By Don Wanlass
Two weeks into the NFL season, the Chargers already find themselves in a must-win situation Sept. 24 against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Chargers lost their second straight close game to the Tennessee Titans, 27-24 in overtime Sept. 17 to fall to 0-2 on the season. The Vikings also are 0-2.
The Chargers are on the road for the second week in a row hoping to find the right combination to get them in the win column.
The Chargers have shown they can score — their 58 points are sixth most in the league — but they haven’t been able to score late with the game on the line.
They also have had trouble stopping their opponents from scoring. The 63 points their defense has given up is third highest in the league.
Against the Titans, the Chargers jumped out to an 11-0 lead and led 14-7 in the late stages of the first half when they allowed the Titans to drive for a last-second field goal for a 14-10 halftime score, The Titans then took the lead on the opening drive of the second half and the Chargers were playing catch-up the rest of the game.
Cameron Dicker kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired to send the game into overtime, but the Chargers couldn’t move the ball on the opening drive of overtime and the Titans could — winning the game on a 41-yard field goal by Nick Folk.
The Chargers played without running back Austin Ekeler, who injured an ankle against Miami in the opener. Without him, the Chargers gained only 61 yards on the ground on 21 carries.
Joshua Kelley carried most of the load, but he gained only 39 yards on 13 carries and didn’t catch a pass out of the backfield.
Quarterback Justin Herbert threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns, spreading the ball around to eight different receivers.
After giving up more than 500 yards to Miami in the opener, the Chargers held the Titans to 342 in the loss. Of those, 141 came on the ground. The Titans also converted six of 13 third downs.
The Vikings are coming off a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, 34-28 on Sept. 14. The Vikings led 7-3 in the second quarter only to see the high-powered Eagles offense roll up 24 points in a seven-minute period at the end of the second quarter and the start of the third.
The Vikings made it close with a touchdown with 1:10 left in the game but couldn’t recover an onside kick and the Eagles ran out the clock.
This is a big game for both the Chargers and the Vikings. It may only be the third week of the season, but teams that start the season 0-3 rarely rally to make the playoffs.
The game airs at 10 a.m. on Fox.
SUPER BOWL REMATCH: The Rams also are on the road this week, facing the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football Sept. 25. The Rams are coming off a hard-fought 30-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers Sept. 17.
The Rams couldn’t stop the 49ers offense in the last minute of the first half, allowing them to tie the score 17-17 at the half.
The 49ers then scored the first 10 points of the second half and limited the Rams to two second-half field goals for the win.
Like they were last season, the Rams are involved in drama with running back Cam Akers. After being held to 29 yards in 22 carries against Seattle in the season opener, Akers didn’t suit up against the 49ers and the Rams announced this week they were trying to trade the four-year running back out of Florida State.
His place in the lineup has been taken by Kyren Williams, a second-year player out of Notre Dame. Williams has gained 104 yards in 29 carries in the first two games of the season and scored four times.
He and rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua have been the offensive bright spots for the Rams thus far. Nacua has set NFL records for most catches by a rookie in his first two games.
He had 15 catches for 147 yards against the 49ers after catching 10 for 119 yards against Seattle.
The Rams may catch a break this week if Bengals quarterback Joe Burrows is unable to play because of a nagging calf injury. The Bengals are off to an 0-2 start, and need a win to right the ship.
This is the first time the two teams have meet since the 2022 Super Bowl, won by the Rams, 23-20. A win by the Rams would give them a shot at a 3-1 record going into a fifth-week game against the Eagles, who have looked formidable so far this season. The Rams face the Indianapolis Colts in week four.
FIRST TEST: The UCLA Bruins get their first test of the 2023 season Sept. 23 when they travel to Salt Lake City to face Utah. It is one of seven college games this week featuring two ranked teams.
The Utes are ranked 11th in the AP College Football rankings, the Bruins are 22nd.
The Bruins are coming off a 59-7 romp over an outmanned North Carolina Central team that couldn’t keep up with the Bruins.
The Bruins scored 35 points in the first quarter. Ten minutes into the game, the Bruins had scored four times on nine plays from scrimmage.
Dante Moore continued to cement himself as the Bruins’ starting quarterback, hooking up with Kam Brown on a 67-yard scoring pass on the first offensive play of the game and hitting J. Michael Sturdivant with a 30-yard scoring pass seven minutes later.
In limited duty, Moore completed eight of 12 passes for 182 yards and the two touchdowns.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly used the game to get a look at most of his roster. Five players took snaps at quarterback, 13 Bruins had at least one carry and seven caught passes.
Third-string quarterback Collin Schlee, a transfer from Kent State, ran 57 yards for a touchdown on his first play in the game.
The Bruins gained 404 yards on the ground in only 39 carries and overall averaged 11 yards a play.
Utah will not be that easy. The Utes also are 3-0 and they’ve been playing with a backup quarterback. Cam Rising, who has led Utah to the last two Rose Bowls, injured a knee in this year’s game and has been recovering from surgery.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has been noncommittal all season on Rising’s availability and that won’t change this week.
Nate Johnson has proven to be a capable replacement for Rising after coming off the bench in the first game of the season against Florida.
In three games, he has completed 22 of 32 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown while gaining 148 yards in 33 carries on the ground with three touchdowns.
Utah has won the last two Pac 12 championships and will give the Bruins all they can handle.
Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. on Fox.
RESTED TROJANS: USC travels to Arizona State Sept. 23 after taking last week off.
The sixth-ranked Trojans hope to pick up where they left off after routing Stanford, 56-10 Sept. 9.
Arizona State is 1-2, coming off a 29-0 loss to Fresno State. This could be a trap game for the Trojans, who might be caught looking ahead to their game with Colorado Sept. 30, but with Caleb Williams running the offense, the Trojans should be able to handle the Sun Devils in their sleep.
ANOTHER TITLE: Ho hum. For the 10th time in 11 seasons, the Dodgers are the National League Western Division champions. They clinched the title Sept. 16 with a 6-2 win in 11 innings over the Seattle Mariners. The Dodgers swept three games from the Mariners, who are fighting for an American League wild card slot with 10 days to go in the season.
After clinching the title, manager Dave Roberts gave Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts the day off against Seattle Sept. 17 and the Dodgers concluded the sweep with a 6-1 victory. In the three games, the Dodgers outscored the Mariners, 18-6.
The Dodgers will now spend the last 10 days of the regular season resting regulars and lining up the pitching rotation for the playoffs. The Dodgers have the hitters and the bullpen to make a deep run in the playoff if their starting rotation can hold up.
As it stands now, Bobby Miller and Clayton Kershaw will definitely be the top two starters, although no one knows if Kershaw can go more than five innings a start.
Lance Lynn will probably get the start in game 3 of the opening round of the playoffs, but the Dodgers also could choose to go with an opener (Caleb Ferguson, Brustar Graterol or Shelby Miller) and then use Lynn, Ryan Pepiot or Ryan Yarbrough as an innings eater.
When the Dodgers were struggling in June, the bullpen was the team’s biggest weakness, but over the last three months the relief pitchers have grown accustomed to their roles and the results have improved.
Evan Phillips is now entrenched as the closer and Ryan Brasier, Ferguson and Graterol have become the late-innings pitchers who bridge the gap between the starters and Phillips.
Add in veterans like Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly and left-hander Alex Vesia and the Dodgers have a bullpen second to none since June.
How well some of these players will perform under the intensity of the playoff spotlight remains to be seen, but the Dodgers have winning records against most of the teams they will face in the postseason.
The one exception is the Atlanta Braves, who won four of seven games the two teams have played this year.
Of course, the Dodgers and Braves battled for the National League pennant in 2020 and 2021 with the winner going on to win the World Series each time.
This could be the third matchup in four years between the two teams.