INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Many considered the AFC West as the best division in football when the season kicked off, but the division has disappointed this year. If the playoffs started today, the Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) would be the AFC West’s only representative as the division winner.
The Denver Broncos (3-10) are mathematically eliminated and the Las Vegas Raiders (5-8) are on the brink of being out of playoff contention. The Los Angeles Chargers (7-6) are in eighth. The Cincinnati Bengals (9-4), Miami Dolphins (8-5) and New England Patriots (7-6) are the current holders of the AFC’s three wild-card spots.
But after their Week 14 win over the Dolphins, the Chargers are poised to earn their first playoff berth since 2018.
“We have to keep going. If we want to get to where we want to go, it starts (Monday),” Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert said after their win against the Dolphins on Sunday. “I think there is a lot of football left to be played.”
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Herbert’s on a record-breaking pace in his third season. He broke Andrew Luck’s record for the most passing yards in a player’s first three seasons (13,056). Yet, if Herbert hopes to reach the playoffs for the first time in his career, the Chargers have to be less dependent on him. Week 14’s victory provided evidence that Los Angeles should be a favorite for a wild-card berth. Here’s why:
Combination of Mike Williams and Keenan Allen
Prior to Week 14, Williams, Allen and Herbert had been on the field together for fewer than 50 snaps all season due to injuries. When Herbert has Williams and Allen on the field together, the Chargers have one of the top receiving duos in the NFL.
“They are two of the best to ever do it. To have guys like that on our team, they bring a different energy, a different vibe to our team,” Herbert said of Allen and Williams. “Super thankful to have those guys on our team.”
Williams and Allen combined for 18 catches, 208 receiving yards and a touchdown versus Miami.
“Having us out there for the whole game, everybody sees the type of plays we can make,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports.
Williams and Allen on the field together also help take attention away from other pass catchers, including Austin Ekeler, who leads all NFL running backs with 93 catches and tops the AFC with 13 touchdowns from scrimmage.
The Chargers have an NFL-high six players with at least 400 receiving yards this season. Williams has 626 yards in nine games, Allen has tallied 400 yards in six games and Ekeler has 623 receiving (and 634 rushing) yards in 13 games.
San Diego’s offense ranks 14th in points (22.7) and 12th in yards (357.4).
Defense shows signs. Can it continue?
The Chargers have struggled defensively this season. Los Angeles has the NFL’s 24th-ranked third-down defense, 28th-ranked run defense (147 rushing yards allowed per game) and is 28th in points allowed per game (25).
Despite playing without Derwin James, Joey Bosa, Sebastian Joseph-Day and other defensive starters, the Chargers forced Miami to go 3 for 11 on third downs and held the Dolphins to 92 rushing yards and 17 points.
The Dolphins offense averaged 380 yards per game entering Week 14. The Chargers defense limited Miami to just 219 yards in what was their most impressive defensive performance all season.
“We are in December right now. Every game is a must-win game. That’s just our mindset,” Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray said. “We try to take it one week at a time and just win out every week. We’re trying to get on a roll and get into these playoffs.”
The Chargers’ ability to stop Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, who is the NFL’s second-leading rusher entering Week 15, is going to be critical if they hope to win their second straight game.
Getting healthy down the stretch
The Chargers have been decimated by injuries, but they could get reinforcements back on both sides. Pass rusher Joey Bosa (groin) and left tackle Rashawn Slater (biceps) could return from injured reserve this season.
Bosa, a four-time Bowler, and Slater, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2021, haven’t played since Week 3.
“We’re going to get some guys healthy, get some guys back. We just have to keep rolling,” Herbert said.
The Chargers have one of the softest schedules to close out the regular season. According to Tankathon, the Chargers have the second-easiest schedule with four games left – the Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Rams and Broncos are the four opponents left on the Chargers’ slate. Tennessee is the only team remaining with a winning record.
“We just got to keep our head down and keep grinding and keep working,” Murray said. “We got to take it one week at a time.”
The AFC West has been a disappointment this year, but the division might get two teams in the postseason once the dust settles.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Tyler Dragon on Twitter @TheTylerDragon.
Story Credit: usatoday.com