By Don Wanlass
The Los Angeles Chargers have a chance to make a large statement Jan. 9. The Chargers play the Las Vegas Raiders with the winner getting to advance to the playoffs the following week and the loser going home for the year.
If the Chargers are ever going to make an imprint in Los Angeles, where they are easily the fourth favorite football team — behind the Rams, Raiders and USC Trojans (and maybe even UCLA) — they need to advance to the playoffs if for no other reason than to let local fans know they exist.
The Chargers moved to Los Angeles with the Rams prior to the 2017 almost as an afterthought. The Rams were coming anyway and owner Stan Kroenke (and the NFL hierarchy) wanted another team to share the stadium.
The Rams played three seasons in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum while waiting for SoFi Stadium to be built. The Chargers spent those three seasons at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, a soccer stadium that holds 27,000 fans. At most games there, it seemed like the Chargers were the visiting team.
Now at SoFi, there are still times when it seems like Chargers fans are outnumbered by fans of the visiting team. Never is that more noticeable than when the Raiders come to town.
So playing in a hostile environment in Allegiant Stadium won’t bother the Chargers. Whether they play in San Diego, Oakland, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, the Chargers are always the visiting team when they face the Raiders in terms of fan noise.
The Chargers and Raiders both enter the game with 9-7 records. The Raiders have had a season filled with turmoil, starting with the departure of head coach Jon Gruden in early October.
It’s a tribute to their team that they are still contending. The Chargers should have sewed up their playoff position before the new year got here but they failed to show up Dec. 26 in Houston and lost to the Texans, 41-29, a week after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime after rookie head coach Brandon Staley disdained field goals three times only to see his team fail to convert on fourth down each time.
Take away those two losses and the Chargers would be leading the AFC West. Instead, they are playing the Raiders for a wild card berth and a game most likely against the Chiefs the following weekend.
The Chargers have more weapons than the Raiders. On offense, quarterback Justin Herbert has established himself as one of the better young quarterbacks in the league. He has a big arm, can move in the pocket and can take off and run when the defense allows it.
He can throw the ball to Keenan Allen, Mike Williams or Austin Ekeler or hand it off to Ekeler, who has scored 18 touchdowns this year.
On defense, Joey Bosa and Derwin James are the team leaders, but the Chargers need more consistency from the rest of their players on defense this week to defeat the Raiders.
This game is the only winner-take-all match on the NFL schedule this weekend, so NBC will broadcast the game as its Sunday night game.
A whole nation will be watching — and judging. Especially the football fans in Los Angeles.
SOME MEANING: The Rams meanwhile will play the San Francisco 49ers Jan. 9 at 1:25 p.m., knowing they are already in the playoffs, but still wanting to win the NFC West and earn a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
Currently a game ahead of the Arizona Cardinals, a Rams win or Cardinals loss sews up the division for the Rams. A Cardinals win and Rams loss gives the title to the Cardinals because they have a better record than the Rams inside the division.
If the Rams had already clinched the division, head coach Sean McVay would probably rest most of his regulars against the 49ers, but with the division title and a home playoff game on the line, look for most of the Rams starters to play.
We might also get to see running back Cam Akers play. Akers, who gained 625 yards in 13 games as a rookie last year before tearing his Achilles’ tendon in June, has made a miraculous recovery and has been practicing with the team for the last three weeks.
McVay will want to see what Akers is capable of in the playoffs, so expect him to see some action. He and Sony Michel could provide a dynamic one-two in the backfield in the playoffs.
The Rams also need quarterback Matthew Stafford to step up. Stafford had three more turnovers last week against the Baltimore Ravens, which the Rams were able to overcome because of their stout defense.
Turnovers have been a bugaboo all year for Stafford — he has thrown a league-leading four interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns — and the Rams don’t need to start the game in a hole against the 49ers like they did last week against Baltimore.
The game with the 49ers also will be interesting because Rams receiver Cooper Kupp is within reach of NFL records for most catches and most yards receiving records for the season. Through 16 games, Kupp has 138 receptions for 1,829 yards.
Michael Thomas holds the record for most receptions with 149 in 2019 for New Orleans and Calvin Johnson holds the yardage record with 1,964 in 2012 with the Detroit Lions. Johnson’s quarterback? Matthew Stafford.
The Rams are still in reach of their goal for the season, which is playing host to the Super Bowl Feb. 13. They need four more wins to get there. And that starts with beating the 49ers this week.
TRADITIONALIST: In some ways, I like college football more than I like the NFL, but I’m getting tired of the current system in which it seems the two best teams in the Southeastern Conference play for the national title every year.
I liked the old system when the bowl games, particularly the New Year’s bowl games, often determined the national champion. And sometimes, when two teams had outstanding seasons, the final polls would leave us with two different national champs, which led to offseason debates about which team was really better.
In that system, the Rose Bowl often determined who won the national champion. This year, all the Rose Bowl produced was the best bowl game of the season.
Ohio State defeated Utah, 48-45, capping a comeback from a 14-point halftime deficit to win on a field goal with nine seconds left in the game.
Ohio State, playing without two starting wide receivers who didn’t want to diminish their NFL draft status by getting injured, discovered a third great wide receiver in Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
All he did was catch 15 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. The touchdowns came on plays of 50, 52 and 30 yards.
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, who played high school ball at Rancho Cucamonga High, completed 37 of 46 passes for a Rose Bowl record 573 yards and six touchdowns.
Utah, the Pac 12 champion, ran out of gas at the end after leading for most of the game. Quarterback Cam Reising led the way, throwing for 214 yards and two touchdowns and gaining a game-high 92 yards on the ground. Sixty-two of those yards came on a second-quarter touchdown run that gave the Utes a 35-21 halftime lead.
But Reising, like Stroud a Southern California product, got knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter and freshman backup Bryson Barnes had to finish up. Barnes led the Utes to the tying touchdown with 1:54 to play in the fourth quarter, but that left too much time on the clock for Ohio State, which drove to the winning field goal.
The game was the third-highest scoring Rose Bowl ever behind Georgia’s 54-48 overtime victory over Oklahoma in the 2018 game, which served as a College Football Playoff semifinal, and USC’s 52-49 victory over Penn State a year earlier.
There were 56 points scored in the first half, equaling the Rose Bowl record set in the 2012 game between Oregon and Wisconsin. Five touchdowns were scored in a 2:44 span of the second quarter, including four on plays 50 yards or longer.
In other words, a much more enjoyable game than Alabama’s 27-6 drubbing of Cincinnati or Georgia’s 34-11 win over Michigan in the College Football Playoff system’s semifinal matchups that means Georgia and Alabama will play again to determine the national champion.
Alabama soundly defeated Georgia, 41-24, a month ago.
Whether they can do it twice in a month remains to be seen. Georgia played its worst game of the year in the SEC title game and Alabama played almost flawlessly.
I expect Georgia to bounce back and win this time while longing for the day when teams from other parts of the country play again for a college football championship.