-depth menus around town.

But ask any Arizona State grad about The Chuckbox and they'll know exactly what you're talking about.

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