By Don Wanlass
Back in early October, when they were both 4-1, it seemed a sure thing that both the Rams and the Chargers would make the NFL playoffs.
But when the playoffs begin Jan. 15, the Chargers will be home watching on television with the rest of us after going 1-3 down the stretch to finish 9-8 and in third place in the AFC West.
The Chargers should have won the three games they lost in the last four weeks. They lost to the Kansas City Chiefs Dec. 16 and the Las Vegas Raiders Jan. 9 because first-year head coach Brandon Staley would rather go for first downs on fourth downs instead of kicking the ball, despite what 100 years of football history says.
In between the losses to the Chiefs and the Raiders, the Chargers inexplicably failed to show up in a game against the 4-13 Houston Texans and got blown out 41-29.
Win that game and the Chargers are preparing for the playoffs instead of wondering what happened.
It’s a shame quarterback Justin Herbert doesn’t get to show off his skills in the playoffs, but the Chargers have no one but themselves to blame.
Staley is getting heat for calling a timeout in the last minute of overtime against the Raiders, but the fact that he called the timeout wasn’t as significant as the defense he put on the field after the timeout didn’t stop the Raiders on third down and three.
After running back Josh Jacobs got the first down and then some, the Raiders were in field goal position, ran down the clock and Dan Carlson kicked the winning 47 yard field goal.
But the Chargers would have won the game in regulation if you subtract the three points the Raiders got in the third quarter on a field goal after Staley turned the ball over on downs at the Chargers 18.
The Raiders converted that mistake into a Carlson 31 yard field goal and a 20-14 lead they carried into the fourth quarter.
Staley should have learned his lesson about unnecessary risks on fourth down after the loss to the Chiefs Dec. 16 when he disdained field goals three times to go for first downs on fourth downs.
The Chargers lost that game in overtime, 34-28. Like the Raiders game, the Chargers should have won in regulation.
Staley is a young coach who is reckless when it comes to going for it on fourth down. The analytics may say you have a better chance of getting a first down than not, but every play in an NFL game — like any coin flip or dice roll — is different, boiling football down to a game of chance AND strategy.
Hopefully, Staley learns that. He seems to have a bright future as an NFL coach, but he also needs to stiffen his defense — his supposed expertise as a coach — in the offseason.
The Chargers have plenty of playmakers on offense. Herbert is one of the finest young quarterbacks in the league. Austin Ekeler blossomed into a top running back this year, accounting for more than 1,500 yards rushing and receiving while scoring 20 touchdowns and Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are as dangerous a wide receiver combination as there is in the league.
Looking ahead, though, the Chargers need help on both lines next year. The defensive line gave up far too many yards on the ground this year and the offensive line needs to give Herbert better protection.
The Chargers were a playoff-quality team this year and they should still be playing. But they lost too many games that they should have won and that can mean the difference in going to the playoffs or watching them.
Hopefully, the Chargers and their young coach learned those lessons this year and next year we will be celebrating the Chargers being one of the 14 NFL teams still playing this time of year.
MOVING ON, NOT UP: Unlike the Chargers, the Rams advanced to the playoffs Jan. 9, but they backed in and by doing so severely harmed their chances of advancing to the Feb. 13 Super Bowl in SoFi Stadium.
The Rams lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 27-24 in overtime. They still managed to win the NFC Western Division, but the loss dropped the Rams from the second seed in the NFC to the fourth seed.
That means if the Rams gets past the Arizona Cardinals Jan. 16, they will play the Green Bay Packers the next week in Lambeau Field. Playing the Packers at home in January is not the situation anyone wants to find themselves, but — like the Chargers — the Rams have no one but themselves to blame.
They jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, dominating the 49ers in the process. But toward the end of the second quarter, on a third-and-one situation, head coach Sean McVay called a play that spread the offense.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked on the play, the Rams had to punt and the 49ers mounted a two-minute drive that produced a field goal. The momentum shifted, the 49ers scored on the first drive of the second half and the 17-0 lead became 17-10.
The Rams didn’t score from the 6:51 mark of the second quarter to the 2:34 mark of the fourth quarter (more than 34 minutes of action), and when Cooper Kupp caught a 4-yard scoring pass from Stafford to give the Rams a 24-17 lead, the 49ers had more than enough time to match that score and force overtime.
So instead of playing the 9-8 Eagles, the Rams get to play the 11-6 Cardinals, a division opponent they have already lost to this year (they beat the Cardinals, too).
The two teams know each other well, so the game should come down to which team plays its game the best.
The Rams have more star power than the Cardinals. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, edge rusher Von Miller and cornerback Jalen Ramsey are among the best in the league at their positions and the Rams have plenty of firepower on offensive with Stafford, Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr. and running back Sony Michel.
But Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray presents challenges for any defense with his ability to make things happen with his legs. The Cardinals also expect to have edge rusher J.J Watt back after he missed most of the season with a shoulder injury
But McVay has owned the Cardinals (unlike the 49ers) in his five years with the Rams, posting a 9-1 record against them.
The Rams should be able to defeat the Cardinals and advance to the second round of the playoffs. But the road to the Super Bowl would have been a little easier if it didn’t include a January visit to Green Bay.
HALFWAY POINT: Sometimes it seems like the Lakers and Clippers are simply waiting for the NFL season to end so the spotlight shines on the NBA before they begin to assert themselves.
The reality is the Lakers and Clippers still don’t know what kind of teams they are halfway through the season because of the uncertainty of injuries and COVID protocols that make it hard for Lakers coach Frank Vogel and Clippers coach Tyronn Lue to prepare for games when they aren’t sure who will be available.
The Clippers knew they would be without Kawai Leonard for most, if not all, of the year. They didn’t count on Paul George injuring an elbow and being sidelined for at least a month.
The Clippers defeated the Denver Nuggets 87-85 Jan. 11 with Amir Coffey starting at shooting guard and scoring a team-high 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Four other Clippers scored in double figures as they overcame a 25-point third-quarter deficit to even their record at 21-21 with 40 games left in the season.
Like a lot of teams in the 2022 NBA, the Clippers are playing small ball. Centers Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka played only 30 minutes combined against the Nuggets, meaning Nick Batum or Marcus Morris played center the other 18 minutes.
It was the smaller lineup that got the Clippers back into the game in the third quarter after a sloppy start to the second half saw a 13-point deficit blow up to 25 halfway through the quarter.
But the Clippers went small, cut down on the turnovers, stepped up the defensive pressure and won a game they probably should have lost.
They might get George back next month. Word is that Leonard’s rehab is going better than anticipated and he could be back for the playoffs. The Clippers are currently eighth in the Western Conference standings, meaning they would be in the play-in tournament if the playoffs started tomorrow. They don’t start until April, though and the Clippers still have more than two months to sort things out before they get there.
The same could be said about the Lakers. After their season-long four-game winning streak was stopped Jan. 9 by the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers sit at 21-20 in seventh place in the Western Conference and wondering if and when Anthony Davis will return.
The Lakers are still trying to figure out how to win with LeBron James and Russell Westbrook sharing the role of playmaker. Like Lue with the Clippers, Vogel has embraced small ball, starting James at center as the Lakers have won four out of six games, a good stretch for them this season.
Natural centers Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan played only 15 minutes in the loss to the Grizzlies. Howard has shown flashes of the skills he possessed when he was younger and the best big man in the NBA, but he hasn’t produced consistently to allow Vogel to make him the full-time starting center.
The Lakers also are looking for consistency from their younger wing players. Malik Monk went from scoring 29 points in 35 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks Jan. 7 to scoring 7 in 29 minutes two nights later. Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves have shown flashes of brilliance at times and then played like the inexperienced players they are at other times.
With James, the Lakers still have a chance to do some damage if they get to the playoffs. But they need Davis to recover from his knee injury and show the overall game he showed during the 2020 playoff run that got the Lakers their most recent championship.
If Westbrook and James can learn to mesh their games in the next 10 weeks, all the better for the Lakers and their playoff chances.