'How do you respond?': Chargers face gut check in push for playoff berth

Brandon Staley has been unflappable in his first season as the Chargers' head coach, but last week's loss to Houston -- which took the Chargers out of control of their playoff destiny -- tested his resolve. Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- "Your backs are against the wall."

According to Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Linval Joseph, that's what coach Brandon Staley told the team this week after its surprising 41-29 loss to the Houston Texans. And then Staley asked, "How do you respond?"

"Are you going to fight, or are you going to give up?" Joseph said, continuing to repeat Staley's words. "Now, this is really going to tell us what type of team we have ... see where everybody's spirit's at and take it one day at a time."

That's been the message the Chargers' first-year coach has been trying to hammer home to his players since Sunday's loss, a loss that prevents the Chargers (8-7) from controlling their own playoff destiny. And now, the Chargers have to win their last two games -- starting with Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

But even with those victories, the Chargers aren't guaranteed a playoff spot. They would need the Cincinnati Bengals to lose their last two games, or have the Baltimore Ravens lose one. Or have the Miami Dolphins lose at least one game. And if the Chargers lose another game, the scenarios get crazier.

It's confusing. And nobody wants that. But it was preventable had the Chargers simply beaten the lowly Texans.

The Chargers were without several of their best players --- running back Austin Ekeler, defensive end Joey Bosa, center Corey Linsley and wide receiver Mike Williams -- because of COVID-19. They also were without perhaps their most important defender, Pro Bowl safety Derwin James Jr., because of a hamstring injury.

And so here they are, playing the wishing and hoping game, but not making excuses. The Chargers say they have regrouped and are only focused on the Broncos this week, then at the Las Vegas Raiders the following week. And they will have several key players back against Denver, including Bosa, Ekeler and likely James.

"He's trending positive," Stanley said of James. "Feels much better than he did last week. I'm hopeful that he will play in this game."

"I think you have to respond after something tough happens," Staley continued. "I think that in the NFL, there are a lot of things that can happen. When we left for Houston, I felt like we had, in my opinion, one of our best weeks of practices amidst the circumstances. ... I felt really confident in what our approach was, but then at the game, we didn't have our best stuff.

"At the game, you just have to make sure that you can tap into as many people as you can and make sure that you're playing the way you need to play. Like I said, it's the tough side of the NFL. When tough games like that happen, you have to put it away quickly, and then keep it moving. I think that that's what we've done this week."

Ekeler, who had fairly harsh COVID-19 symptoms last week but was taken off the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier this week, was confident he and his team would respond against the Broncos, who defeated the Chargers 28-13 in Denver in Week 12.

"It's going back on our routine," said Ekeler, who has 789 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing this season while catching 62 passes for 558 yards and seven more scores. "That's what this game comes down to; it's what life comes down to, setting back into your routine. If you have a good routine, then you can always fall back to that to look forward to where to go next."

Said Joseph, "To end up losing that way, the way we lost it. It stings a little bit."

As for Staley, who is one of the more positive coaches in the league, last week was about as down as he's ever felt following a loss. But that loss will be forgotten with a couple of wins and a little outside help.

"All you can do is stay connected as a team -- coaches, players ... and that's what I think all of us are trying to do and manage this the best that we can," he said. "There's a lot of stuff that is happening for the first time. We're going to try and do our best to stay connected, stay positive and do our best to figure it out."