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Chargers Mailbag: Putting Football in Perspective, Success at Mile High & Slater's Timeline

Mailbag 01.04

Welcome to the Chargers Mailbag! I'm Senior Writer Eric Smith, and I answer questions from the Bolt Fam each and every week.

Send in submissions for the Mailbag here on Twitter or by sending me an email.

Off we go…

That was a scary scene with Damar Hamlin. I just wanted to say that while I enjoy watching the NFL, it was just another reminder to me that it's a game played by human beings. (Peter via email)

We'll begin with the situation that has consumed and shocked the football world for days now.

The last part of Peter's email is spot on and is something I want to hit on here.

Football is a game. At its core, it's a game that is played by human beings.

Yes, players are paid well. Some are bonafide celebrities. And they get to have a job that millions dream about when they are kids.

But the players under those helmets and jerseys each game are simply human beings.

And what the Bills and Bengals witnessed on the field Monday night is something nobody should ever have to endure.

I had the game on mute and was about to put my 8-month-old daughter down when Damar Hamlin fell to the turf. As I got her ready for bed, I glanced at the TV and saw the ambulance, so I sensed it was something serious.

Yet as I held her in bed and got her to sleep, I briefly checked Twitter to get an update. The gravity of the situation hit me hard and it was difficult not to become emotional as the updates poured in.

Once she was down, I sat in front of the TV and just stared for maybe 20 minutes as tears welled in my eyes.

I thought about how Damar Hamlin could have been a Chargers player or someone from any other team. It could have been someone that I shared a laugh with or interviewed once or saw in the cafeteria at work.

I tweeted this out Monday night, but I firmly believe that the best part of the NFL are the people. As the years pass, I remember less and less about games or practices or stats or anything like that.

But I remember interactions and friendships built with people who you cross paths with on a daily basis. And I'm not just talking about players here. It could be coaches, trainers, other staff members or people in your own department.

Some of the best relationships I have in my life are from people I've met around the league, some of whom live across the country and work for other teams.

There are so many great people in this league. From what I've recently read about him, Damar Hamlin is one of them.

Football is a grueling sport that requires so much stamina and commitment from all involved. And fans certainly have the right to be frustrated if their team falls short of certain goals.

But always remember that the behind the brand and logo of your favorite team is just a collection of human beings who are trying their best.

It's those people, all of them, who make this league great.

Yes. But don't be surprised if it's a close game.

This is my first year in the AFC West, so I'm still getting a feel for the Bolts history within the division.

It doesn't take much research to see that the Chargers haven't fared well in Denver recently. The Bolts have lost three straight games and eight of 10 overall at Mile High.

And it's not as if every game has been played late in the season in cold weather, as the Chargers have lost in all five months of the NFL calendar (September through January).

Sometimes division rivalries get a little lopsided at times but end up evening out as the years pass.

I do think the Chargers can win Sunday on the road to finish up the regular season.

The Bolts are among the league's hottest teams and just put forth their most complete performance of the entire season in a 21-point win over the Rams.

The Chargers have won four straight and have their eyes on the No. 5 seed, so they still have plenty to play for in Week 18.

And even though the Broncos aren't going to the playoffs, I don't expect them to just roll over at home. Some players and coaches there are going to be playing and coaching for their futures Sunday, and each NFL game is an audition tape for the rest of the league to see.

Plus, the AFC West has been filled with close games this season.

All five of the Chargers division games have been decided by seven points or less. And nine of the 10 total AFC West games this season have been determined by one possession.

So, while the Chargers are certainly rolling and getting hot at the right time, division games are always a little wacky.

I'm not overly concerned. And Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley didn't sound too worried when he was asked about it Monday.

Yes, the Rams rushed for 166 yards, the most the Bolts had allowed since Week 12.

But a good chunk of those yards came on a 42-yard run and a 23-yard touchdown in the first half.

Here is Staley's full quote on how he thought the run defense performed in Week 17:

"The toss-crack was poor perimeter run support. If we just have the support, then Kenneth Murray [,Jr.] is unblocked coming inside-out. We lost the support there, which was really disappointing. Then, on the touchdown run, Drue [Tranquill] gets pulled down. It's tough to overcome that, when you get pulled down at the point of attack. Our guys we're in the right defense for that. We were prepared for the run. That was just a tough one. Outside of those two runs, I thought we probably could have been more physical on contact. There were a couple of contact runs I didn't like. In this ballgame, you can sum it up in three plays; those two runs, and then the pass the [Rams WR Van] Jefferson off the loose play. I felt like [OLB] Joey [Bosa] and [OLB] Khalil [Mack] both got held. Those are really the three plays in the game. Outside of that, I thought that we played well."

If you include the 39-yard pass play Staley referenced, those three plays add up to 104 of the Rams 277 yards. That's 38 percent of their total yards.

Was Sunday the Bolts best defensive performance of the past month? Probably not, and Staley said as much.

If the Chargers want to make a deep playoff run, they know they can't give up explosive plays on the ground.

However, and here's why I'm not overly concerned, the defense also allowed just 10 points.

Staley said earlier this season that he'd much rather prefer to give up a lengthy run than a big pass play, simply because the odds are higher that the pass play will be a more explosive play.

For example, would you rather give up a 30-yard run or a 75-yard pass? Every defense in the NFL would likely take the former.

I still believe the Bolts defense has found their groove in the past month and that the unit will turn some heads once the playoffs arrive. But they could use one final strong performance before then to make sure everything is buttoned up.

No, Fehoko played about his usual amount of snaps of late.

In his previous eight games this season, the defensive tackle had averaged about 27 snaps per game. He played 25 snaps against the Rams.

His high had been 42 and while 25 was his season-low, a blowout win allowed the Chargers to give some guys a bit of rest late in the game.

Fehoko has been among the unheralded players for the Bolts this season. His emergence over the past month has lined up with the Chargers surge on defense.

If Pipkins has to miss time, yes, Sarell would be the right tackle.

But considering Pipkins returned to the game against the Rams and missed a handful of snaps, perhaps that means he plays against Denver.

Or, he could fall into that small category of players that the Chargers might rest in order to ensure they are ready to go for the Wild Card round.

Speaking of the Wild Card round…

As it stands now, the Bolts are the No. 5 seed and would play the winner of the AFC South in the opening round.

The Chargers can secure the fifth seed with a win or a Ravens loss on Sunday. If that's the case, they will see the victor of Saturday's Titans-Jaguars matchup that will determine that division.

I'm not going to pound my chest and declare that one team will be easier to face than the other.

But let's look at Jacksonville first. The Jaguars would be riding a five-game win streak (with the Chargers perhaps doing the game), having surged out of nowhere to claim the AFC South in the first season under Doug Pederson.

The Jaguars have a talented young quarterback and would be full of momentum … just like the Bolts could be, too. I know that the Jaguars handed the Chargers their worst loss of the season back in Week 3, but that was a loooong time ago. Both teams are different now.

The Titans, meanwhile, will be the No. 4 seed if they save their season and snap a six-game skid in Week 18.

These teams would be seeing each other for the second time in roughly a month, although this one would be in Tennessee. Perhaps there would be similar gameplans, but the biggest difference would be at quarterback as Ryan Tannehill is now on Injured Reserve from an ankle injury he suffered in that game.

One thing that would be a surefire bet in this matchup would be that it would be a grind of a game, just like the recent Week 15 matchup was. Mike Vrabel is one of the best coaches in the league and you know he'll have his team ready to go.

Part of the fun of Week 18 is following along with all the different scenarios and seeing how it all plays out.

The Titans and Jaguars square off Saturday, so the Chargers will know their potential opponent by kickoff in Denver. And they can secure that matchup with a win in Week 18.

As mentioned above, the Bolts are the fifth seed right now. But they aren't locked into that yet, as they could still slip to the No 6 spot. The Chargers cannot be the seventh seed, which would be no shot at a home playoff game.

But this is a timely topic and it reminded me of what Staley said Monday about seeding.

"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."

To be clear, this wasn't directed toward another team. Instead, it was more of a big-picture perspective of how being a higher seed could possibly help the Bolts make a deep run.

I think it's a given than any coach would want their team to be the highest seed possible in the playoff field.

So, what would it take for the Bolts to play at SoFi Stadium in the playoffs?

This is a bit complicated given the unknown of the Bills-Bengals outcome, so for this exercise we are going to use the current standings even though they are very much up in the air.

In this hypothetical scenario, the Chargers would go to the Jaguars in the Wild Card round. The Bills would host the Patriots and the Bengals would host the Ravens.

In the chance that all three Wild Card teams win, that would mean top-seeded Kansas City would host New England, while the higher-seeded Bolts would host the Ravens in the Divisional Round.

And, if we want to get really wild here, a Patriots upset of the Chiefs plus a Chargers win would mean the Bolts would then host the AFC title game.

This is a fun exercise to play out. Again, there's a lot to be figured out between now and the opening round.

And the odds of a single division winner not making it to the AFC title game seems like a long shot, too.

Yep, Staley gave a bit of an update on Slater on Monday.

Here's what he said:

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

I know Joey Bosa returned to game action quickly once he returned to practice, but Slater might be a different story.

There were rumblings for a few days that Bosa was about to return to practice. Once he did, he went through two sessions and played about half the snaps in his first game back.

Slater's injury is entirely different than Bosa. Perhaps he'll need more than two practices once he does get designated for return.

But the first step is Slater actually returning to practice. Until that happens, it's all a bit up in the air with the star left tackle.

That will do it for this week.

As always, you can find me on Twitter at @EricLSmithand submit your questions for the Chargers Mailbag.

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