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Final Thoughts: Bolts Vying for Playoff Spot in Final Month


Welcome to Week 15.

Here are five final thoughts ahead of the Chargers-Titans matchup:

1. The final stretch

Welcome to the final month of the season.

And get ready for a wild ride down the stretch.

The Chargers currently sit at 7-6 and out of an AFC playoff spot, but the Bolts have better than 50-50 chance to get into the tournament … where anything can happen.

While an AFC West title is unlikely, the Chargers could end up in one the three Wild Card spots. Here's where the final portion of the AFC playoff picture stands:

5. Bengals (9-4)

6. Dolphins (8-5)

7. Patriots (7-6)

8. Chargers (7-6)

9. Jets (7-6)

So, while the Bolts are on the outside looking in right now, that could all easily change by Sunday afternoon.

For example, a Chargers win combined with losses by the Dolphins and Patriots would vault the Bolts to the No. 6 seed.

Players and coaches know this is the time of season to thrive.

"You want to build momentum and play your best ball at the end of the year," linebacker Drue Tranquill said.

And, with a month to go, the Chargers want to avoid a repeat of a year ago when they went 1-3 down the stretch and missed the postseason.

"After last season, I knew that you have to engineer your whole program for this time of year, for December," said Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley. "We tried to do that last year, but just making the subtle tweaks to the schedule and getting the guys fresh and playing well and the focus. Their routine at the end of the year I think is really important.

"Bringing them together the best you can and I think hopefully getting healthy at the right time," Staley added. "Getting your guys back healthy at the right time. Getting that addition that can help you go play well on Sundays. Learned a lot, for sure, and we will see."

Buckle up for the final month of Bolts football.

2. The red-zone offense

The Chargers secured their biggest win of the season in Week 14 with a 23-17 victory over the Dolphins.

But that score differential could have likely been much wider.

The Bolts scored just two touchdowns in six trips inside the 20-yard line, continuing a trend of struggles in that area this season.

"We need to score the ball better down there. Last year, we were a top-five unit in the red area and I was jacked about that,"' Staley said. "It's something that's very core to me, how we play in the red zone.

"Offensively, it's been up and down," Staley added. "I think it's that for a lot of reasons, as you all know, but we have to have cleaner operation."

Through Week 14, the Bolts rank 27th overall with a success rate of 47.92 percent on scoring touchdowns once they get inside the 20-yard line.

The Chargers have scored 23 touchdowns on 45 trips inside the red zone, but have just two games this season where they have been better than 75 percent in that area.

Staley said this week that he's involved in offensive red-zone meetings along with Chargers Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi and his staff.

Both Staley and Lombardi said when space is condensed near the goal line, the key to success is running the ball so there's less pressure on your passing attack.

"We have to run the ball better down there. How you run the ball, that is going to change, based on the opponent," Staley said. "You have to take advantage of who you have. We have to run the ball better."

Lombardi added: "Running the ball is always a premium in the red zone, so doing better there."

The Chargers also need to clean pre and post-snap penalties in that area, and focus on overall cleanliness in the most important area of the field.

If the Bolts can routinely walk away with seven points instead of three, that will help them avoid constant close games.

3. Confidence on defense

The Bolts defense, meanwhile, is coming off its best game of the season.

The Chargers limited Miami to just 219 total yards, a season-low allowed for Staley's unit. That included just 127 passing yards against a stacked Miami aerial attack.

Tranquill said this week that the Bolts simply had a tough mindset for the game.

"It was just belief," Tranquill said. "We said in the huddle at the beginning of the game that it starts with a little belief right here in your heart.

"We were confident that everybody was going to go out and do their job," Tranquill added. "Confident that our offense was going to play well, which they did. We had it clicking."

And, the Chargers did so without starters Derwin James, Jr., Sebastian Joseph-Day and Bryce Callahan.

James is out for Sunday, while Joseph-Day and Callahan are questionable. But no matter who plays, the Chargers now know what it takes to execute at the highest level on that side of the ball.

"We knew we were kind of backed in the corner a little bit. We had a lot of our guys out and it was cool to see," Tranquill said. "I'm getting the chills right now talking about it. But it was cool to see guys go out and come together, ball together in such a big moment and a must-win game."

Chargers Defensive Coordinator Renaldo Hill added: "Giving those guys that confidence and that liberty, that's what they want. That is what the game is about. You coach them up through the week and allow them to go play on Sundays. We just wanted to emphasize that at the end of the week to make sure. 'You guys go out and be loose and have fun. It's the game that we all love and enjoy.' You felt it this past Sunday."

4. Stopping King Henry

With that said, the Bolts have an entirely different kind of test that awaits them Sunday.

While Miami's success mostly comes through the air, the Titans are led by running back Derrick Henry and a stout ground game.

Tranquill quipped that its best if the Bolts defense doesn't try many 1-on-1 tackle attempts Sunday against Henry.

"A total group operation," Tranquill said. "He's forced a lot of missed tackles and we're going to have to be swarming the ball.

"This group has a big challenge," Tranquill added.

Hill said: ""It's the problem everyone in the league has been having, trying to stop this 6-foot-3, 250-pound back. What you figure out is that it takes everybody. You can't get tired of doing it. I think they kind of pride themselves on you may stop it once or twice, but eventually they are going to pop it and hit the home run. We have to make sure that our guys stay motivated throughout the whole game and get the run game stopped."

Henry ranks second in the league with 1,199 rushing yards and is a load to bring down.

Conversely, the Bolts rushing defense ranks 28th by allowing 147.0 yards per game this season. And the Chargers are 32nd overall in terms of yards allowed per carry (5.40).

It will be an all-hands-on-deck approach for this one, as the Bolts will try to make the Titans one-dimensional by attempting to slow down one of the league's top players.

"You can't let good running backs get started. It doesn't matter what their style is, if they can get started within the play, then they're going to have a chance to be successful," Staley said. "It starts at the front of your defense, at the point of attack, establishing the penetration — the knock-back at the point of attack, making sure that you have edges in your defense.

"You have to have really good edges. Then, your second level has to be fitting where it needs to," Staley added. "Then, you have to go attack and you have to go play team defense and tackle the guy with more than one guy. That's what we're going to try and do on Sunday."

5. More reinforcements on offense?

The health of the Chargers offense continues to trend in the right direction.

Last week, Mike Williams and Corey Linsley returned to help spark a win.

Now, tight end Donald Parham, Jr., appears ready to return after being on Injured Reserve since early November with a hamstring injury.

And right tackle Trey Pipkins III, who has battled a knee injury since Week 5, is listed as questionable. He'll go through a pregame workout to determine whether or not he'll play.

"Just trying to do what I can to get it right and be able to play," said Pipkins, who's had multiple reaggravations of the injury. "When it's happened again, it's natural to get frustrated.

"But it's stuff that's out of your control, so you just have to handle whatever life throws at you," Pipkins added.

Lombardi is hoping the Bolts will have their full complement of offensive personnel in the final month.

"I feel like we're getting as healthy as we have been since Game 1 or 2," Lombardi said. "Getting all of those pieces incorporated back in, getting them in game shape, all of those things are going to be huge as we get down the stretch."

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