LOS ANGELES -- Beyond the innumerable injuries, the pristine play of quarterback Justin Herbert and a struggling pass defense, the story of this Los Angeles Chargers season through four games has been the team’s difficulties closing out opponents. All four games this season have been decided by seven points or less.
On Sunday, as the Las Vegas Raiders moved down the field in the fourth quarter -- down by seven points after coming back from a 24-7 first-half deficit -- it appeared that the game might be another page in a long book of Chargers disappointments.
Then Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. intercepted a pass from Aidan O’Connell, the Raiders rookie quarterback making his first start, and Herbert connected with receiver Joshua Palmer on the next drive for a first down to seal the game.
The Chargers won 24-17 to move to 2-2 on the season, a record that reflects two wins that needed late-game heroics and two losses that came within three points. Each game revealed that this team, which had championship aspirations coming into the season, has significant flaws, and one of its most apparent is putting teams away.
Coach Brandon Staley says it doesn’t matter to him how close these games are, even against a struggling team without its starting quarterback like the Raiders
“All these games in the NFL are close,” Staley said. “So you know, this isn’t this isn’t college football where, you know, Georgia is playing UAB, you know, or, or Austin Peay, or something like that. So, you know, I don’t know why it’s such a surprise that all these games are close. You know, that’s just the way the NFL is.
“When it gets tight, you have to execute down the stretch, which is what we did. I thought that it was a quality win for us, especially considering the amount of players that we had out, especially the amount of new players that we had going in.”
And even the best teams struggle. The defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs barely escaped the New York Jets on Sunday, and the Cincinnati Bengals, a team with Super Bowl aspirations, are 1-3 and coming off a blowout loss to the Tennessee Titans.
But none of those teams are the Chargers, who ended last season by squandering a 27-0 first-half lead in the first round of the playoffs and have continued to be plagued by head-scratching decisions and errors late in games.
Sunday’s game was a prime example. After Samuel Jr. snagged the interception in the fourth quarter, with two minutes and 30 seconds remaining and the Raiders in the red zone, Samuel slid to the ground at the 11-yard line instead of trying to return the ball further downfield for a score or to set the Chargers up for betting field position to seal the game.
“Certainly, we're glad that Asante made that play. Next time, he will give us a little bit more breathing room going forward,” Staley said. “I don't know if he would have been able to make it the whole way, but we'll keep talking to our guys the best that we can in those situations.”
Instead, Samuel’s error brought the Chargers offense back on the field backed up against their endzone, needing Herbert, playing with a fractured finger on his non-throwing hand, to lead them to a first down.
On third-and-10 on the next drive, Herbert delivered with a 45-yard pass to Palmer. The completion sent the Chargers’ white-knuckled fans into a frenzy, and for Staley, it was a reminder of how tough Herbert is.
But finishing games has never been easy for this team, and some players are embracing that.
“It’s quite frustrating, honestly, because I know we can blow out every team we play,” Palmer said, “but we like to put on a show.”