SPORTS DIGEST: Chargers and Rams headed in different directions

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

One of our local NFL teams was supposed to be a playoff team this season, perhaps able to reach the conference championship game. The other was in rebuilding mode.

But two-thirds of the way through the season, the Chargers are close to being eliminated from playoff consideration while the Rams are moving closer to the wild card race where no one expected them to be.

The Chargers fell to 4-7 Nov. 26 after losing to the Baltimore Ravens, 20-10 in the Sunday night game of the week. It’s no shame losing to the Ravens, who at 9-3 have the best record in the AFC. It was how the Chargers lost.

The Chargers turned the ball over four times (three if you don’t count a hail-Mary interception on the last play of the first half) and still had a chance to win until the Ravens’ Zay Flowers scored on a 37-yard run with 1:36 left to play in the game.

But that’s how the Chargers’ season has gone. They lose close games. 

The 10-point deficit against the Ravens was their second largest of the season, surpassed only by the 31-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in October. The other losses have been by two points to Miami in the season opener and three points to the Tennessee Titans, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.

On the flip side, only one of the four Chargers wins was by less than a touchdown, a 28-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings Sept. 24. The other wins have come against the Raiders by seven, the Chicago Bears by 17 and the New York Jets by 21.

The Chargers have outscored their opposition all year and lead the AFC West in scoring. 

Then why are they 4-7 and on the verge of falling out of the playoff race? Because their defense can’t come up with crucial stops in the fourth quarter and the offense doesn’t make big fourth-quarter plays against good teams.

Yes, the Chargers have had injury problems. That’s part of life in the National Football League.

Running back Austin Ekeler missed several games with an ankle injury. Wide receiver Mike Williams and edge rusher Joey Boza are out for the season, but 12 weeks into the season every team has injuries.

Most of the Chargers’ losses have come against good teams. Miami, Kansas City, Baltimore and Detroit are all division leaders and Dallas is second in the NFC East with an 8-3 record.

It’s the three-point losses to Tennessee and Green Bay, which are both under .500, that are the difference between a 6-5 team and a 4-7 team.

The Chargers aren’t completely out of the playoff picture yet. They have six games remaining starting with the New England Patriots Dec. 3 in Foxborough. That game is clearly winnable because the Patriots are horrible this year.

Then comes the Denver Broncos at SoFi, the Raiders in Las Vegas, the Buffalo Bills Dec. 23 at SoFi, the Broncos in Denver Dec. 31 and the season finale against Kansas City at SoFi Jan. 7. 

The Chiefs are 8-3, the Broncos are 6-5 and the Bills are 6-6. The Raiders are 5-7 with more injury woes than the Chargers and the Patriots are 2-9. 

If the Chargers can win five of their last six they would finish 9-8 and possibly in the hunt for the final wild card slot.

But two more losses and it would probably be all over for the Chargers and then the Spanos family ownership will have some tough decisions to make moving forward. 

General manager Tom Telesco has built this roster over the last 11 years and has made some solid draft picks. But coach Brandon Staley hasn’t shown much progress in his three seasons.

The Chargers make too many defensive mistakes playing for a defensive-oriented coach. The Chargers also are wasting the talents of one of the fine young quarterbacks in the NFL in Justin Herbert so it might be time for a coaching change.

The last six weeks will show what kind of team the Chargers really are.

On the other hand, the Rams are starting to get healthy and have started climbing the standings in the NFC as a result.

The Rams have their first two-game winning streak of the year after defeating division rivals Seattle and Arizona the last two weeks.

The Rams have swept the season series against both Seattle and Arizona. Unfortunately, their only other win this season came against the Indianapolis Colts back on Oct. 1. 

Like the Chargers, the Rams can’t beat good teams. Fortunately, the Rams have only two games remaining against good teams: Dec. 10 against the Baltimore Ravens and Jan. 7 against the San Francisco 49ers. 

Their other opponents are the Cleveland Browns Dec. 3, the Washington Commanders Dec. 17, the New Orleans Saints Dec. 21 and the New York Giants Dec. 31.

The Browns are actually 7-4 but their starting quarterback Deshaun Watson is out for the year and Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the rookie out of UCLA, left the Nov. 26 game with an injury and may not be able to play against the Rams. 

That could mean Joe Flacco will be making his first of the season. The former Ravens star just signed with Cleveland last week.

With a win over the Browns, the Rams could move into seventh place in the NFC, the final wild card spot.

That would also require the Seahawks losing to Dallas Nov. 30 and the Packers losing to Kansas City Dec. 3, but both are entirely possible. 

The Rams played their best overall game of the season Nov. 26 in defeating the Arizona Cardinals, 37-14.

The Rams gained 457 yards and allowed only 292. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for 229 yards and four touchdowns and Kyren Williams, who missed the previous four games with an ankle injury, gained 143 yards in 16 carries and caught six passes for 61 additional yards and two touchdowns.

The Cardinals held wide receivers Puka Nacua and Cooper Kupp in check with a combined seven catches for 45 yards but Stafford spread the ball around to eight different receivers and tight end Tyler Higbee caught the other two touchdowns from Stafford.

The Cardinals scored on their opening drive of the game and didn’t score again until it was 37-8 late in the fourth quarter.

While the Chargers are still affected by early-season injuries, the Rams are starting to get healthy. Stafford seems to have recovered from the thumb injury that caused him to miss the loss to Green Bay Nov. 5, Williams is back to bolster the running attack and Kupp is almost back from hamstring and foot injuries that have slowed him down this year.

The young defense anchored by Aaron Donald has shown improvement and a 4-2 finish would leave the Rams at 9-8 and hopefully with a chance at wild card week.

BAD FINISH: After knocking off USC 38-20 Nov. 18, UCLA expected to finish the season on a high note against the Cal Bears Nov. 25. Instead, the Bruins played their worst game of the season and lost to Cal 33-7. 

With a win, the Bruins would have finished 5-4 in the Pac 12 Conference, tied for fourth with Oregon State, Utah and USC. Instead, they finished 4-5 and tied with Cal for seventh in the conference.

If they are lucky, the Bruins’ consolation prize will be a short trip down the 405 for the L.A. Bowl at SoFi Stadium. If not-so-lucky, the Bruins could be spending the holidays in Shreveport, Louisiana, for the always exciting Independence Bowl.

The Bruins had high expectations at the start of the year after back-to-back seasons of eight or more wins and a highly sought after quarterback recruit. But Dante Moore couldn’t live up to the hype. 

Moore played well in the season-opening win over Coastal Carolina, earning a start in week two against San Diego State. Against the Aztecs, Moore secured his starting role, throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-10 win. 

But bad interceptions in losses against Utah and Oregon State caused coach Chip Kelly to reinsert Ethan Garbers at quarterback and Garbers guided the team to wins over Stanford and Colorado before getting hurt against Arizona Nov. 4.

Both Garbers and Moore missed the 17-7 loss to Arizona State Nov. 11 but Garbers returned to action to lead the way against USC. 

Against Cal, Garbers was injured early and Moore was unable to pick up the slack for him. He threw for 266 yards and a touchdown but was intercepted twice. The Bruins also lost two fumbles and were unable to move the ball on the ground.

The Bruins actually led 7-6 with more than five minutes to play in the second quarter, but running back Jaydn Ott took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and Cal never trailed again.

The loss to Cal had Bruins’ fans calling for Kelly’s scalp but the word from Westwood this week was that Kelly would be retained to lead the Bruins into the Big 10 next year. 

Kelly has never been able to replicate his 47-6 record at Oregon. He is an old-school football coach whose players love him but who has never connected with the UCLA fan base or many of the donors who support the program.

In the current state of college football, where players are free to move around in the transfer portal, it remains to be seen what next year’s team will look like.

Will Moore, the best recruit in Kelly’s tenure, decide to play closer to home in Michigan? Two wide receivers, Kam Brown and Keegan Jones, both fifth-year seniors next year, announced this week they would enter the transfer portal. 

The Bruins could look a whole lot different by the time they play their first Big 10 game next September. They blew a chance to leave the Pac 12 on a high note with a flat performance against Cal.